It’s Black History Month and we can’t let February go by without highlighting some of the major African American figures that have influenced fashion as we know it today.

Elizabeth Keckley, was a former slave, seamstress, civil activist and author. She is most known for being the personal seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln during and after Lincoln’s presidency. She endured a long journey to become a middle class citizen which included being a slave from birth into adulthood until she was able to buy her freedom and pursue a career as a seamstress. Keckley also founded the Contraband Relief Association to help freed slaves and colored soldiers obtain the resources they needed to make a living. Due to her closeness to the Lincoln family, Beckley later wrote an autobiography of her life, however it only caused controversy, because of the information revealed about the Lincoln family. Keckley ended her career as a head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. We remember Elizabeth Beckley for perseverance and ambition which broke barriers for black seamstresses and designers to come.

Ann Cole Lowe, the first internationally-recognized African American fashion designer, who carved out a space for herself through talent alone in the Jim Crow-era United States. Lowe is most known for her famous gown that she created for Jacqueline Kennedy for her wedding. While Lowe accomplished so much she had to make many sacrifices to reach her goals including losing to marriages, dealing with the death of her son and her many health issues and debts. Yet she is an inspiration because she did not quit and accomplished what so many black designers of the tim could not.

Zelda Wynn Valdez was an African American fashion and costume designer and as well as one of the founding members of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers which was created to support black designers at the time. Valdez accomplished so much yet continued to contribute to fashion until her passing at 96 years old in 2001. Valdez is most known for opening the first African American owned boutique in Manhattan in 1948 and for designing the well known playboy costume.


Scott Barrie, whose real name is actually Nelson Clyde Barr, is most known for his matte jersey dresses as well as his ability to appeal to the youth through fashion during the 60s and 70s. Barrie was born in Philadelphia and studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art before moving to New York with the aspirations of becoming a successful fashion designer. The young designer started out by making jersey dresses in his New York apartment which eventually got the attention of well known retailers such as Henri Bendel’s and Bloomingdales. This led to the opportunity to have a showroom on 7th avenue. Then opportunities in Europe arose. This allowed Barrie to live in Milan and grow as a designer. Barrie lived in Milan for 11 years until 1993 when he passed from Brain Cancer at the age of 52.

Willi Smith, another highly regarded fashion designer from Philadelphia, who is most known for his successful fashion line called WilliWear Limited which we started with Laurie Mallet. Smith also worked on many major projects such as the wedding attire for Mary Jane and Peter Parker in the Spider Man comic and was costume designer for Spike Lee’s School daze. During a trip to India to buy fabric Smith got sick with pneumonia and shigella. A couple months later he was admitted to the hospital and died only a day later when tests revealed that he had at some point contracted AIDS. While Smith passed at the young age of 39 he truly made is mark in fashion and paved the way for black designers today.

Newark native, Stephen Burrows, started his career as a fashion designer for Weber Originals before launching his ready to wear line with Roz Rubinstein and cofounding O Boutique in NYC in 1968. The following year Burrows was hired by Henri Bendel’s and offered his own boutique called Stephe Burrows World which reached high levels of success and allowed him to build a celebrity clientele. Throughout his career Burrows worked on and off with Henri Bendel’s but it is  important to note that he found Burrows, Inc., created a line for Target and was the designer as well as president for Stephen Burrows LTD. Burrows is most known for being one of 5 American designers invited to showcase their clothing on the runway of the 1973 Battle of Versailles. His participation led rave reviews of the young designer and to become the first African American Designer to reach international fame. Burrows has just reached 40 years in his career and among so many other achievement was recently honored with a plaque on the fashion walk of fame.

Patrick Kelly, made his name in fashion by simply being himself as well as paying homage to his southern roots, his mother and grandmother who raised him. His signature look included bright colors, large bows and colorful buttons which he grew up seeing the women wear at church on Sundays. Kelly made his way to fame by leaving his Mississippi home to Atlanta then New York. After little success in New York Kelly went to Paris where he found immediate success and started his own line. In 1988 he was not only the first American but also the first African American to be inducted into the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode. What set Kelly apart from other designers is how much he valued inclusivity of women of all shapes, sizes and colors.He displayed this by having all types of women as models. He also was not afraid to highlight the stigma of being a black fashion designer and often expressed this through his designs. Patrick died at the young age of 35 due to AIDS related illness.

These are just a few of so many who have paved a way for black talent in all aspects of fashion. It is amazing how far the fashion industry has come and even more amazing is all who are responsible for what it is today and what it will become. We honor those before us to show that although it may not be easy it is possible.