1953: Black beauty pioneer Grace del Marco graces the cover of Color Magazine.
For the past six years, a highlight of New York's Fashion Week has been the always memorable production of young Brandice Henderson. This year, the outfit she started, Harlem’s Fashion Row, held its annual 2013 Fall-Winter showing at the venerable and historic Apollo Theater. One can't get any more down with Harlem heritage than that. Nor can there be any more commendable cause than the one undertaken by Miss Henderson, of connecting emerging designers of color, who have shown promise, with real-world, paying retailers. She uses a flair for promotion to, as it were, bring the mountain, the mountain that is capital, to a carefully selected cadre of creative prophets. Using her bravura presentation, she shines a helpful spotlight on nascent talents, only lacking sufficient investment for certain resounding success.
Passing the baton: illustrious high fashion guru and former model Bethann Hardison chats with Brandice Henderson.
Helping young people to help themselves to begin to appreciate and realize their full potential, that of course is something that's all important. But the tremendous pleasure the show provides for me and others, is derived from something even more fundamental.
The venerable and historic Apollo Theater, site of the annual 2013 Fall-Winter showing of Harlem’s Fashion Row.
Certainly, a part of the Harlem’s Fashion Row show's appeal is, that it's such amazing fun. Beginning with the audience, there is always such a diverse and interesting crowd. The young and old, black and white, rich and not, it isn't really necessarily helpful to enumerate and fully categorize the variety it represents. Suffice it to say, that the variation one encounters, from house-hold-name-style-celebrities, to youth, with more creativity than cash, and more vitality and charm, than discretion, can be exhilarating!
HealthyYouNow.com founder and Editor-in-Chief, novelist, wife and mom; Ms. Tonya Lewis Lee.
Spencer Means , 'realtor to the stars', with Ms. Lewis Lee.
What is the additional element causing much frisson? It is history. How is it possible, that in a nation where virtually every African American living, is descended from slaves, that we have come so far! Facing every possible type of obstical and impediment, as Dr. Maya Angelou has said, "and, still we rise!" A century ago the very notion of blacks seeking an education and of fostering self-respect, to say nothing of aspiring to be fashionable or elegant, was a cause for derision and indeed, potential abuse. Serious journals and newspapers, to say nothing of humor magazines, were filled with jokes and cartoons pointing out the absurdity of such pretensions. Oddly enough, in a nation where the majority of African Americans were poor, uneducated and could not vote, a country quick to ridicule an 'uppity Negro' concerned with presenting an exceptionally admirable appearance, there had already been blacks who had helped to set the style for blacks and whites alike.
In the past, even a short century ago, the idea of African Americans and fashion was widely veiwed as a mutually exclusive joke.
Mental health advocate, the irrepressible Ms. Terrie M. Williams. Founder and president of the notable Terrie Williams Agency public relations firm she is also the author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting.
The swagger of scarves!
Stylist extraordinaire! Tyron Tyyahent Jones.
Dapper Afrika, the talented triple threat image maker.
Inimatable fashion designer, Malcolm Harris, the artist's designer.
At the right, Ms. Marilu Menendez.
It won't be long before the show starts now...MHA.
Brandice Henderson's proud parents, as usual, traveled all the way from Nashville to see her show.
Even an abbreviated select outline of the historical contribution of African Americans to fashion, is stranger and more compelling than the tallest made-up tale could be. The heros of this saga really are heroic in the all-American way they so deftly produced something marvelous, from nothing. How surreal that even as blacks were so actively being oppressed, a former slave was creating fashion in the White House. No doubt for some, this suggested that things weren't as bad for 'Negros' as many claimed?
Dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley was a remarkable African-American woman who played a key role in influencing Honest Abe Lincoln's evolving views on emancipation. Moreover, she both bought her way out of slavery and fought to improve the lot of her people. She was born in 1818 to a slave named Agnes. Both were owned by Virginians, Armistead and Mary Burwell. Both worked as house slaves to the Burwell children. Only with her mother on her deathbed did Elizabeth learn that their master, Armistead Burwell, was her father.
Circa 1860: Elizabeth Keckley.
Repeatedly beaten for obstinence, Elizabeth wrote later, she resolved never to cry. She kept her word even when raped in 1839. She named her son George. Employing dressmaking skills she'd learned as a child, able to earn small sums from outside clients, Elizabeth not only helped to support the family who owned her, but also managed to slowly save the $1,200. required to buy freedom for herself and her son in 1852. Her short term marriage to James Keckley only brought unhappiness. Moving to our nation's capital at Washington, D.C., because of her great talent, she rappidly became the most favored dressmaker in town, with prominent white patrons like Mrs. Robert E. Lee and Mrs. Jefferson Davis. One client introduced Elizabeth Keckley to the new first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. A testament to the ex-slaves accumen and brilliance, is that ultimately becoming the exclusive dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln, she managed to make-over and greatly enhance a difficult subject. President Lincoln seeing his wife in her first Keckley-made gown, remarked: “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.”
Circa 1863: Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.
And, so she had, becoming not only dressmaker, but otherwise indispensable, Serving as a baby sitter for the First Family's boys, she also nursed their mother when the first lady suffered chronic headaches. A valued friend and confidant, she was, it was said: “the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln.”
Following her husband's brutal death the first person Mary Todd Lincoln called for was Elizabeth Keckley, who she latter presented with her own bloodstained cloak and bonnet. But the vast divide of race is so vast and deep that, as often happens, their friendship ended.
Still hard at work at 74, Age-74, she moved to Ohio to become head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. She organized an exhibition featuring clothing for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Such are the sad twist of fate, that returned to Washington in retirement, alone and destitute there, she died in 1907 at 89. To the very last in her meager room, Elizabeth Keckley had kept a picture of Mary Lincoln.
Circa 1915: Madame C. J. Walker.
Circa 1912: A'Lelia Walker.
"Madam C. J. Walker, my, my, she was an extraordinary person! She taught us how to be beautiful!"
So said one of the renown black beauty business entrepreneur's elderly agents in Stanley Nelson's captivating documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream, that chronicles her life. Born to former slaves shortly after the end of the Civil War, Madame Walker is believed to be the first African American woman self-made millionaire. Through the manufacture and sale of hair care and beauty products, made expressly for blacks, through great thrift, causing her to demand a refund on determining she was being overcharged, by half of a penny, for each box of the thousands of boxes of hairpins she ordered each year, she grew rich. Her wealth was beyond the imagination of most blacks. Her Harlem townhouse, that occupied two remolded brownstones above her beauty parlor, spa and school, as well as her ambitious mansion, on a compact estate overlooking the Hudson, were designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York State's first registered African American architect. Both were derived directly from contemporary residences built for rich whites.
Madame C. J. Walker's business acumen was prodigious. Living large, projecting as fabulous an image and aura as she could afford, she appreciated, was a shrewd advertising strategy. Her distinguished 108-110 West 136th Street beauty salon-residence was designed by black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
By combining her home and business in two converted brownstone houses, made into a single building, Madame C. J. Walker's architect maximized the grandeur of both. Once A'Lelia Walker moved to a one-bedroom apartment at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, she transformed her mother's grand abode into a deluxe catering hall, the storied Dark Tower, where the best parties were always the ones she gave.
The Recption Room of the Walker Beauty Parlor, College and Spa.
Two photographs staged to show styling, care and wig making techniques in the Walker's Lelia Beauty College manuel.
In reality, the Walker's clients were groomed and styled in private, curtained booths. While awaiting an appointment, one could take tea or play a hand of cards.
A'Lelia Walker's Bedroom at 110 West 136th Street.
Constructed just after the townhouse, between 1916 and 1918, Madame Walker's country retreat cost an estimated $250,000, a vast fortune at a time when the average wage for a black New Yorker was only $800 yearly. The name Villa Lewaro was coined by a visitor and friend, Enrico Caruso. It was derived from the first two letters of each word in Lelia Walker Robinson's name. The subject of a much anticipated new book by her great-granddaughter and namesake A'Lelia Bundles, Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.©, A'Lelia Walker was Madame Walker's only child. Once her mother died in 1919, A'Lelia Walker, who recalled the hardship of her early life, but much like white heiresses married and divorced three husbands, gained a reputation as one of Harlem's foremost party givers. After inheriting her mothers famed estate, A'Lelia Walker lived and entertained here periodically, until just age 46, she, too, died, in 1931.
Villa Lewaro, the Irvington, New York country house of Madam C. J. Walker from 1918 to 1919. The elegant house that black beauty built.
1918: The vaulted Dining Room.
1920: The Music Room.
A’Lelia Walker’s ultimate gala social event set at the Vila Lewaro, a great day for fashion, occurred in November of 1923. It was a reception celebrating the Harlem wedding of her adopted debutante daughter, Mae Walker, to Dr. Gordon H. Jackson, the grandson of a Cincinnati coal dealer, who had been one of the 19th century’s wealthiest black businessmen. The festivities comprising a week of parties and ceremony, are said to have cost $42,000. America, especially black America, had never seen anything to match such splendor. As race-proud and astute to promotion opportunities as her mother, A’Lelia Walker, even in the midst of her second divorce, had it announced in the press that "every item of the brides trousseau was made and supplied by colored-owned concerns."
1923: Dr. and Mrs. Gordon H. Jackson.
Mae Walker's wedding attendants wore bandeau of braided silver tissue. They were made by Mildred Blount to relate to the bride's pearl diadem. This diapered head-dress, it was said, was based on newly-discovered Egyptian examples from King Tut's tomb.
Nine thousand invitations were issued, and the "Million Dollar Wedding", set to take place at venerable St. Philip's Episcopal Church, was on. So what if the bride-to-be was made to forsake a beau she loved, that also like Consuelo Vanderbilt, who 20 years before had been coerced by her mother to marry the ninth Duke of Marlborough, Mae actually disliked her bridegroom. To all but a privileged few, this news was unknown, and inconceivable. To a mighty throng of thousands grouped outside the church in the cold, delighting to see "us" do something as spectacular and correctly as any white person, it counted as a great day for collective pride.
The bridesmaids wore retro, but extremely chic, full skirted robe de style, supported on panniers of the sort worn in the 18th-century. The robe de style was a signature design of Parisian couturier Jeanne Lanvin, but these had been supplied by a black seamstress. So had the twisted silver tissue coronets Mae Walker's attendants wore. Remarkably, they had been entrusted to an unusual 17-year-old named Mildred Eliza Blount, and presaged her career of tremendous success.
For much of the 20th-century the name most closely associated with high-end ladies' hats, was John P. John's, a man who gained ever greater fame as 'Mr. John'. He was Hollywood's hat-maker to the world's elite. But he had been born plain John Pico Harberger, in Munich, in 1902. He studied medicine at the University of Lucerne, art at the Sorbonne, and immigrated to the United States in 1919. He apprenticed to his mother, Madame Laurel, as a dressmaker, before forming a partnership with Frederick Hirst in 1929. Their New York millinery firm, which by the late 1930's had a Hollywood branch, was known as John-Frederics.
The little known story of Mildred Blount's rise to acclaim is a trajectory quite familiar to many African Americans, and to many others too, who have both talent and ambition without prominence. As an, at first, unknown worker, Blount's brilliant efforts brought her white employer riches and renown. A native of Edten, North Carolina, where she was born in 1907, with her parentss' death, Mildred Blount had moved in with family members. Attending New York public schools she'd dreamed of becoming an interpretive and ballet dancer, as well as a costume designer. Pursuing all these goals Mildred attended Hunter College and Cooper Union. Completing school she embarked in business with her sister, who designed dresses. Overwhelmed and overtaxed by the pressure of coming up with new designs, season after season, for all kinds of female attire, to say nothing of keeping up with orders, she did feel that she had enough energy to make hats. This was how she happened to work, from the time of its inception, for the John-Frederics' firm. Serving ten years at the Manhattan salon, in 1939 she was assigned to open their Los Angeles branch.
And, this is where things get tricky. Growing more and more successful and famous after Mildred went out on her own in 1943, Mr. John dissolved his partnership and also went solo. This begs the question, how much had he really relied on her? The John-Frederics firm's millinery for Vivien Leigh and other actresses in Gone With The Wind, was associated with, and attributed to, Mildred Blount throughout her lifetime in numerous journals and in newspaper accounts
Certainly it's known that Mildred made hats for stars as varied as Mary Pickford, Ginger Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Margaret Sullivan and scores of other movie luminaries. Mildred Blount went on to conceive the bridal veil worn by 17-year-old Miss Gloria Vanderbilt, her mother and attendants, at the first of Vanderbilt's four weddings, in 1943. In demand among affluent whites, Mildred never neglected their African American counterparts. By the time she died, around 1974, black women were the only ones left in America who troubled to wear hats. Admired as much for her perseverance and kindness, as for her outstanding craftsmanship, Mildred Blount was that exceptional being capable of surmounting the handicap of race and color. Equipped through knowledge, derived from continual study, she consistently turned out the most artistic creations obtainable from anyone, irrespective of gender, irrespective of race.
An associate of Mildred Blount's, Bernice L'Tanya Griffin was perhaps the first African American artist known by a single name. Another East-coast transplant to Los Angeles, throughout her professional life she continually cross-crossed the country to show and sell her designs at charity fashion shows. Besides being a gifted designer L'Tanya was also extremely beautiful. A young mother with two sons, who left her husband, she was delighted to meet tall, ginger-haired sportsman, club manager and photographer John Earl Griffin in the ealy 1940's. He 'married' her and 'adopted' her sons. L'Tanya's beauty and brilliance were hardly the stuff that it's easy for the average man, who is far less successful, to handle. Only recently returned from a yeas study in Paris on a Julian Rosenwald fellowship, the 28-year-old had wanted to return. It was 1948.
Her 34-year-old 'husband' did not like the idea one bit, His 'wife' leaving their home an on Valentine Street in Yonkers, to go to the races in Atlantic City one day, was the final straw., L'Tanya was accompanied by a friend of her husband's, Marshall Miles, quiet and diminutive, a gentleman who was the former manager of Joe Louis. Griffin's jealousy was out of control, But his dastardly attempt to stop L'Tanya, which sent him speeding to confront her on the track, backfired.
L'Tanya then was nationally famous as a Hollywood designer whose creations had been purchased by movie stars like Joan Crawford, and Dorthy Dandrige, Guild Studios in Hollywood and many bandleaders' wives, including Marie Ellington who was Mrs. Nat King Cole. Driving "Like Hell" armed, police latter said, with a beer can of lye and a loaded .25 caliber pistol, Griffin calmly strolled to the paddock. He had asked to speak to his wife and Miles alone and they stepped aside. Without warning, Griffin threw the lye, his wife and Miles told police, aiming at their faces. Agile and alert, Miles saved the day. His highly developed reflexes, from years with Joe Louis, caused him to throw up his arm, knocking the burning contents towards Griffin, hitting him in the eyes. "I'm blind. I can't see," he shrieked. And it was true, Griffin never did regain the use of one eye.
Beautiful in a pink shantung sun dress she'd made, though screaming in anguish L'Tanya suffered only superficial burns. Her soon to be 'ex-husband' had only induced her to sell her fashion salon in Los Angeles the year before. She'd thought moving to New York would save their relationship. To friends she confided, she was 'filing for divorce' and returning abroad.
But 'love' too can be blind. Somehow, even after this, after Griffin had called out, "Speak to me, I can't see..." only to know in which direction to aim as he'd drawn his gun, he and L'Tanya were reconciled. Since they'd never bothered to marry before, because L'Tanya's real husband, would divorced her and went to court to gain custody of their two sons, L'Tanya and Earl did marry, and even adopted a four-year-old daughter. Because they were doomed, they split. Mr. Griffin remarried. After he was arrested for theft in the 960's, an investigation was started, examining the mysterious circumstances of his new young wife's recent death and quick cremation.
The far-reaching publicity L'Tanya received in the 1940's and 50's, make her total obscurity today, all the more troubling. Before 2005, to my peril, I had certainly never heard of her. Conducting research for the Museum of the City of New York's groundbreaking exhibition, Black Style Now. an exploration of how popular black culture and hip hop had driven fashion, which I co-curated with respected designer Michael McCollom, I first encountered this name. The Time-Life photograph of Dorthy Dandrige below, actually identified the dress as by L'Tanya, but she was utterly unknown by me and nowhere to be found on-line. Moreover, I had seen an image from Jet, where Dandrige is being fitted for a similar gown, by Zelda Wynn Valdez. Adding two and two, I got ten. I was wrong, and I apologize.
Dandrige, wearing L'Tanya!
She attended Wiley College, majoring in biology. After her mother's death, her wealthy uncle, a doctor who performed abortions, invited her to move into his house in Los Angeles and she transferred to the UCLA, earning a master's degree in education. After enrolling in the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School, she quickly found work modeling for black magazines. She also found an older man, a prosperous dentist. He had married her and now she yearned to escape.
1949: Dorothea and her concert pianist sister, Lois Towles, find their way around Paris.
Although Pierre Balmain and Schiaparelli followed in employing her and she enjoyed a carefree sojourn, taking lovers as freely as a man might, she said, in 1954 Dorothea came home. Based in New York she began a tour of black colleges, showcasing her couture collection. Her AKA benefit fashion shows gave fellow Kappa, Eunice Johnson, the idea for the Ebony Fashion Fair.
Signed as a model with the Grace del Marco's agency she met Thomas Church, an immigration lawyer related to the Washington D. C. Church family. They married in 1963 and had one son. No one was more fun or stylish than Mrs. Church.
1950: My friend, wonderful Willard Winter, who in the late 1930's came from Boston to New York to design the most smashing hats.
Circa 1948: Gerrie Major in a willard origional.
The 1950's and 60's, that was the heyday of a largely forgotten, sadly unheralded African American designer who lived in New York, named Zelda Wynn Valdez, (June 28, 1905 - September 26, 2001). How I regret failing to have never said much more than 'how are you today?', upon meeting the kindly little old lady who made and mended costume at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. My then-boyfriend danced there in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Pleasant, but quietly retiring and discrete 'Miss Wynn', was beloved by the entire company. We none of us knew that she had once made slinky silk dresses for the likes of Dorthy Dandrige.
She seemed exactly like my grandmother or my great aunt Cora. Of course she sewed and made clothes, but so had they, so did most black grandmothers I knew. Was that something special? I certainly had no reason to think so. An utter fool, in my shameful ignorance, I didn't learn how extraordinary she was until I helped mount the exhibition Black Style Now, at the Museum of the City of New York, in 2004. I've already related how through a combination of arrogance and ignorace, I willfully missatributed a gown by L'Tanya, to Miss Wynn.
Miss Wynn had died two years earlier. A native of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Zelda Wynn learned needlework and sewing as a school girl. "I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful," she told a Jet Magazine reporter, late in her life and she was right!
Some of her other celebrated clients besides Dorothy Dandridge were Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Jessye Norman and Gladys Knight. 'Ice-blue', the wedding dress she made when Nat King Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington on Easter Sunday, at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., officiating was exquisite. It cost $700, as much a car! That same year, in 1948, Miss Wynn opened her own shop on Broadway at 158th Street.
It was a present from the bride's aunt, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who in 1902 had started North Carolina’s Palmer Memorial Institute, an elite African American preparatory school. 'Ice-blue', was the name of the $700, Zelda Wynn Valdez original wedding dress. The year was 1948 when Nat King Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington. The rites were performed with magnificence on Easter Sunday, at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Powell, who represented Harlem in congress, was accompanied by his wife, the great jazz-singer Hazel Scott.
Ah, think of it: Sacrifice illustrative of the continuity and commitment to excellence developed among many African American artists. Zelda Wynn Valdes, who gave the world the Playboy bunny costume, died at the age of 96 in 2001.
A consummate scholar of historic costume, it is hardly an accident how evocative the evening dresses by designer B. Michael, is of frocks made by the greats 60 years ago.
Style: By the mile!
Stefan Young, a dancer, who evolved into a hat maker and dress designer, a man who came to have but one name, who married and adopted a daughter, but was as gay as they come, what does one make of the enigma that was STEFAN!
His mother, who was only 49 when she died in 1950, lived at 729 Amsterdam Avenue. Her name was Rita Valdez.
He collected antiques and loved to design well-tailored suits.
1954: Two sleek suits by Stefan for Briarbrook, featured in the Chicago Defender
Married by 1912, at age 14, she had the gumption to enhance her sewing skills by enrolling in a a New York school for design. Classmates ostracized her, yet, she graduated in 1917. By 1928, Ann Lowe worked on commission for fashionable boutiques and she even designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in To Each His Own.
Even losing an eye to glaucoma Lowe continued. Finally, and briefly, she operated her own spot, Madison Avenue's, Ann Lowe Originals. Fortunately, the quality of Ann Lowe's work has gained her a place in the collections of all three of New York's best costume and fashion museum collections.
1953: Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Arthur Smith, universally known as “Art”, died in 1982. Artistically gifted as a child, he received a scholarship to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. After graduating in 1940, he enrolled in a jewelry-making class at NYU and had opened his own shop in Greenwich Village by 1946. The organic, but modernistic refinement of his work ultimately gained Smith recognition in prestigious journals such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazzar. Establishing a relationships with Bloomingdale’s, he marketed his beautifully crafted output to high-end patrons, including Duke Ellington, for whom he fashioned a pair of cufflinks forming notes of the maestro's “Mood Indigo.”
A thread that links each of the artists pictured and too briefly discussed above, is the paucity of material that one may explore seeking them out on the world wide web. Why is this so? Will a better, kinder, gentler and more fullfilling fate await the young designers endorsed by Harlem's Fashion Row?
Designers featured this year included Chantell Walters, Deidre Jefferies of the Espion line, Evelyn Lambert, Shauntele, Kimberly Goldson, Sandro Romans, and Kahindo Mateene, whose line is called Modahnik.