"Whoever Heard of a Black Fashion Designer"
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
This was the response from the nursery worker to a young Jeffrey Banks when he expressed his desire to be a fashion designer in 1963. “That stuck in the back of my mind and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to show her.’ My parents always made me believe I could do anything I want as long as I was willing to work hard for it.” While there were many other teenagers and children being watched over at the local daycare, their parents, Banks’s amongst them, had joined The March on Washington. It became the historical moment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of “I Have a Dream”. Banks’s childhood anecdote and its context in American history was the response to the question: “What was it like to be a Negro in fashion?”
Non-profit, Fashion For All (FFA), began New York Fashion Week presenting design legends, Stephen Burrows and Jeffrey Banks for a talk. Hosted by Phillip Lim, Banks and Burrows shared insight into their personal history and the courses of their successful careers. The retrospective included nostalgic memories dressing friends who didn’t see themselves reflected in fashion and cautionary advice that emphasized business sense for aspiring designers.
“Sometimes with art it takes years for people to appreciate and buy it. When you think of someone like Van Gogh who didn’t sell a single painting in his lifetime, I wanted to know what I was doing was right or wrong and I couldn’t wait until after I was dead.”
-- Jeffrey Banks
The conversation included some of fashion’s most historic moments such as Burrows work at the “Battle of Versailles”, a charity show that included designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, and Hubert de Givenchy. Burrows’s lifelong muse, Pat Cleveland would go on to describe the event “as friendship, reaching out our hand […] they (the French designers) needed something new”. Burrows on Versailles: “The French insisted that I was the only designer on the American side who was any good. They didn’t care who else was in it so long as I was there.”
Banks’s most engrossing stories were his experiences working for Ralph Lauren for most of college and upsetting him to focus on finishing his studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) only to have Calvin Klein step in to hire Banks whenever he could spare the time. To no surprise, his place in American Fashion History extends beyond the personal stories to the conservation of fashion history. His newest book, Norell: Master of American Fashion debuted last week. Its accompanying exhibition is currently displayed through April at The Museum at FIT.
The struggles of the designers that came before empowers a new generation to come through and be celebrated. Pyer Moss’s Fall 2018 Collection struck a true All-American chord with his gospel presentation of Black models draped in stars and stripes. Another bright talent, womenswear designer Christopher John Rogers, dons pieces for Grammy-nominated SZA with Kendrick Lamar in their new music video, “All the Stars”, a track for Marvel’s blockbuster, Black Panther. It’s powerful visuals celebrate the beauty and creativity of Black Culture. Rogers work augments that celebration with original substance and depth. In the song, Lamar proclaims self-preservation saying, “I want the credit, if I’m losin’ or winnin’.” -- it’s a sentiment all too familiar in fashion.
Design theft has always been cleverly termed, “trickle across theory”, but it takes on a more offensive tone when used with no financial benefit for the cultural group the original belonged to. This is precisely why cultural appropriation should give the industry genuine pause for reform.
Ignorantly dismissing plight for profit shouldn’t feel comfortable. It’s uncomfortable to watch MLK’s words comfortably repackaged and sold at the Super Bowl to sell trucks. It’s uncomfortable to hear political rhetoric comfortably disparage the people of Africa. It’s uncomfortable to see the gravely brilliant satire, Get Out, comfortably snubbed into the laughable nomination as a comedy. It is uncomfortable when seemingly innocent sweatshirts are comfortably sold on children prompting an education on historical context to justify the public outrage. It is these lapses that feed fashion “whistleblowers” @dietprada to call out designers who casually throw the word “nigga” around and feel comfortable to post it to their Instagram. Politics may treat diversity like a passing trend from one admin to the next. However, the fashion industry will embarrass itself if it engages in clumsy (and obvious) window dressing, scripted apologies, and calculated promises to change.
Phillip Lim prefaced the retrospective of Stephen Burrows and Jeffrey Banks emphasizing being present and exercising “hindsight to have foresight”. Recounting our country's history with American Legends makes this moment in fashion feel especially poignant. It only seemed to augment Banks’s belief that “luxury is anything that saves time.” Last year Katharine Johnson had us touching the stars. Indeed, this year: “all the stars are closer”. No more dreaming necessary.