Anne Lowe & Zelda Wynn Valdes.
You know Jacqueline Kennedy and you know the Playboy Bunnies, thus you should commit these names to the same memory.
As we transition from Black History Month to Women's History Month, I wanted to take the time to honor 2 black women who helped shape fashion history. Quite often marginalized people become a much quieter, if not fully silenced, aspect of society's memory. We are not as excited and motivated to boast on the names of independent designers as we are major brands. Names that are already recognizable tend to be announced eagerly since they seem add an additional layer of credibility or 'swag' to its wearer by mere association. Even on the internet, I find it much more likely for viral items to still include credits when it's a big name (no one will hesitate to leave out the fact that it's Versace or Beyonce'), but lesser known names get written off and reduced to an image alone.
I make it a habit to credit creatives and makers as much as I can, even if it's but an Instagram tag. It's a small effort, yet worthy diligence. We should all make it a habit. Because artists invest unbelievable amounts in their creations and its frequently devalued. For a realm of work that's notoriously offered "exposure" as a means of compensation... the hypocrisy is high.
But we are boasting on these 2 ladies today!
Ann Lowe was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer and was the mastermind behind Jackie O's bridal gown. At the time of its creation, it was rumored that she was belittled to simply being called "a coloured dressmaker." Although this specific quote is challenged, she was for certain never named explicitly. Imagine fashioning such a renowned piece of history only to be diminished in this way. Not only that but, after 2 months of progress, the original gown was destroyed in a flood a mere 10 days before the ceremony and had to be remade. The project ended in a loss for the designer, rather than a profit. Lowe was also commissioned for gowns for the bridesmaids and mother of the bride. When delivering the gowns, she was initially told to use a rear service door entrance because of her race, yet she refused saying that she would enter with them through the front or not at all.
Lowe was no stranger to discrimination. The administration at S.T. Taylor Design School were surprised that they admitted a student of color upon her arrival and kept her separate from her classmates. She still excelled and graduated early. She also designer for many other wealthy, high society families like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. However, status and skill aside, she was often talked down in pricing and accrued a great debt in business. Later in life, following a period of health and financial struggles, she received a debt payout from an "anonymous friend," rumored to be Jackie after finding out the tragic challenges of her bridal commission years earlier. Lowe went on to open a store in 1968 and retired in 1972. She later admitted that at the height of her career, she was virtually broke. Now some of her works are held at The Met, NMAAHC, and The Museum @ FIT. You can read more in depth about Lowe here and here.
Zelda Wynn Valdes was the first African American to own a boutique on Broadway in New York City and the maker of the original Playboy Bunny costume. She outfitted major icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Mae West. She was the forerunner of a style revolution and her designers were infamous for highlighting the female figure in a manner that wasn't well-received at the time. Both sex appeal and sophistication were intertwined in her aesthetic just as both fashion design and costume design also merged within it. The ability to combine these successfully is what drew her clientele in and eventually attracted the eye of Hugh Heffner, who commissioned her for the first-ever Bunny costumes.
Valdes went on to become the head of costume design for the Dance Theater of Harlem and worked there for 18 years. She also facilitated student workshops for aspiring designers. Her works are currently held at The Met and NMAAHC. You can read more about Zelda here and here.
We stan legends! But we must also remember the importance of giving artists their due in their lifetime. Legends live amongst us.