5 Black Fashion Designers Who Broke Industry Barriers

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These famous names are always in vogue.

Trends come and go, but these black fashion designers have strived to create legacies that will always be remembered. In honor of Black History Month, celebrate these five luminaries who successfully designed, stitched and sewed, bringing dreams to life and breaking down barriers for the next generation.

Illustrated portrait of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom and became a seamstress for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, and learned to sew from her mother, the National Museum of American History reports. Keckley’s owners struggled to make ends meet and moved to St. Louis in the 1840s, hiring her as a seamstress. Although her landlord received most of her salary, Keckley gained a reputation for hard work and was eventually able to buy freedom for herself and her son.

Moving her family to Washington, D.C., Keckley became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress in 1861. From there, the designer became one of the First Lady’s “closest confidants”.

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In 1868, Keckley published a memoir titled “Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House”, which was controversial upon release and “soured” his friendship with Lincoln, according to the White House Historical Association.

“Although American audiences were not ready to read the story of a free black woman taking control of her own life story at the time of publication, her memories have been used by many historians to reconstruct the House. Blanche of Lincoln and better understand one of the nation’s most fascinating and misunderstood first ladies,” the historical association writes. “Her story is integral to the history of the White House and to understanding the experiences of enslaved and free black women.”

Ann Lowe adjusts the bodice of a dress she designed in this 1962 photo.

Ann Lowe adjusts the bodice of a dress she designed in this 1962 photo.
(Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Anne Lowe was born in Alabama in 1898 into a family of seamstresses, learning to sew from her mother and grandmother. When Lowe’s mother died suddenly in 1914, 16-year-old Lowe was tasked with completing her mother’s unfinished orders – including four ball gowns for Lizzie Kirkland O’Neal, the first lady of Alabama, Racked reported. The creations of the teenager were successful, and her career began.

Lowe took a job as a personal seamstress for a wealthy woman in Tampa, Florida, before moving to New York in 1917 to attend ST Taylor Design School. With racial segregation still the norm, Lowe was forced to work in a separate room from other students, though her designs were so exceptional they were used as an example, according to the National Museum of American History.

Lowe spent about another decade as a top designer in Tampa, before returning to the Big Apple. In 1950, she opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem, southern life reports, and in 1968 was the first black designer to open a store on Madison Avenue. As her star continued to rise, Lowe made feminine dresses for wealthy families like the du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and Auchinclosses.

Senator John Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (wearing Ann Lowe) enjoy their wedding reception, 1953.

Senator John Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (wearing Ann Lowe) enjoy their wedding reception, 1953.
(Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Lowe designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s dress for her 1953 wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, though it didn’t quite sail smoothly. A freak flooding accident at Lowe’s studio a week before the big day forced the designer and her team to recreate the dress (which took two months to produce) in five days, losing any profit she had hoped to earn and actually costing him an extra $2,200 in expenses, according to the museum.

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Beyond her own boutiques, Lowe’s dresses have been sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel. Despite the commercial success, managing the finances of his burgeoning business was difficult, and Lowe declared bankruptcy in 1962.

To his surprise, the IRS debt was paid off by an unknown person. “Many believe that it was Jackie Kennedy who discovered both the dramatic story of her wedding dress’s completion and Lowe’s financial difficulties,” writes the National Museum of American History.

Designer Stephen Burrows poses with models at the Stephen Burrows Spring 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2010.

Designer Stephen Burrows poses with models at the Stephen Burrows Spring 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2010.
(Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Stephen Burrows was born in 1943 in New Jersey and was captivated by clothes from an early age. As a child, Burrows sewed with his grandmother, The story makers reports, and he eventually graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York in 1966.

Inspired by movement and dance, Burrows often worked with stretch knit, according to ADAPT. Two years after graduating from design school, he opened the “O” boutique, which was “strategically located opposite a popular nightclub”.

Géraldine Stutz, Henri Bendel’s president, was impressed with his work and gave him her own boutique within the department store in 1970. The boutique, called “Stephen Burrows’ World”, was an immediate success and set the creator in contact with celebrities. clients like Diana Ross, Cher and Barbra Streisand.

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In 1973, Burrows launched an eponymous brand and was one of five Americans invited to participate in the legendary “Battle of Versailles” fashion show between American and French designers.

Burrows made history as “one of the first black fashion designers to achieve international fame”, reports FIT. He won three prestigious Coty Awards for Fashion in the 1970s and was named to the Fashion Walk of Fame in 2003, among other accolades. More recently, he received lifetime achievement awards from the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Pratt Institute of Design in 2014, per HistoryMakers.

Paris-based American designer Patrick Kelly poses with his models in Paris in 1987.

Paris-based American designer Patrick Kelly poses with his models in Paris in 1987.
(Julio Donoso/Sygma via Getty Images)

Patrick Kelly, born in Mississippi in 1954, got his start in the fashion industry at 18, working a few “odd jobs” in Atlanta and New York, according to the Institute of Fashion Design and Merchandising.

Kelly won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design, but the offer was inexplicably rescinded. It is assumed that the scholarship was withdrawn because Kelly was black, although the college declined to comment in a report by Vice.

The burgeoning designer was able to fund a semester of study on his own before giving up. Looking for a start in 1979, he moved to Paris at the request of black model Pat Cleveland, who bought him a one-way ticket, Shoe News reports. There, the tide turned in his favor.

In Paris, Kelly met Bjorn Amelan and they became partners in business and in life. Kelly began selling her designs at trendy Victoire boutiques and garnered enough attention for a six-page spread in Elle magazine – and later her first fashion show in 1985. Kelly later dressed the princess Diana, Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. He also made history as the first American to be accepted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in 1988, the governing body of the French ready-to-wear association.

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The designer died in 1990 due to complications from AIDS and is remembered today for his joyful, body-conscious designs.

“I want my clothes to make you smile,” Kelly once said.

Designer Tracy Reese walks the runway during New York Fashion Week in 2015.

Designer Tracy Reese walks the runway during New York Fashion Week in 2015.
(Edward James/WireImage)

Born in Michigan in 1964, Tracy Reese first learned to sew from her mother. She moved to New York City at 18, completing an accelerated program at Parsons School of Design in 1984.

From there, Reese got a job at the fashion company Harlequin, working her way up to become the women’s portfolio manager for 1980s icon Perry Ellis. HistoryMakers Reports. The designer launched her eponymous label Tracy Reese in 1997, expanding with fashion lines such as Tracy Reese Plenty and Frock!, as well as a home furnishings collection, in the years that followed.

First lady Michelle Obama wore one of Reese's designs during her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

First lady Michelle Obama wore one of Reese’s designs during her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reese opened her own flagship store in New York in 2006 and launched her luxurious Tracy Reese Black Label in 2009. A few years later, she was commissioned to dress first lady Michelle Obama for her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

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Reese joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1990 and was appointed to its board of directors in 2007. Celebrities who are fans of its fun and feminine designs include Sarah Jessica Parker and Taylor Swift.

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