Before the current thrust of up-and-coming Black designers burst onto the scene, innovative designers like Shade Thomas-Fahm, Willi Smith, Chris Seydou, and Alphadi were making waves throughout the 20th century. Working across the globe in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, their ingenuity and trailblazing achievements have effectively altered the course of fashion and opened up the arena to even more fresh talent.
Among these eight designers, each has their own creative calling, and their individual journeys reflect the intricacies of a global fashion industry, along with the struggles facing Black designers. Several famously originated new fashion movements that were the first of their kind, such as Willi Smith and his “street couture,” or designer Chris Seydou and his reinvention of the traditional Malian bogolanfini fabric. For other designers, like Amsale Aberra and Zelda Wynn Valdes, their unique understanding of women’s needs and tastes is what had shoppers and retailers flocking to them.
Unfortunately, over the past century, the identities of many of these innovative Black designers have fallen into relative obscurity. Alabama-born Ann Lowe’s sophisticated designs dressed some of the prominent women of the mid-20th century, yet much of her efforts were marred by a purposeful lack of widespread name recognition. Beyond their artistic achievements, many have continued working to expand the presence of Black designers within the fashion industry. Among those are Andrew Ramroop and Alphadi, both of whom have established schools to train aspiring designers, or Thomas-Fahm’s advocacy and mentorship of young people to maintain the legacy of African designers.
Nearly every designer’s mission reflects a dedication to give back to their community and celebrate their roots. Though working across a wide array of decades and styles, each of these designers has made invaluable contributions to the fashion industry, thus creating new movements that will continue to inspire generations of more Black designers to come.
Below is a list of eight pioneering Black designers from the 20th century whose immense talent and tenacity paved the way for a new generation of creators.
Born in 1898, Ann Lowe is best known as the dress designer for Jackie Kennedy’s wedding in 1953, a piece she did not receive public recognition for at the time. Lowe’s elegant gowns were worn by members of the Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Whitney, and Du Pont families, and she became the first Black woman to own a business on Madison Avenue in New York, where she opened up a design studio. In spite of her achievements, Lowe struggled to maintain her business because many of her clients were reluctant to reveal their designer was a Black woman and suffered through bouts of near financial ruin throughout her career. Today her designs have experienced greater visibility through exhibitions at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes’s designs established her as a true arbiter of the glamour of the 20th century. Despite beginning a career in the height of the Jim Crow era, Valdes was steadfast in her desire to create beautiful, well-made clothes, and in 1948, she became the first Black person to own a store on Broadway Street in New York. Valdes was known for her mastery of the female body; with their tight forms and low cuts, her styles boldly but elegantly emphasized a woman’s curves. As she gained notoriety, her store became a popular destination for Black women, and Valdes was instrumental in transforming singer Joyce Bryant into a mainstream sex symbol, whom the media later called the “Black Marilyn Monroe.” Among her other accomplishments, Valdes helped design the original Playboy Bunny costume, worked for the Harlem Dance Theater, where she would dye the light pink dancer’s tights to accurately match their skin tone, and later led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a group dedicated to supporting Black designers.
Shade Thomas-Fahm is legendary for having effectively shaped Nigerian’s fashion industry, and she is notable as the first shop-owner in the country. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1933, she moved to London as a young woman and enrolled at Central Saint Martins. She later returned to Lagos in 1960 and opened her infamous Shade’s Boutique. Taking note of the cost of importing fabrics, Thomas-Fahm saw the opportunity to embrace fabrics already produced in her home country and set up a factory to replicate indigenous Nigerian cloths. Using these fabrics, she began to evolve traditional Nigerian designs into styles for the modern woman, taking inspiration from the gele (head scarf) and turning the iro and buba (skirt and top) into a zip-up set. She is best-known for her creation of the boubou, a tighter- fitting adaptation of the men’s agbada, a loose robe. Thomas-Fahm has also actively mentored budding young Nigerian designers in an effort to promote the country’s fashion industry and spur economic growth.
Willi Smith’s 1970s and 80s line WilliWear has been aptly dubbed “street couture,” and reflects his status as one of the originators of streetwear. His clothing was known for its accessibility and affordability, and he aimed to empower the people who wore his pieces. Smith was most interested in celebrating the remarkability of everyday people, taking great inspiration from their unique stories and styles of dress. He famously said, “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.” Smith’s role extended far beyond that of a designer: he was an activist, community organizer, and a proponent of equality and inclusivity as an openly gay man. His styles preceded the blowup of sportswear in the 1990s, but his impact clearly shines through. Smith's work is currently on view through the Cooper Hewitt’s digital exhibition “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” the first ever exhibition dedicated to Smith’s work.
Malian designer Chris Seydou brought the ceremonial bogolanfini (mud-cloth) textile to the masses in the 1980s. After years of training and apprenticeship in Paris, Seydou moved to the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan in 1981. He was fascinated by the bogolanfini fabric, a textile made by women in Mali using fermented mud and dating back to the 12th century. The thick fabric was defined by its white and brown geometric pattern and was thought to have spiritual powers, though Seydou took the fabric out of its ceremonial context by using it for contemporary women’s designs. He initially felt weary of altering a fabric with ritual significance and struggled to use the fabric because it lacked regularity in its patterns. As a result, he eventually began to commission fabrics inspired by the textile, elevating it into cropped jackets, mini-skirts, hats, and coats. Seydou passed away in 1994, and he is considered by many to be the founder of African fashion design.
As a teenager growing up in the 1950s in Trinidad and Tobago, Andrew Ramroop was fascinated with the glamour evoked by a well-made suit. In 1970, he moved to London to work on Savile Row, the famed street known for its bespoke men’s tailoring. Despite being well-trained and often overqualified, Ramroop struggled to find a job until tailor Maurice Sedwell offered him a position at his studio in 1974. Inspired by the colorful flair of Trinidad, his work quickly captured the attention of politicians, athletes, and members of the royal family. He officially purchased Maurice Sedwell Bespoke Tailors from the retiring tailor in 1988 and is the first Black bespoke tailor to own a shop on Savile Row. Ramroop continues to use his influence through his Savile Row Academy, a training program for aspiring tailors, and he is actively working to put Trinidad on the global map.
Ethiopian-born Amsale Aberra’s namesake bridal shop in Manhattan has far surpassed icon status, and brides-to-be continue to revel in the modern elegance of her gowns decades after the launch of her line. Amberra was born in 1954 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and moved solo as a young woman to the United States for college. In 1985, while shopping for her own wedding dress, she found herself unimpressed with the available options, which reflected the usual over-the-top-styles of the decade. Upon this discovery, she established her own custom-made dress line, and her understated but modern wedding gowns became instant classics. Her gowns are worn by the likes of Halle Berry and Ayesha Curry, and her work has graced many television and film screens. Prior to her death in 2018, sat on the board of the Ethiopian Children’s Fund, and was twice recognized by Ebony Magazine on their “Power 150” list of influential African Americans.
Born in Timbuktu, Mali and raised in Niger, Alphadi first studied in Paris before moving back to Niger, where he invested in a weaving mill to jumpstart his first fashion line. Several years later, in 1987, he achieved mass visibility through the International Festival of Fashion in Paris, which incurred tens of thousands of spectators and millions more watching on television. Alphadi’s designs take inspiration from nomadic African groups, including his own Tuareg ethnic people, and today his line has been transformed into a highly successful lifestyle brand. Beyond his own work as a designer, he is committed to championing African cultural achievements. He created the Festival International de la Mode en Afrique (FIMA) in 1988, a bi-annual event which brings together African and international designers from Europe and the United States, opened a fashion school in Niger dedicated to the cultivation of African designers, and advocates for the development of the African textile industry in order to create jobs and promote the internal economy.
Words by Olivia Starr