African-American fashion designers whose legacies continue to impact the fashion industry today

Photo courtesy of Huffington Post

February is so fashion-focused, and for good reason: New York, Paris, Milan and London all host their fashion week in February. But this month is also recognized as Black History Month. So, in its honor, let’s take a look at some of the most influential African-American fashion designers who continue to impact in the industry today.

Mychael Knight

Finalist and fan-favorite of “Project Runway” season three, Mychael Knight was known for his fun, body-hugging designs. Knight’s beautiful cuts, stunning silhouettes and celebration of the female body made him a breath of fresh air for the fashion world. Although he placed fourth on the show, that didn’t stop him pursuing his passion. In fact, by 2007 he came out with a self-titled label, along with a female-male lingerie line, Kitty and Dick.

In his prime, Knight designed for celebrities such as actress Sherri Shepherd, model Jessica White and singer Keri Hilson. Knight died in October 2017, but his designs and legacy continue to live on.

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe was one of the first internationally known African-American designers in the Jim Crow era, and she paved a path for other black designers to follow. She was accepted into S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City, and she was a sought-after designer whose work was spotlighted by Vogue. 

A friend of Christian Dior’s and designer of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress — when she married John F. Kennedy — Lowe found success in the fashion industry. She died at age 82.

Although there isn’t much written about her, some are beginning to recognize the importance of her work. You can now see some of Lowe’s designs in the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Gordon Henderson

Henderson, who was popular in the 1980s and 1990s, was known for his clean-cut sportswear, reasonably priced merchandise and fun, colorful patterns. He also assisted Calvin Klein until he debuted his own line in 1990. He won the Council of Fashion Designers Perry Ellis Award for best new talent, and he also received a lot of recognition for dressing John F Kennedy Jr. for his marriage to Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. 

Patrick Kelly

Kelly came to fame in France during the 1980s, which was shortly before his death in 1990. He was known for his bright designs that were intertwined with references to pop culture, humor and black folklore. When he moved to Paris from New York in 1980, Kelly developed his signature silky, bright-colored jersey dresses. He strived for inclusiveness in his designs, which were for women of all shapes and sizes. In a 1987 interview with People Magazine, he said, “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is: you’re beautiful just the way you are.” Without a doubt, he left a huge footprint on the fashion world. 

Tracy Reese

Since the 1990s, Reese has been dazzling the fashion world with her ready-to-wear, retro-influenced pieces from her fashion label, Tracy Reese. Reese loves to play with color and fabrics for her pieces. The best part, though, is that she’s known for designing affordable high-fashion pieces that are geared toward the everyday woman. 

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Valdes is known for being a pioneer of fashion for black people. She was the first African-American woman to open her own boutique in Manhattan, and her clients included movie star Dorothy Dandridge and iconic singer Gladys Knight. She was also the creator behind the famous Playboy Bunny costume in the 1950s.

Valdes was the president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers and in the 1970s she began designing for the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she did until her death in 2001. She eventually designed costumes for 82 productions. She’s an influencer, for sure.

Kimora Lee Simmons

Although Simmons began modeling in her teens, she has since proved that she can do much more. She founded Baby Phat, which is a branch of her ex-husband’s, Russell Simmons, line, Phat Fashions. The brand took off and was worn throughout the early 2000s by both celebrities and the non-celebrity women. The brand catered to female urban wear and was sold in department stores, which made it easy to afford. Kimora Lee Simmons’ designs were highly successful, and the logo — a cat — is widely recognizable.

Willi Smith

By the time of his death in 1987, Willi Smith was known as one of the most successful black designers in the fashion industry. His label, WilliWear Limited, was a comfortable sportswear line for both men and women that raked in around $25 million a year. He played with color and prints and is credited by some as being the first to mix plaids, stripes and colors.

Smith designed Mary-Jane’s wedding dress in the Spiderman comics and also designed costumes for Spike Lee’s film “School Daze.” Smith died in 1987 from pneumonia complicated by shigella, which he contracted on a trip to India to buy fabric.  

These designers have all impacted the fashion world in incredibly important ways. They’ve carved a pathway for other designers who are now trying to make a name for themselves, many of which look to these greats for guidance. The remaining Fashion Week shows are coming up, so don’t forget to be on the lookout for these influential fashion leaders’ legacies in the collections presented. 

To contact Lifestyles Editor Tayhlor Stephenson, email

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