Black History Month: Important Figures in Fashion History

October is Black History Month in the UK: the annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people throughout history. Our Fashion Friday focus this week commemorates past and present black people who have made their mark on the industry.

Throughout history, like with any popular culture, fashion shows love for, and takes inspiration from, Black culture but ignores Black people themselves. These incredible figures refused to be ignored and have made transformations in the industry that are timelessly important.

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Zelda Wynn Valdes – Instagram

Zelda Wynn Valdes is often considered the first African American fashion designer. She’s most famous for designing the Playboy Bunny costume in the 50s that’s still iconic today. However, Wynn Valdes achievements stretch much further. In 1948 she became the first Black woman to own a shop on Broadway in New York City. It was named Chez Zelda and sold her signature low-cut, figure hugging gowns that proudly showed off women’s curves. Wynn Valdes design have been worn and loved by Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich and many others. For Nat “King” Cole and Marie Ellington’s wedding in 1948, Wynn Valdes dressed the entire bridal party.

Jay Jaxon

Jay Jaxon was born in Queen, NY, in 1941. He was introduced to the fashion industry by his girlfriend who was working a seamstress. Before long, Jaxon made his way to Paris, working at Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. He shone immediately and at the young age of 24 he took over the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer. This made Jaxon not only the first black couturier, but also the first American couturier. His later career consisted of costume design for TV and movies including “Motown 25”, “Ally McBeal”, and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. He also became a personal designer and consultant to many celebrities.

Naomi Sims

It’s difficult to know where to start with Naomi Sims; she’s had a lifetime of achievements. Sims was born in 1948 in Mississippi and by the age of 13 she was already 5’10’’. She was teased and felt insecure for the way she looked throughout her childhood but this gave her the drive to fight for her career later in life. In 1966 she moved to New York to study fashion but decided to try modelling on the side for extra money. Her attempts to get work were fraught with racial prejudice and she was often told she was too dark to model. Sims went directly to photographers, and at only 19, photographer Gotta Peterson shot her for the August 1967 cover of the NY Times fashion supplement, “Fashion of the Times.” After more set-backs but dedication, Sims began getnig more work and she went on to become the firsy Black modl featured in a mainstream publication when she appeadered on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal. Sims received the Model of the Year award in 1968 and 1970, the Woman of Achievement Medal in 197s, and then the Top Hat Award in 1974. While modelling, Sims noticed that most available wigs were not designed for Black hair. After retiring from modelling, Sims created the Naomi Sims company, which started with a wig-making business for Black women. She’s also worked with charities, authored books, and spoken out about the industry, inspiring other Black models across the world.

Willi Smith

Willi Smith created street wear as we know it. Throughout his career he collaborated with many big designers and pioneered street wear, making his one of the most successful Black designers of his time. “I don’t design clothes for the queen but the people who wave at her as she goes by” – Willi Smith. In 1988, NY mayor David Dinkins declared February 23rd Willi Smith day and his designs appealed to everyone including the rich and famous. Smith was the youngest designer ever to be nominated for a Coty Award in 1971. He also won it for Women’s Fashion in 1983, and received the Cutty Sark Menswear Award in 1985. In 2002, he received a plaque on New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame. His designs have influenced countless designers who came after him.

Pat Evans

Pat Evans is a symbol of Black beauty. In 2018, more and more Black women are shaving their heads, like Lupita Nyong’o. However, back when Evans started modelling Afros were the fashion. She struggled working in the industry, wearing wigs to get jobs because she was a single mother and worried about losing income. ‘It’s all about the hair. Since I was a child, people were talking about good hair, bad hair, this hair, that hair. People with kinky hair were straightening it and making it blonde to look like white women. I think it’s the hair factor that messes up everybody,” Evans said. One day, Evans was trying on a dress for Stephen Burrows and her wig slipped off. Burrow asked her if she would walk the runway like that and she became an overnight sensation. The shaved head became her signature look and has inspired thousands of other women to she their heads too. Evans work was revolutionary for images of beauty, and she said “Me and Grace Jones were ahead of our time.”

Nadine Ijewere

Photoshoot by Nadine Ijewere – Instagram,

Uk-based photographer Nadine Ijewere has become a famous figure in contemporary fashion, both in editorials but also on social media for her activisim. She focuses primarily on ideas of identity and diversity in her work. Many of her shoots are informed by her own Nigerian/Jamaican background and she celebrates beauty in every form. Ijewer’s Instagram is a stream of mesmerising photos that share a natural style. Her previous work has been for Stella McCartney, Vogue Italia, Selfridges, and most recently, Gucci. In these shoots, and in her own work, Ijewere is drawn to non-traditional faces with the aim of showcasing a new standing of beauty and celebrating uniqueness.

André Leon Talley

André Leon Talley was perhaps the most influential Black man in the fashion industry until recently. He’s worked as Creative Director at American Vogue, featured in countless films and TV shows, and been a style icon and adviser to celebrities for decades. With his great stature and influence, Talley has often criticised high profile designers for excluding women of colour on the runway. He also helped many lesser-known designers rise to stardom. To find out more about him, watch “The Gospel According to André,” a biopic about his early life and work.

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh - Instagram
Virgil Abloh – Instagram

Virgil Abloh is surely rising to be one of the most talked about men in fashion this year. He’s recently been appointed by Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy as artistic director and his business head is remarkable. In addition to this role, Abloh is the founder of the streetwear brand Off-White. Abloh aims to bridge the gap between streetwear and high fashion, and from the looks of fashion season this year, he’s certainly making his mark.

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