Influential Black people in the fashion industry you should know

Illustration is by Shelly Dean

When you think of people of color in the fashion industry, who are the first ones to come to mind? Tyra Banks? Naomi Campell? Iman? Throughout history, the Black community has contributed a lot to the fashion industry. And yet, it seems like there is only a select few that have made it to the attention of the general public. 

Don’t get me wrong, Tyra Banks broke barriers as the first African-American woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And Naomi Campell is a queen as one of the first Black supermodels in fashion. But there are so many other people in the Black community that deserve recognition for their contribution to fashion, as well. In effort to shine the spotlight on these well-deserving influential figures, A Mag has come up with a list of important Black people in the fashion industry that we should all know.

Andre Leon Talley

You may already be familiar with Andre Leon Talley, and if you aren’t then you need to be. Personally, I was first introduced to him as one of the judges on season 14 of America’s Next Top Model, but I had no idea just how influential he is in the fashion world. He is best known for his position as editor-at-large for Vogue US. However he has had numerous other accomplishments and has certainly paved a way for future African-Americans trying to make their way into the fashion industry. He has been a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily, an art director at Vogue, fashion editor at Ebony Magazine and editor at the Russian edition of Numéro magazine. 

He has made waves within the industry challenging the notion of race with his 1996 editorial spread in Vanity Fair. The spread was inspired by Gone With the Wind, but instead had Naomi Campell as Scarlett O’Hara and John Galliano and Manolo Blahnik as her servants. Talley has left quite the fashion legacy and will forever be one of the most iconic people in the industry. (If you’re interested in learning more about Talley then check out his documentary, The Gospel According to Andre Leon Talley, on Hulu).

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe is one of the most influential African-Americans in the industry. As the first recognized African-American fashion designer, she literally created a whole path for every Black designer that came after her. Being born in the Jim Crow era, it’s no surprise that Lowe was hardly ever credited for her work and not nearly given as much recognition as she deserved. Her name initially started to catch attention when she created four ball gowns for The First Lady of Alabama, Lizzie Kirkland O’Neal. After attending design school to perfect her craft, she opened up a salon in Tampa where she only designed for wealthy white women. 

Years later she moved to New York City where she had the opportunity to attend Paris Fashion Week in 1947, have her dress featured in Vogue magazine and open a boutique on Madison Avenue which made her the first Black fashion designer to have her own shop on that particular strip. But one of her biggest accomplishments was designing the wedding dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married John F. Kennedy. Ann Lowe is a name everyone in the fashion industry should know, because she made history. Even through all the racial injustice that she had to live through, she showed that perseverance, passion and talent will always shine through. 

Beverly Johnson

Supermodel, Beverly Johnson, was the first Black model to ever make the cover of Vogue magazine in 1974. Her position in that moment in history led to doors of opportunity being opened for other aspiring models of color and that provided hope of more diversity being featured in national publications. Her barrier breaking didn’t just stop at Vogue. The following year she went on to be the first Black woman on the cover of the French edition of Elle magazine. 

Johnson has since used her platform to spread awareness on the racial imbalance within the fashion industry. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, she spoke out about how her debut on the cover of Vogue has barely done anything to address racism that is still happening in the industry. 

“My race limited me to significantly lower compensation than my white peers,” she said. “The industry was slow to include other Black people in other aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. I was reprimanded for requesting Black photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists for photo shoots.”

Johnson has certainly made waves in the industry and is someone we should all be familiar with. But she is also a testament to the fact that we still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity in fashion.  

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Love it or not, the iconic Playboy Bunny outfit has secured a place in fashion and culture as a statement of seduction and self-expression. Personally, I love the Playboy Bunny and I’m sure I’m not alone. Well, we have Zelda Wynn Valdes to thank for that. Valdes’ style was all about extenuating a woman’s curves and adding seduction and sensuality to fashion. Some of her most well known dresses were typically low cut and form fitting. 

Valdes was a woman ahead of her time as she was an advocate for body positivity before the campaign was even a thing. She wanted women of all sizes to feel confident, comfortable and good about themselves. This notion about her made her one of the most sought after dress designers in her time. Her work eventually led her to a career in costume design where she caught the attention of Hugh Hefner, editor-in-chief of Playboy Magazine. She of course was the original designer of the infamous Playboy Bunny costume, but she also created garments for ballet companies and actresses as well. Her legacy has managed to leave a path for future African-American designers to follow in her footsteps and help redefine the endless contributions one can offer in the world of fashion.

Edward Enninful 

The Ghananian-born fashion creative has already accomplished a lot within his lifetime. At a young age his family moved to London, where he immersed himself in fashion, art and culture. At the age of 18 he became the fashion director at i-D magazine, making him the youngest to ever serve as a fashion director at an international publication. That only served as the beginning of his fashion journey. He later became the Creative Fashion Editor at W Magazine. His creativity and knack for bringing cultural relevance into fashion helped bring growth to W Magazine and it’s readers.

He has contributed to Vogue US and was a contributing editor for Vogue Italia. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of British Vogue, making him the first and only Black Editor-in-Chief of any of the Vogue publications. Enninful has stayed true to his values of inclusion and empowerment by consistently featuring influential women including Oprah, Adwoa Aboah and Naomi Campell. Enninful is, no question, one of the most powerful men in the fashion industry, and it’s exciting to see him use his platform to cross those barriers and spread awareness on social issues in the world. I am sure that there is more to come with Enninful, but based on how much he has done for the industry already, he has certainly made his mark in fashion. 

The fashion industry has come a long way and has contributed a lot to society. But the reality is there is an ugly side to this industry that has taken pioneers like Lowe or Valdes and hid their stories from the light. And it is the influencers of today such as Talley or Enninful who are highlighting and celebrating the beauty of including diversity in fashion. As the industry continues to grow and recognize the value the black community can bring to fashion, I can only hope we also continue to uncover the hidden black talents that have contributed to fashion in their own ways as well. 

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Hi, I’m Maria McGinnis, a senior journalism student from Stow, Ohio. I’m also the editor-in-chief of A Magazine. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important and entertaining news from the realms of fashion, beauty, and culture. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate to A Magazine.

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