Rich History: Stephen Burrows

A curator’s job must be so difficult. Deciding which bits of a vast history, body of work or era to include sounds immensely challenging. Perhaps that is what makes it all the more impressive, and rewarding, when the job is done well. When I planned my visit to the Stephen Burrows exhibit on display at the Museum of the City of New York, I expected to see beautiful clothes arranged in an artful setting. But, both Mr. Burrows work and the museum met, and far exceeded, that expectation!

The very first thing you see when you enter the space that houses this collection is a massive photo of Grace Jones, outfitted in Burrows’ clothes.

This image immediately sets the tone for the liveliness, beauty and attitude of the entire exhibit. Burrows’ work is an explosion of color, pattern, texture and, most of all, movement. Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced, is appropriately named.

The designer’s evolution is clear and the way the exhibit has been arranged encourages you to view the pieces in the order of that evolution. Positioned just after Ms. Jones are several sketches. An introduction of sorts.

Leather, fringe, fur, glamour give way to jersey, silk chiffon, sequins, glamour. Even a coat made of wool felt drapes in such a way as to appear weightless. I was also struck by how body conscious and sleek many of the pieces were while still remaining fun and elegant. Quite the accomplishment.

Taking it all in as one evokes a feeling that Iman succinctly sums up:

Continue reading

Advertisements

Rich History: Patrick Kelly

Designers of Color in Fashion History :: Patrick Kelly

I was astonished to learn that Jay Jaxon was the first American (and by default, African American) haute couturier. He is not widely known, so it stands to reason that this extraordinary fact about him must be little known, too.
I found myself surprised, again, when reading up on Patrick Kelly. In the late 80’s Kelly was the first American and person of color to become a member of the exclusive Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter. Though Kelly enjoyed a degree of success and recognition during his lifetime, that has endured after his passing, I imagine that this honor felt like a huge validation of his talent and vision as a designer.
After all, the world he would eventually inhabit was light years away from his humble, but proud, beginnings. In his working class Mississippi home, Kelly was surrounded by female family members with a flair for making-do and mending. He was introduced to embellishing, reworking and otherwise refashioning from a very early age. It was here that his social consciousness was raised, too. According to reports, Kelly noticed the lack of African American women featured in magazines. His grandmother explained that designers did not think of them when making clothes. This, perhaps, provides some reasoning for the imagery he used in his work. Golliwogs previously had no place in haute couture.

robin-givhan-patrick-kelly

Kelly began what would become his life’s work, to clothe ALL women, by starting with his junior high classmates whom he designed and sewed dresses for. Later, Kelly attended Jackson State University where he studied art history and African American history. Eventually driven out by the prejudice and racism he experienced, he left his hometown to pursue a career in fashion.
On his own and living in Atlanta, he began to make clothes again. This time, to sell. His work sorting donations at AMVETS (an American veterans’ organization, there) gave him access to a wealth of designer clothing. He refashioned the garments and sold them alongside his original designs. This allowed him to work as a window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Boutique for free. The position gave him a crucial in with the fashion industry elite. His volunteerism paid off. Kelly began to draw a salary at the St Laurent boutique and eventually opened his own selling vintage. In addition to this, he taught classes at a modeling school where Pat Cleveland, a notable person of color in fashion’s history in her own right, encouraged him to go to New York.
Taking the advice to heart, Kelly studied design at Parsons in New York City before landing in Paris where he really began to make his mark. Calling on his combined influences: skills he learned at the feet of his family, showmanship developed while in school, technical skills honed at Parsons and the hustle he displayed when volunteering at the St Laurent boutique, Patrick sold his designs on the streets of Paris. To much acclaim.
This is not an easy thing to do. According to Christian Lacroix, “The French function according to love at first sight. If they fall in love with you, they accept you. And Patrick is very lovable. Everybody loves him.” It’s as simple as that. Or is it? Patrick was driven. He took risks. He worked hard. His success did not come from nowhere.

0000227488-001

Kelly went on to produce unique collections, presented in electrifying (for their time) shows. He remained true to his mission by designing with all women in mind and kept an ear to the street so that his work was reflective of what was in Parisian style. He believed in making affordable clothing, the kind of luxury that women like his mother, aunt and grandmother could have worn in their time. He achieved a level of success that those women, his “full-figured girls”, did not think possible. He had clothes in the finest boutiques, magazine spreads in Elle and so many orders and freelance jobs that he hadn’t vacationed in years. His creations were worn by princesses (like Diana) actresses (like Jane Seymour) and the singers (like Madonna and Grace Jones). It was the all singing, all dancing Patrick Kelly show.

Patrick-Kelly_-Iman_-Grace-jones-Naomi-Campbell

But that show would not go on. Kelly’s full and fabulous life was cut short at age 35(ish- he was secretive about his actual year of birth). Though the original cause of death was attributed to bone marrow disease and a brain tumor, it was later confirmed that Kelly was HIV positive and his death was AIDS related. Unlike the houses of other famous designers, Kelly’s folded after his death. One can’t help but wonder what led to this. Kelly had a seemingly vast (and influential) circle of friends. Did legal issues play into the demise of his house? Was there a clash of interests that led its standstill? Are there other, notable designers of color whose work died with them?
This article originally appeared at Handmaker’s Factory.
There’s a lot more information available about Patrick Kelly than there was about Jay Jaxon. Spend a little time getting to know more about him and he’ll start feeling like a long lost friend!

Rich History: Jay Jaxon

The words Haute Couture conjure up images of exclusivity, workmanship, wealth. It’s Paris. It’s Worth. It is a world inhabited by the few and coveted by the many. Both couturier and staff are masters with cloth, magicians of fit, maximizers of the feminine form. This elite group must work hard to earn and maintain their status, whilst satisfying the toniest of clientele. 

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.

Photo of Jay Jaxon from The Way We Wore by Michael McCollom

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.

Sketches

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.

viva_feb1975_albertorizzo_72 (1)

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?

Where is Jay Jaxon in fashion’s history?
And how many more like him have been left out?

Rich History: Vintage Black Imagery

I have been so inspired by vintage fashion and imagery, lately. More than I ever thought I would be. Between my recent pattern haul, and my near addiction to vintage fashion blogs, I feel like vintage is all around me. But, like anything that one becomes interest in, you start to notice trends and patterns in what you’re absorbing. I had become increasingly aware of the dearth of black & vintage imagery in my diet. I knew that the material was out there. I had come across this flickr account, the Of Another Fashion movement and some fantastic stuff while browsing Pinterest.

But, shouldn’t there be more? Blacks were around for the entirety of US history. Where were the images that represent that reality? I’ve seen Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker dressed to the nines in any number of publicity stills. But where are the images of the average, stylish black people over the years? Where are we dressed in the styles we see in vintage pattern images? Well, I’ve been lucky enough to find more sources, lately. I’d to find even more.

In the meantime, here are some of my current favorites!

Beach_Besties

“Beach Besties”, 1947 [The Beach House Album, 1946-49] ©WaheedPhotoArchive, 2011

Portrait of An African American Girl Taken Between 1870 and 1900

Portrait of An African American Girl Taken Between 1870 and 1900 -Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Chicago

Group of ladies at the Midwest Horse Show, c.1938, Chicago. This event was the pinnacle of the African American social scene in Chicago.

It makes me SO happy to see people who look like me wearing the styles that I have come to enjoy!! You can visit Pinterest to discover many more.

Library Happenings: Archivist for a Day

BHS :: Richetta Randolph Wallace Papers

Earlier in the term, I had an assignment that took me to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The archivist there was nice enough to answer my questions (with no prior notice) and chat with me about my career goals. When it was time for me to go, I thanked him and spent the train ride to Brooklyn thinking about how nice that face-to-face interaction was after nearly two years in an online school.

When a second assignment was set to take me away from my computer and out into the world, I hoped to go back to the Schomburg Center. Alas, that didn’t work out and I had to scramble for another location that would have me on relatively short notice.

Enter the Brooklyn Historical Society

BHS is housed in perhaps the most beautiful building ever to start as a place to hang out and talk history. I mean, the people who created this place didn’t just throw up a structure and fill it with books. This building is a work of art with a rich history. The wordwork alone would make you drool.
Brooklyn Historic Society Othmer Library

Brooklyn Historic Society Othmer Library

After recovering my composure at its beauty I was immediately overwhelmed by the incredible staff. I don’t know if archivists are just naturally generous and lovely, but I was half in love with them by the time I left. My first day there, literally, changed the course of my career goals. As I lamented the lack of personal interaction (and therefore connections) that you deal with when attending an online school, Julie popped open a browser and gave me a crash course on NYC archivist associations, listserv and message boards chock full of job, grant and volunteer opportunities. Priceless. Seriously. Along with that info she imparted knowledge about work history and how joining and then networking at these professional orgs can lead to so much. When Liz, who actually cleared my observation hours at BHS, arrived she shared a cover letter site that has already been invaluable.

On day two, I was lucky enough to spend time with the director of the library who was the very definition of generosity with his efforts to make sure that I got a true taste of what it’s like to work in a library archive setting. Along with shadowing him as he assisted patrons and arranging a visit with the page to their storage area, he set me to task with a group of documents that I have not been able to forget since.

They were the papers of this woman

Richetta_Randolph_Wallace.jpg

Ms. Richetta Randolph Wallace

“Ms. Randolph was private secretary to the social activist Mary White Ovington in the first decade of the twentieth century, leading to a position as the first member of the administrative staff for the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ms. Randolph later became the NAACP’s office manager and was private secretary to NAACP officers James Weldon Johnson and Walter White, among other important positions until her retirement in 1946.”-BHS Blog

To read about her request for a raise and the praise for her work and how her retirement was stalled when the NAACP declared that they couldn’t go on without her was fascinating. Issues of equal/fair pay, the important part that women play in the workplace and more are still relevant now.

BHS :: Richetta Randolph Wallace Papers

BHS :: Richetta Randolph Wallace Papers

I mean, when this woman wrote to congratulate the mayor on his win he wrote her back! Promptly! The entire experience was amazing. Reading letters written in the 1800s and holding a bride’s wedding invite from 1894 were really moving experiences. There are more photos in this set.

This experience, thanks to Julie’s guidance, led me to my new job, as the Social Media Manager for Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York! So far, I am enjoying the additional responsibility. I can’t wait to really get started.