Four Black Designers Who Shaped the History of Fashion As We Know It

It's a no-brainer that both the fashion industry and the black community have gone through monumental changes in the last five years. Whether it’s the ongoing protests during the Black Lives Matter movement or a global economic crisis that we’re all still facing – the world, specifically the United States, has changed tenfold since the Civil Rights movement all that time ago.

From 2020 to 2024, we’ve seen luxury brands being called out for many questionable things, and many other inclusivity issues that are still ongoing today. Times may have changed slightly from all those years of segregation, but this still isn’t a world where black lives are championed as much as other lives. The Black in Fashion Council has made it their mission to hold the fashion industry accountable and drive the world into promoting equal opportunities – and if it weren't for some of the greatest black designers in America, we would be a lot further behind than we are now.

We’ve seen African-American designers and black fashion trailblazers take a stand – and although we aren’t where we want to be, if it weren't for these designers facing a Eurocentric and predominantly white industry, then things would be looking a whole lot different today. Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest names in black fashion history, who are paving the way and are cutting down the Eurocentric divide.

Black designers who have helped shape the narrative of fashion

Elizabeth Keckley

Born in 1818, Elizabeth Keckley is someone that the black community looks up to in terms of defiance and making moves in fashion. As a former Virginia-born slave, Elizabeth ended up becoming the personal seamstress and dressmaker for the wife of Abraham Lincoln. A strong civil activist in her time, she managed to make a name for herself in black fashion – but it didn’t come easy. After she had managed to buy her freedom from her slave-trade owners, she went on to become a designer for the most influential and famous women across Washington D.C. She was one of a kind, and fashion designers across the world owe all their strength to Elizabeth – for if she hadn’t been a civil activist fighting for change, the world wouldn’t look quite as bright. If you were to look at some of the largest fashion show mall reviews or even big events in Hollywood, you’d see many designs that were inspired by Elizabeth herself. Take the 2022 Met Gala, for example – everyone’s favorite Sex & The City star, Sarah Jessica Parker, donned a design inspired by this wondrous White House designer.

Ruby Bailey

Born in 1908, Ruby Bailey was an inspiration to Afro-centric fashion lovers throughout America, specifically Harlem. Her works of wearable art caused a stir in the industry and she worked her way up to an important status in Harlem's social and art scene. Featuring designs with color, print, and embellishment, Ruby fought against the whites who dominated the larger industry and focused her craft on amazing Harlem. The Museum of the City of New York talks about her work today, so it’s clear she’s made a stamp on every community for being a woman pioneering change.

Will Smith

Known as one of the most successful African-American fashion designers in the industry as we know it – Willi Smith is a man who made great waves in the Black community. At the date of his death in 1987, Willi had invented streetwear, the exact type of clothes that inundate the catwalks and fashion world to this day. He had a fashion label, which launched in 1976, called WilliWear Limited – and just one year before his death, it had grossed almost 26 million dollars in sales. He democratized fashion, made it affordable for the masses, and ensured that many across America could get involved with fashion.

Virgil Abloh

Entrepreneur, fashion designer, stylist, and even DJ – there was absolutely nothing that Virgil Abloh could not do. May he rest in peace; he was a bright start in the world of fashion and made moves that were the first of his kind. Being the first ever African-American artistic director of Louis Vuitton in 2018, Virgil made a stand for the entire black community. Along with his CEO position at Off-White, he was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine. He passed away in 2021, and though he is no longer with us – he made sure that he will be remembered as one of the greatest minds in fashion history. He may be newer on the block, but he did everything in his power to keep all the black communities feel included, safe – and spoken about. He’s managed to be the first-ever black creative director in a luxury fashion brand like this, and he’s inspired a whole new generation of young designers to also fulfill their dreams. Doors have been opened because of Virgil and black designers are now seeing more possibilities to branch into luxury fashion. He's truly one of a kind.

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