Only two black fashion designers had runway shows during New York Fashion Week, but ten other African-American designers — both established and up-and-coming — are being featured in a special off-runway exhibit.
Aiming to upend the fashion world status quo, “Black Dress," which recently opened at New York’s Pratt Manhattan Gallery, was conceived to coincide with Black History Month and New York Fashion Week.
“As black designers we are here, we are a force to be reckoned with," said Pratt Institute fashion professor Adrienne Jones, who co-curated the show.
“The talent is just as strong as an Oscar de la Renta or an Alexander McQueen, but due to a lack of funding, they’re not out there,” she said, explaining that black designers remain underrepresented in the industry despite growing influence, and that the time for real recognition has come.
Starting with an international roster of 100 design portfolios, Jones and co-curator Paula Coleman reduced the slate of candidates to 50, then 25, and then, finally, the featured ten. With some big names among the exhibitors — Jeffrey Banks and LaQuan Smith already enjoy broad name recognition — "Black Dress" also features works of those just coming to the attention of runway aficionados and industry tastemakers.
Exhibitor Tracy Reese, a board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, runs two established lines, for example, while Omar Salam is a designer and entrepreneur who founded the Sukeina Fashion House. Works by former “Project Runway” contestants Samantha Black and Epperson are also on display, along with works by Harlem-based designer Donna Dove, environmentally-conscious designer Michael Jerome Francis, and celebrated fashion innovator Stephen Burrows.
With unique and breathtaking pieces on display, each exhibit explores the designer's background and how the process of coming from one corner of the United States — or coming from one far-flung corner of the globe — has influenced their work.
According to Jones, despite the diverse backgrounds, one common thread runs through all of the featured fashions: the history of black design in America, a cultural legacy documented since at least the works of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and purported confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln.
In a historically apropos twist, exhibitor Byron Lars already has already had pieces acquired for the White House wardrobe. First Lady Michelle Obama, it turns out, is a big Byron Lars fan.
"I just never imagined that anything I would create would end up in the White House or on Air Force One heading for an event," said Lars, who was recently named “Rookie of the Year” by Women’s Wear Daily
. "I just really love our first family so much and love the First Lady’s style so much, it really meant that much more to me."
By participating in "Black Dress," he says, he hopes to counter the lack of attention paid his African American contemporaries.
"That there is a glaring omission of black talent is irrefutable," he said, expressing frustration that more black designers aren't receiving Fashion Week exposure. "Honestly, it’s pretty disappointing that American Vogue
has never gone there. It’s not for lack of talent, that’s for sure."
The free exhibit, which runs through April 26 at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street
, marks a new chapter in fashion history, characterized by a greater spectrum of creative influences and professional opportunities for contemporary black designers.