To truly be a “haute couturier” one must contend with a strict set of rules, guidelines and restrictions. Claire B. Schaffer, the home sewists couture guru, states in the revised and updated edition of her work Couture Sewing Techniques, that the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture (or Parisian High Fashion Syndicate) tightly controls the use of the phrase “haute couture” and has ruthlessly enforced, federally regulated rules. Rules. Federal rules. For the makers of fabric works of art. Clearly, this is very serious business.
Despite all of this, despite the rules, despite the exclusivity there were some who were talented enough, savvy enough and tenacious enough to break through those barriers. One of them was named Jay Jaxon.
Mr. Jaxon was the very first Black haute couturier. He designed his first collection under the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer in the 1970s. Though this accomplishment was significant enough to earn him a congratulatory telephone call from the First Lady of the United States, “Lady Bird” Johnson, it is not celebrated, or even mentioned, during contemporary discussions of the evolution of haute couture. There is no mention of him in the prestigious Berg Fashion Library database. He is not mentioned alongside others who shattered barriers and blazed trails.
I only discovered him while browsing Michael McCollom’s The Way We Wore, a coffee table book about Black style. There he was, smiling in a grainy black and white shot taken in Paris. I was able to learn more about him from an article published in The Pittsburgh Press in January 1970. It would seem that Mr. Jaxon was not only the first African American haute courtier, he was the first American designer of any color to have the honor of working in a couture house.
An accidental fashion designer, Jaxon was well on his way to a career in law when a seamstress girlfriend, who was struggling with her dress, unwittingly led him to his calling. From cutting that first dress for her, then a pair of pants (pants!!) for himself he decided law wasn’t for him. He dropped out of school and worked as bank teller to earn the money for design school. His early work was sold in luxury New York City clothing stores like Bendel’s and Bonwit Teller. Once in Paris, he trained under Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior in addition to Jean-Louis Scherrer.
In fact, according to Yvette de la Fontaine’s article, Jaxon, at only 24 years of age, was brought on to save the failing Scherrer house. Though much has been recorded about the Parisians eventual loss of his company, there is no mention of Jaxon and his attempt to prevent it from happening. He is not mentioned in connection with Dior or St. Laurent, either.
Although the French celebrated his arrival in Paris as the first black couturier, the emphasis on his race troubling to Jaxon, he has been virtually erased from their history. His New York Times obituary in 2006 details his work on films as recent as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but his IMDB.com listing only features him as costume designer for one film.
Has this absence of information the result of deliberate omission? Accidental oversights?