African-American Designers Who Influenced Fashion

Black History Month: To the Ones Who Led the Way in Fashion

Black history is everyone’s history.
Here at David Edwards Clothier, we are fueled by a desire to create space for a true celebration of Black history, recognizing those who came before us and the work still needed. How we honor the contributions of Black designers creates a deeper understanding of our own human history. The complex stories, struggles and triumphs of so many have paved the way for modern artists, creators, activists and influencers to pursue their own dreams. 

This month we are profiling three African-American fashion designers from the twentieth century whom you may recognize. It’s our small way of shining a light on those who made us who we are, and paying homage to both the widely known and smaller-profile giants of Black fashion history.
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes 
During a lifetime spanning nearly a century (1905-2001), Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes is known as the first black designer to open her own shop, which was the first black-owned business on Broadway in New York City, New York in 1948. She specialized in costumes and evening wear. Her designs were worn by famous actresses and entertainers such as Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Sarah Vaughn, among others.
Zelda Valdes was born on June 28, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother was a seamstress and her uncle had a tailoring shop, so you could say, sewing and designing ran in her family. Valdes got her start working in the stock room at a high-end boutique as a teenager and worked her way up to become the boutiques first black sales clerk and tailor.
After years of hard work, in 1948 at the age of forty-seven, Valdes and her sister, Mary Barbour, opened her own boutique. She called her store, Chez Zelda. Celebrities and socialites flocked to her shop for her innovative designs and sexy silhouettes. In fact, Valdes’s fashion designs were responsible for creating a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant, a huge star in the African American community in the early 1950s. Life Magazine later described Bryant as “the Black Marilyn Monroe.” In 1958 Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner hired Valdes to design the first Playboy Bunny costumes, which made their formal debut at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, Illinois in 1960.
Later, during the 1970s, choreographer Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theater of Harlem. She would continue to collaborate with the dance company until her death in 2001, at age ninety-six.
Willi Smith
African American fashion designer Willi Donnell Smith founded one of the most successful clothing companies in the 1980s. He was born in 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into an extremely clothes conscious family. His grandmother was the housekeeper for a family close to designer Arnold Scaasi, whom Smith would later intern for as a young man, helping design clothing for Elizabeth Taylor. In interviews with the designer, Smith shared how he was always sketching designs and drawing on anything he could find as a child. He also shared how he was encouraged and nurtured by his parents, and especially his grandmother to pursue his dreams in design. 
After moving to New York City and pursuing his degree at Parsons New School for Design on scholarship, he began to find inspiration for his original designs from what people wore on the streets. He worked briefly as lead designer for junior sportswear label Digits from 1969-1973. After leaving that company, and traveling to India for inspiration, he decided to start his own label, WilliWear Ltd. with close friend and business partner Laurie Mallet. His first fashion show in 1978 and subsequent collections were a huge success. Through multiple collaborations with artists, innovative styles, and affordability, Smith’s chic streetwear for both men and women revolutionized fashion in the early 1980s. In fact, WilliWear was the first clothing company to create both womenswear and menswear under the same label. By 1986 the company reached $25 million in sales, and after five nominations, Smith finally won the esteemed Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1983.
Sadly, the designer’s life was cut tragically short in 1987 at age 39 by health complications related to AIDS. After his death, the company faltered without its visionary namesake, and a few years later in 1990 it ceased production. Smith was truly a shining light in the fashion world and contributed so much during his brief lifetime to help democratize fashion through accessibility and affordability for all.
Ola Hudson
Ola Hudson was born Ola Oliver in Los Angeles in 1946. She originally studied dance as a young woman and performed internationally, living in London for a while before becoming a fashion designer and costumier. Her first husband, Anthony Hudson, was an English artist, who created album covers for rock musicians. After separating and moving back to Los Angeles from London in 1972 with her two young sons, she worked out of Hollywood. One of her sons is Saul Hudson, known professionally as Slash, the drummer from the rock band Guns N’ Roses. She is known for designing costumes for several famous musicians, including Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and most famously, David Bowie. It has been rumored that when she worked with Bowie in the mid 1970s the relationship started out professional, but later turned romantic.
Her design company was named Ola Hudson Enterprises, Inc. She designed special collections for Arpeja, Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and Maxfield Blu out of Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Some of the items she designed for Bowie are included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Hudson passed away in 2009 of cancer at age sixty-three.

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