The month of February heralds New York Fashion Week. It is a time when the fashion world comes together and designers look into the future and foretell what we will all eventually be wearing. For an industry that is almost constantly forward thinking, it continues to lack diversity among the upper echelon of designers.
However, there have long been African American designers working to make an impact in the fashion world. Although many did not have the chance to work in the storied fashion houses of Europe or show on the famed runways of New York, they did make a lasting impact on American pop-culture and history. Two game changing fashion designers were Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe.
Zelda Wynn Valdes, who was born in 1905 in Pennsylvania, was more than just a fashion designer. She was a risk taking, barrier breaking leader. Valdes honed her seamstress and design skills working at her uncle’s tailoring store. She opened her first shop in 1948 on 158th and Broadway. She later moved the shop, known as Chez Valdes, to 57th Street. It was the only shop owned by an African American in the area at that time. Valdes also served as president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, one of the many organizations founded by Mary McLeod Bethune. She was known for her long tenure designing for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Celebrities like Ella Fitgerald, Josephine Baker, Mae West and Dorothy Dandrige turned to Valdes for her sexy, body-hugging designs. Valdes was known for her uncanny ability to study a woman’s body and fit dresses perfectly to its proportions, highlighting womanly curves. She once said, “I just have a God-given talent for making people beautiful.” This talent drew the attention of Hugh Hefner, who commissioned her to design the epitome of sexy – the original Playboy Bunny costume.
Ann Lowe was a contemporary of Valdes, but where Valdes designed for actresses and music divas, Lowe designed exclusively for socialites. Lowe, who rarely received the praise she deserved, created gowns of the highest quality fabrics and detailed construction for Southern belles and New York debutantes alike. She was quoted saying, “I love my clothes and I am selective about who wears them.” Lowe had good reason to be selective. She never designed the same gown twice. Each piece was original and one-of-a-kind.
Lowe, born in 1898 in Alabama, came from a lineage of seamstresses that sewed gowns for Montgomery society ladies. She received formal design education at S.T. Taylor Design School. At the time she attended in 1917, the school was segregated and she had to take her classes isolated from other students. However, this did not stop her from achieving success. Upon graduation, she opened her first shop in Tampa while doing commission work for a number of high-end New York department stores.
Lowe was a favorite of the Bouvier family, designing debut and wedding dresses for them on numerous occasions. Her penultimate accomplishment in high-class design was when she was commissioned to design Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. The dress was intricately designed layers of silk taffeta. However, Lowe did not receive public credit or acknowledgment for that particular gown at the time.
Throughout the years, Lowe was recognized and credited for her designs in a number of renowned fashion publications. Today, a small collection of her work is held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress is on display in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library.