5 Black fashion designers who broke barriers in the industry

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These famous names are forever in vogue.

Trends come and go, but these Black fashion designers strived to create legacies that would always be remembered. In honor of Black History Month, celebrate these five trailblazers who sketched, stitched and sewed to success, bringing dreams to life and breaking barriers for the next generation.

Illustrated portrait of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom and became dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, and learned to sew from her mother, the National Museum of American History reports. Keckley’s owners struggled to make ends meet and relocated to St. Louis in the 1840s, hiring her out as a seamstress. Though her owner collected most of her wages, Keckley earned a reputation for excellent work, and was ultimately able to buy freedom for herself and her son.

Moving her family to Washington, D.C., Keckley became the personal dressmaker to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. From there, the designer became one of the first lady’s “closest confidantes.”


In 1868, Keckley published a memoir titled “Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” which was controversial upon its release and “soured” her friendship with Lincoln, according to the White House Historical Association.

“Although the American public was not prepared to read the story of a free Black woman assuming control of her own life narrative at the time of publication, her recollections have been used by many historians to reconstruct the Lincoln White House and better understand one of the nation’s most fascinating and misunderstood first ladies,” the historical association writes. “Her story is integral to White House history and understanding the experiences of enslaved and free Black women.”

Ann Lowe adjusts the the bodice of a gown she designed in this 1962 photo.
(Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Ann Lowe was born in Alabama in 1898 into a family of seamstresses, learning to sew from her mother and grandmother. When Lowe’s mother suddenly passed away in 1914, 16-year-old Lowe was tasked with completing her mother’s unfinished commissions — including four ball gowns for Lizzie Kirkland O’Neal, the First Lady of Alabama, Racked reported. The teen’s designs were a hit, and her career began.

Lowe accepted a job as a personal seamstress for a wealthy woman in Tampa, Fla., before relocating to New York City in 1917 to attend S.T. Taylor Design School. With racial segregation still the norm, Lowe was forced to work in a separate room from the other students, though her designs were so exceptional, they were used as an example, according to the National Museum of American History.

Lowe spent about another decade as a leading dressmaker in Tampa, eventually returning to the Big Apple. In 1950, she opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem, Southern Living reports, and in 1968, was the first Black designer to open a store on Madison Avenue. As her star continued to rise, Lowe made feminine frocks for wealthy families like the du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and Auchinclosses.

Sen. John Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (wearing Ann Lowe) enjoy their wedding reception, 1953.
(Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Lowe famously designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s gown for her 1953 wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, though it wasn’t quite smooth sailing. A freak flooding accident in Lowe’s workroom a week before the big day forced the designer and her team to recreate the gown (which took two months to produce) in five days, losing out on any profit she expected to earn, and actually costing her an additional $2,200 in expenses, according to the museum.


Beyond her own boutiques, Lowe’s gowns were sold in Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel. Despite commercial success, managing the finances of her booming business was a struggle, and Lowe declared bankruptcy in 1962.

To her surprise, the IRS debt was paid off by a stranger. “Many believe it was Jackie Kennedy — who would have discovered both the dramatic story of completing her wedding dress and Lowe’s financial struggles,” the National Museum of American History writes.

Designer Stephen Burrows poses with models at the Stephen Burrows Spring 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2010.
(Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Stephen Burrows was born in 1943 in New Jersey, and was captivated with clothing from a young age. As a boy, Burrows would sew with his grandmother, The HistoryMakers reports, and he eventually graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City in 1966.

Inspired by motion and dance, Burrows often worked with a stretchy knit fabric, according to FIT. Two years after he graduated from design school, he opened “O” boutique, which was “strategically located across the street from a popular nightclub.”

Geraldine Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, was impressed with his work, and offered him his own boutique within the department store in 1970. The shop, called “Stephen Burrows’ World,” was an immediate hit, and connected the designer with celebrity clients like Diana Ross, Cher and Barbra Streisand.


In 1973, Burrows started a namesake label and was one of five Americans invited to compete in the legendary “Battle of Versailles” fashion show between designers from the U.S. and France.

Burrows made history as “one of the first Black fashion designers to achieve international acclaim,” FIT reports. He won three won prestigious Coty awards for fashion in the 1970s and was named to the Fashion Walk of Fame in 2003, among other accolades. More recently, he was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Pratt Institute of Design in 2014, per HistoryMakers.

Paris-based American designer Patrick Kelly poses with his models in Paris in 1987.
(Julio Donoso/Sygma via Getty Images)

Patrick Kelly, born in Mississippi in 1954, got his start in the fashion industry at 18, working a few “odd jobs” in Atlanta and New York, according to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

Kelly won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design, but the offer was inexplicably rescinded. It’s speculated the scholarship was pulled because Kelly was Black, though the college declined to comment in a report from Vice.

The burgeoning designer was able to fund one semester of school on his own before dropping out. Searching for a start in 1979, he moved to Paris at the behest of Black supermodel Pat Cleveland, who bought him a one-way ticket, Footwear News reports. There, the tide turned in his favor.

In Paris, Kelly met Bjorn Amelan, and they became partners in both business and life. Kelly started selling his creations in the trendy Victoire boutiques and gained enough attention for a six-page spread in Elle magazine — and later his first fashion show in 1985. Kelly later dressed the likes of Princess Diana, Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. He also made history as the first American to ever be accepted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in 1988, the governing body of the French ready-to-wear association.


The designer passed away in 1990 due to complications from AIDS, and is remembered today for his joyful, body-conscious designs.

“I want my clothes to make you smile,” Kelly once said.  

Designer Tracy Reese walks the runway during New York Fashion Week in 2015.
(Edward James/WireImage)

Born in Michigan in 1964, Tracy Reese first learned to sew from her mother. She moved to New York City at 18, completing an accelerated program at the Parsons School of Design in 1984.

From there, Reese got a job with fashion firm Arlequin, working her way up to become the head of the women’s portfolio for 1980s icon Perry Ellis, HistoryMakers reports. The designer launched her eponymous Tracy Reese label in 1997, expanding with fashion lines including Tracy Reese Plenty and Frock!, as well as a home furnishings collection, in the years that followed.

First lady Michelle Obama wore one of Reese’s designs during her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention  in Charlotte, N.C.
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reese opened her own flagship store in NYC in 2006, and debuted her luxury Tracy Reese Black Label in 2009. A few years later, she was commissioned to dress first lady Michelle Obama for her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.


Reese joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1990 and was appointed to its board in 2007. Celebrity fans of her fun, feminine designs include Sarah Jessica Parker and Taylor Swift.

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