Meet the Black Designers Who Are Waking Up the Fashion World

Feb 27 2019 - 10:18am

If you've been paying attention to the fashion world for the past few years, you may have noticed that things have become a lot more diverse [1]. For the first time in a long time, black designers are inspiring the industry at large. These artists have been rising in the ranks, whether it be through their own labels or alongside some of the largest brands in the world. These designers are challenging us and holding us accountable by starting conversations about the black experience and inclusion through clothing. Read ahead for some of the black designers who are shaking up (and waking up) the fashion world.

Telfar Clemens

Black, queer, and self-taught designer Telfar Clemens has long been known for creating pieces that are both progressive and radical. He began his unisex label Telfar [3] in 2005, emphasizing the inclusivity of the line and claiming that Telfar is "not for you — it's for everyone." Since winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017, Clemens has continued to surprise and delight the fashion world, collaborating with White Castle and creating shows that combine the catwalk with a concert experience.

Aurora James

Brooklyn-based Canadian designer Aurora James [4] started her footwear brand Brother Vellies [5] in 2014. James centered the brand around sustainability and accountability by sourcing her labor and production from small artisans in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco. In 2015, James became the first black woman to win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and since then, Brother Vellies footwear has been worn by models at Rihanna [6]'s Savage x Fenty NYFW '18 show and Solange Knowles at the 2018 Met Gala [7].

Kerby Jean-Raymond

When Kerby Jean-Raymond's menswear label Pyer Moss [8] used designs to protest police brutality in 2015, it was clear that Jean-Raymond was going to change the industry. That same year, he was named one of Forbes's 30 Under 30, and it was print-official that he was the next big thing. Jean-Raymond went on to win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2018, and now he continues to make strong statements about racial inequality and the "American dream" with his pieces and shows.

Shanel Campbell

Shanel Campbell may have only graduated from Parsons School of Design in 2016, but she is already making a name for herself. Campbell founded her brand Shanel [9] in 2018 and showed her surreal first collection at New York Fashion Week last Fall in a show that featured 17 models of color. Her talents have not been overlooked by celebrities. Solange Knowles wore pieces from her graduate collection to a Parsons benefit, Issa Rae wore some of her pieces to the CFDA Awards, and Ciara wore Campbell's tool-bag trousers in her video for "Level Up." [10]

Olivier Rousteing

In 2011, Olivier Rousteing [11] was appointed as the creative director of Balmain, becoming the first black creative director of a luxury label in many years and the youngest creative director of a major fashion house since Yves Saint Laurent. So it is no surprise that he has pushed to make the label more accessible and more inclusive. He has embraced racial diversity within the brand and championed stars like Rihanna [12] and Ciara [13] since before they were considered "high fashion." Rousteing also collaborated with H&M in 2015 to create the Balmain x H&M Collection [14], which pushed the brand to become even more of a household name. Currently, Rousteing is working on a documentary about his life, from being adopted as a baby in Bordeaux to his meteoric rise to fame.

Tracy Reese

With her use of daring colors and unique prints, Tracy Reese [15] has been a fashion pillar since she founded her eponymous label in 1997. Since then, Reese has gained a following, dressing Meghan Markle [16], Gabrielle Union [17], Kelly Rowland [18], and former First Lady Michelle Obama [19]. Reese also makes an effort to be inclusive in her shows by featuring models of different ages, sizes, and ethnicities. In 2018, Reese infused activism into her work by showing a collection at the Queens Museum called Flint Fit [20], which used plastic bottles collected from the Flint, MI, water crisis to create the materials.

Jerome LaMaar

South Bronx native Jerome LaMaar's [21] career began when he started interning for Baby Phat. After seven years at the company, he decided it was time to launch his own line, 5:31 Jerome [22]. His designs blend maximalism and glamour with Bronx street style, which quickly caught the eye of Beyoncé and her mother, Tina Knowles, who championed the line. Soon, his designs could be seen on stars like Alicia Keys [23], Hailey Baldwin, and Kim Kardashian [24]. Recently, LaMaar opened a fashion and creative space in a developing South Bronx neighborhood, and he is partnering with Uniqlo to create some new designs.

Carly Cushnie

British-Jamaican designer Carly Cushnie [25] attended Parsons School of Design in both New York and Paris, where she met her design partner, Michelle Ochs. The duo later founded their company Cushnie et Ochs, and their designs have been seen on stars like Jessica Alba [26], Rihanna [27], Reese Witherspoon [28], and Michelle Obama [29]. Recently, the label has rebranded as Cushnie [30] since Ochs left the company after their 10th anniversary show at New York Fashion Week in 2018, but Carly Cushnie maintains that the brand will continue to focus on being "designed by women, for women."

LaQuan Smith

Born and based in Queens, LaQuan Smith [31] was gifted a sewing kit when he was 13 years old and has been making clothes ever since. Founder of his eponymous brand [32], Smith never attended a traditional fashion school, but that has not stopped him from rising in the ranks and dressing the likes of Rihanna [33], Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga [34]. He has emphasized the importance of diversity in the brand [35] and embracing women of different backgrounds and body types with his designs. Smith recently partnered with ASOS [36], and now his designs are more accessible than ever.

Virgil Abloh

A DJ, creative director, and designer, Virgil Abloh is truly a jack of all trades. Born in Illinois to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Abloh has become one of the most recognizable names in the game. Since becoming Kanye West [37]'s creative director and founding his fashion house Off-White [38] in 2013, Abloh has gained an incredibly loyal following from celebrities like Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Luka Sabbat, and Hailey Baldwin. Now, he has become the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton [39] and is taking the brand in a new direction [40].

Stella Jean

Creole-Italian designer Stella Jean [41] has many accolades under her belt, including winning Vogue Italia's Who Is On Next talent contest in 2011 and being personally selected by Giorgio Armani to have her Spring/Summer 2014 collection show at his 550-Teatro show space in Milan. Jean merges her identities in her designs, combining Creole patterns and shapes with Italian craftsmanship. She has also made an effort to bring sustainability to the forefront. In 2014, Jean collaborated with the International Trade Centre's Ethical Fashion Initiative to create fabrics that were both sustainably sourced and helped trade workers in disadvantaged African communities.

Victor Glemaud

Victor Glemaud is one of the most accomplished and vocal black designers in the fashion community. Born in Haiti and raised in New York, Glemaud worked in fashion for many years before he founded his eponymous knitwear brand [42] in 2006. He has received a multitude of accolades from publications including WWD, Vogue, and The New York Times. Glemaud has never held back from speaking out about racism in the fashion industry. On the topic of what it's like to work in fashion, he told The Cut [43], "As a black male independent entrepreneur, class, money, and race play a silent yet very vocal role in my entire life, including my career."

Christopher John Rogers

As a child in Baton Rouge, LA, Christopher John Rogers started drawing clothing for his comic-book characters. This influence is obvious when you see his current work [44], where he blends costume and couture with bright colors and exuberant shapes. Now residing in Brooklyn, Rogers may be just starting his career, but he is taking off like a bullet. His first collection was shown at New York Fashion Week in 2018, and he has now dressed Cardi B, SZA, and Tracee Ellis Ross. His most recent widespread acclaim came when he dressed some of the stars on the cover of Teen Vogue's 2019 Young Hollywood [45] feature.

Maxwell Osborne

Since founding Public School [46] in 2008 and winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2013, Maxwell Osborne and his design partner, Dao-Yi Chow, have become big names in the industry. While their work is often referred to as "urban design" or "streetwear," Osborne has been clear that that is not the company's vision. He claimed in the brand's "Letter From the Editors" that the terms were "created to pigeon-hole the talents of mostly black designers who held an aspirational yet utilitarian take on fashion." Osborne and Chow have been credited with shifting menswear into a more avant-garde realm, and now the pair are going to take over as the creative directors of DKNY [47].

Dapper Dan

Dapper Dan used to be a Harlem legend, but now he has become an international star. In the 1980s, he created unique designs that incorporated logos from major fashion houses. This led to the eventual shutdown of his Harlem couturier due to lawsuits. In 2017, Gucci announced that it would partner with Dapper Dan and help him open shop once again, after having reportedly ripped off one of his designs. Now, he uses the influence of Harlem's history in his pieces, which can be seen on Tracee Ellis Ross, Naomi Campbell [48], Beyoncé, and Salma Hayek [49].

Claude Kameni

Featuring African prints and extravagant silhouettes, Claude Kameni's line Lavie by CK [50] has become a brand to watch in the past couple of years. Cameroon-born Kameni was launched into stardom when Tracee Ellis Ross featured her as one of the black designers she wore to host the 2018 American Music Awards [51]. One of Kameni's most recent accolades, though, was when Janet Jackson [52] wore one of her designs in her music video for "Made For Now." [53] It is clear that Kameni has a bright fashion future ahead of her.

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