Black by Popular Demand
Excerpt from Part I of this series…
The National Association of Fashion And Accessory Designers (NAFAD) was founded in America in 1949, to promote equal opportunities for Black fashion designers. Today (as with ever before – just that it is now not so much silenced), with the rising tide of Black talent, the fashion industry is facing its deficits and calling forth its hidden giants as Black lives demand more Black fashion designers.
GSyndicates Black honors the history of Black fashion designers. In my journey to discover my designer genes that inspired designer jeans – among other fashion plates, I came upon these great shoulders…
Stephen Burrows (born in Newark, New Jersey on September 15, 1943 to parents Octavia Pennington and Gerald Burrows) is an American fashion designer based in New York City. Burrows was raised by his mother, and maternal grandmother, Beatrice Pennington Banks Simmons. Burrows learned to sew watching his grandmother at her zigzag sewing machine. At age eight, he made his first garment for a friend’s doll.
Burrows took dance lessons in high school. He loved the mambo. He danced on Sundays at the Manhattan Palladium night club. That led to sketching dresses he imagined for his dance partners. Burrows initially enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum College of Art when he graduated from Newark Arts High School. He intended to become an art teacher. During a tour of the college, he encountered and was inspired by some dress forms. He transferred to New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). However, FIT professors taught draping rules that frustrated Burrows’s trademarks of asymmetrical cutting, off-grain edge stretching, and drape-as-you-go garment building. He graduated in 1966.
Burrows studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology before beginning work in New York City’s Garment Center. Burrows epitomized what many fashion designers do in their early years, working closely with established designers and also being self-employed as small business owners.
Burrows is known for breaking the international fashionpreneur ice as the first African-American fashion designers to sell internationally with a mainstream, high-fashion clientele. Burrows’ trademark of bright colors and “lettuce hem” curly-edges, became an integral part of the “Fun City” New York City disco-dancing scene of the 1970s.
Burrows started his working career with a job at Weber Originals, a blouse manufacturer. His work was slowly picked up by small shops. “Burrows’ clothes were described as the fashion embodiment of the electric sexuality of this era. The women who wore his clothes gave off an aura of frantically creative days and wild nights filled with disco music and glamorous people.”
In 1968, Burrows began working with Andy Warhol and his entourage, selling at Max’s Kansas City and the O Boutique across the street. Burrows had yet to be satisfied. As a former FIT student Burrows shared his classmates’ desires to sell their lines at the famous Fifth Avenue retailer Henri Bendel. Burrows was introduced to Bendel’s owner, Geraldine Stutz, in the summer of 1968. She loved the coat he wore to meet her. She immediately allowed him to open a boutique in Henri Bendel. In Fall of 1973, “Stevies”, Burrows’ first lingerie/sleepwear collection, debuted at Henri Bendel’s, Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, and Bloomingdales, as well as stores in Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
Burrows was one of the five American fashion designers chosen to showcase their work at the historical fashion show billed as divertissement à Vèrsailles, held on November 28, 1973. This event is referred to as “The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show.” Burrows was the youngest of the American designers to feature a collection at the show.
Among other exciting fashionistas, First Lady Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady of the United States, wore a Burrows Jersey pantsuit to an event in Washington, D.C. of which Vogue Magazine wrote, “It was a wonderful acknowledgement of Burrows, one of the great African-American designers and a Harlem resident known for his inventive cuts and bias technique.” Burrows opened his new showroom and design studio in 2010 in New York City’s Garment Center.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Stephen Burrows (designer).” Last modified 17 December 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Burrows_(designer).
Daniel Day (born August 8, 1944) is best known as Dapper Dan, an American fashion designer and haberdasher (a retailer of men’s clothing, including suits, shirts, and neckties) from Harlem, New York.
Day grew up with three brothers and three sisters on 129th and Lexington Avenue. His father, Robert, was a civil servant. His mother, Lily, was a homemaker. He recalls seeing horses and buggies on the streets of New York in his post-World War II early childhood days in Manhattan. By age 13, Day was a skilled gambler – the success of which helped him finance his first store.
In the 1960s, Dan worked for a Harlem newspaper called Forty Acres and a Mule. He eventually became a vegetarian and gave up drinking, smoking and drugs. In 1968–74, he toured Africa as part of a program from Columbia University and the Urban League.
His influential store, Dapper Dan’s Boutique, operated from 1982–92 and is most associated with introducing high fashion to the hip hop world. Over the years, his clients have included Eric B. & Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z. Dan likes to call his designs, “high-end, ghetto-fabulous clothing.”
Returning to New York in 1974, Dan decided to be a clothier. He started his business by selling shoplifted items out of his car. He opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique in 1982 on 125th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. The store was sometimes open 24 – 7. Dan faced prejudice as he aspired to be a clothing wholesaler. Most companies in that era refused to do business with him because he was Black. He struggled to obtain the textiles and other supplies that he needed. This lack of access to ready-made products inspired him to learn how to create his own designs.
Dapper Dan developed a collection of brash knockoffs using bootlegged fabrics he designed himself after learning by himself to do textile printing. One of his most notable inventions was the a new creative process for screen printing onto leather. Later, Dan also designed jewelry and luxury automobile interiors. “Dan’s trademark was his bold usage of logos from high-end luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi.”
Day’s illegal use of logos in his custom-made designs eventually led to counterfeiting raids and litigation, followed by his first store’s closing. For decades later, Dan continued to work “underground” as a designer, although he was shunned by the mainstream fashion world.
Dan launched a fashion line with Gucci in 2017, revitalizing his career and showing that there is room for second chances. The fame of this collaboration led to his opening a second store and atelier in 2018, Dapper Dan’s of Harlem. Dapper Dan is included in Time magazine ‘s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Dapper Dan (designer).” Last modified 16 January 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dapper_Dan_(designer).
Segran, E. (2019, January 15). How Dapper Dan, Harlem’s Tailor, MAINSTREAMED “Ghetto Couture”. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40533205/how-dapper-dan-harlems-tailor-mainstreamed-ghetto-couture
Wikipedia. 2021. “Haberdasher.” Last modified 29 November 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haberdasher.
Willi Donnell Smith (February 29, 1948 – April 17, 1987) was an American fashion designer who pioneered the streetwear movement. By the time of his death from complications of the AIDS virus, he was regarded as one of the most successful young African American designers in the fashion industry. WilliWear, Smith’s fashion company, grossed over $25 million in sales since its inception in 1976.
WilliWear was the first clothing company to create both womenswear and menswear under the same design label. The accessibility and affordability of Smith’s clothing helped to democratize fashion.
Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to extremely clothes-conscious parents, Willie Lee Smith (an ironworker), and June Eileen Smith (a homemaker). Smith toiled for hours on the floor of his home as a child, and at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, sketching. Smith’s mother told him (so prophetically) that he would grow up to be an artist or designer. Following the divorce of his parents, Smith’s grandmother, Gladys Bush, ensured his matriculation into the fashion industry.
Smith studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and took a course in fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. Then, he moved to New York City to go to Parsons The New School for Design. In 1965, Smith’s grandmother (who was the housekeeper for a family that was close to couturier, Arnold Scaasi) helped him land an internship with Scaasi, where Smith helped with the design of clothing for Elizabeth Taylor. Smith began studying fashion design at Parsons in the fall while taking liberal arts classes at New York University.
After dropping out of Parsons, Smith began designing for Digits Sportswear, where he met Laurie Mallet. In 1976, Smith founded WilliWear, with Mallet. Smith was known for his reasonably priced designs that were called “… ones you would see everyone wearing on the street…” WilliWear mixed elements of relaxed fit sportswear with high-end tailoring before the melange was a fashion staple. WilliWear’s seasonal collections saw 11 years in his lifetime.
New York City was Smith’s inspiration. He is quoted as saying, “Being Black has a lot to do with my being a good designer…” and “Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there.”
After his death, Mallet continued WilliWear. However, the brand never recovered from the loss of Smith. The company failed to meet financial benchmarks and ceased production in 1990.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Willi Smith.” Last modified 21 December 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willi_Smith.