Black by Popular Demand
The National Association of Fashion And Accessory Designers (NAFAD) was founded in America in 1949, to promote equal opportunities for Black fashion designers. Today (as with ever before – just that it is now not so much silenced), with the rising tide of Black talent, the fashion industry is facing its deficits and calling forth its hidden giants as Black lives demand more Black fashion designers.
GSyndicates Black honors the history of Black fashion designers. In my journey to discover my designer genes that inspired my designer jeans (among other fashion plates), I came upon these great shoulders…
My Designer Genes
“I have designer genes and designer jeans!“Shenica Graham
Celia Lucinda (Upshaw) Lane
First, since Black hair is certainly a topic on the fashion front lines, let me pay homage to my own maternal Great Grandmother (at left), Celia Lucinda (Upshaw) Lane (born c. 1909), who was the first Black woman to own a Velvatex College of Beauty Culture in Kansas. She was the twin daughter of her slave mother and their slave owner. Many of the women in my family would say that I inherited my great grandmothers’ gift for haircare.
The following is an excerpt about the founder of Velvatex: “In 1926, M. E. Patterson of Little Rock incorporated Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, then known as Velvatex Beauty College, which was the state’s only approved beauty school for people of color… Patterson dubbed the school “Velvatex” because she believed African-American hair emulated the feel of velvet.” « read more
Hayman, Syd. “Like Velvet.” Arkansas Times, February 2019. Online at https://arktimes.com/entertainment/ae-feature/2019/02/01/like-velvet-history-in-black-hairstyles-in-arkansas (accessed February 1, 2021).
Hayman, Syd. “Velvatex College of Beauty Culture.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, August 2020. Online at https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/velvatex-college-of-beauty-culture-14491/ (accessed February 1, 2021).
Annie Lucinda (Lane) Evans
Celia Lucinda’s daughter, my maternal Grandmother, Annie Lucinda (Lane) Evans (September 15, 1931 – April 20, 2013) was one of the Lane owned Velvatex College’s first graduates. Lucinda was born on September 15, 1931 in North Little Rock, Arkansas to Mr. and Mrs. James (Lucinda) Lane. Annie was the oldest girl of nine children. Annie married Harrell K. Evans on May 14, 1950. They were married for 48 years, 9 months, and 28 days. Grandma Lucinda was also a prolific seamstress who was gifted to make fine apparel without patterns, simply from the ideas in her creative spirit – that entity shared by all designers.
Deborah Kay (Evans) Morris
Annie Lucinda’s daughter, my mother, Mrs. Deborah Kay (Evans) Morris is the Founder and CEO of House of Sherell, a fashion design business. Deborah was born on February 21, 1956 in Wichita, Kansas. From the age of six, Mrs. Morris carried the dream of launching a fashion mogul. She is now capitalizing on the many skills gained from her leadership role as a Supply Sargent in the US Army.
In 2007, she founded Sherell Ra Sha Inc, a consignment and service company with a vision of helping families recover from poverty and natural disaster.
This leap secured the fact of faith in her vision. The business saw its first major progress when Mrs. Morris enrolled in a fashion design program at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in the fall of 2011, leading to development of the first fashion show, which was held in 2013. I debuted my first fashion line at that show.
Part of my heritage of fashionpreneurs, my mother has served veterans and civilian families for over fifty years with a variety of talents. She is a highly gifted seamstress and creative force who has inspired and empowered many others including myself (I am still writing my own fashion history).
Shenica Renee Graham
I (Shenica Renee Graham) was born on October 14, 1977 in Long Beach, California. I am the great-granddaughter of Celia Lucinda (Upshaw) Lane, the granddaughter of Annie Lucinda (Lane) Evans, and a lifelong apprentice of my mother, Deborah Kay (Evans) Morris (Owner / Designer of Iowa’s premiere fashion house, House of Sherell).
I learned to sew as a child while sitting on the floor near mother’s chair as she whisked her Singer classic sewing machine through everything from hats to draperies. I have been designing doll clothes since age 6, sitting at the feet of her sewing mother. Her maternal grandmother was also a talented and influential seamstress. I began began designing clothes for myself at age nine. I like to say, “I have designer genes and designer jeans!“
Though I naturally developed a love for fashion, my dreams were diverted by nagging health problems including severe depression. I battled low self-esteem and had a difficult time breaking free from a downward spiral that left me in a virtual hermitage.
In high school, I could from time to time be found sewing throughout the night, making clothes to wear the next day. As a Sophomore, I made the graduation dress for one of my Senior high school friends. This friend was my first paying client as a teenager. Furthering my fashionpreneure spirit, I made and sold plush bears dressed in my original designs. A high-school counselor bought my most-expensive item: a bear dressed in a red, couture gown with hand sewn embellishments. In college, Shenica continued to create wearable art including custom painted t-shirts.
In 2013, I founded fashion label, GSIA – one of the best decisions I ever made. I still recall the mélange of excitement and anxiety of stepping out of my comfort zone to launch a creative project beyond the borders of self-seclusion. After battling depression for several years, I was inspired by my mother to take up a lost art from my youth. Following a series of hospitalizations, I was once again at a crossroad. My mother, who had gone back to college to pursue a fashion design degree, was already well on her way to becoming a Senior in her program (class of 2018! Whoot! Whoot!). She offered me the chance of a lifetime…
My mother and I are traditional pageant watchers. Our favorite competitions are the evening gown, talent, and costume competition (as with the Miss Universe pageant). With the rise of reality television, we have become regulars in the home-front row, watching the likes of Project Runway and Making The Cut (we love Tim and Heidi!). When I accepted my mother’s offer to join in a fashion business as Chief Information Officer (CIO, based on my compu-tech savvy) and Senior Fashion designer, Mom was already planning to host a fashion show in November.
It felt like I had stepped into a Cinderella story. The pumpkin bloomed and I had made it to fashion week!”
Mom and I even had a private competition. We sequestered ourselves to a sewing environment with our own one-to-one challenges in a mock Project Runway. I won that contest (to be fair, Mom did have some heart trouble the week before and had just been released from the hospital when we started the competition. Thank God she came out well).
I am so humbled and grateful for this opportunity. The power of someone else believing in you when you cannot see your value is priceless. Becoming a fashion designer is something I had dreamed of yet did not have the courage to pursue. It was too personal; and that made it too risky. My mother is my hero for giving me a gentle nudge, picking me up every time I fell, and supporting me whilst I learned to stand on faith. Helping her to build this business is something at which I work very diligently. I want her to know that she can count on me to be her best champion, the way she has always been for me.
Coming out of that shell to do something so public; putting all of me into a product and subjecting it to scrutiny, was an is frankly, terrifying. I had spent so much life force building walls to protect what was my fragile shell. It was difficult to see myself any other way.
In this whirlwind of new experiences, I finally found my niche beyond the written word – a hobby turned into several published articles and unfinished manuscripts. Thus, I joined Mom and one younger brother to officially launch the fashion business. This trio hosted a fashion show and banquet, which received rave reviews. As fate would have it, my finale look (which I entitled, “Marilyn”) was, “… the show maker,” according to Mom. The success of my first line preview sparked a new venture, Haute Midwest Magazine. The magazine allowed me to fulfill my love of journalism and creative writing, while staying informed in my new career field and advancing the goals of House of Sherell, our family’s premiere fashion house. The magazine is a testament to the constant flow of new ideas and talented energy in our entire family.
The second chapter in GSIA history has already begun. With the success of Haute Midwest magazine and finding a new creative voice, I am launching full-time into fashion. Yet a computer programming student, I plan to add fashion design to my educational portfolio, which includes two Bachelor of Arts degrees. To pay success forward, I am happy to sponsor future fashion moguls, which is part of my new design business including expertise in fashion and media, GSyndicates.
My designs complement a variety of body shapes and sizes. My first full-sized (not just for dolls and bears) apparel and accessory collection, GSIA™ (GSyndicates Iowa, now part of GSyndicates™), was featured at the November 2013 House of Sherell Fashion Show & Banquet. The star of the collection was a pearl white suit dubbed, “Marilyn.” This show stopper (shown at left) was born in one of Shenica’s bursts of manic energy (a nod to her Bipolar battle – Shenica was diagnosed with PTSD, Major Depression, and Schizoaffective Bipolar Disorder (following a near death experience). My condition is managed by medication, allowing me to thrive creatively (learn about my mental health activism).
Reprinted by permission from Haute Midwest Magazine.
Ann Cole Lowe (December 14, 1898 – February 25, 1981) was America’s first Black high-fashion designer, from rural Clayton Alabama. Lowe and I share an element of history (including our culture and designer genes: we are each the third generation out of slavery – the great granddaughters of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner. Lowe’s grandmother was raised as an enslaved dressmaker for her white owners. After the Civil War, she opened her own business. Ann, like myself, learned to sew from both her grandmother and her mother, and showed marked talent even from the early age of six.
Lowe’s designer genes came from her mother Janey and grandmother Georgia. These influences both worked as seamstresses for the first families of Montgomery and other members of high society. Lowe was just 16 when her mother passed. Lowe inherited her mother’s unfinished fashionable work including four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth Kirkman O’Neal. Lowe finished the dresses.
Although Lowe was (perhaps unbeknownst to herself) married to her design work, she wed Lee Cohen in 1912, with whom she had a son, Arthur Lee. Cohen’s lack of admiration for Lowe’s design prowess likely led to their parting. He wanted her to give up working as a seamstress. While she complied for a time, the #fashioncall could not be put to rest. After being hired to design dresses for a Florida based tycoon, Lowe took her son and left (Arthur Lee later worked as Lowe’s business partner until his untimely death in 1958 from a car accident (a second marriage, to a man whom Lowe quoted as having said he, “…wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses”, also ended)).
Lowe enrolled in a couture course at S.T. Design school in 1917, taking a sabbatical from her Florida job. The school was then segregated. Lowe’s classes hosted only one student – herself! Her white schoolmates refused to sit in the same room with her. In fact, the college head was shocked to learn that Lowe’s application was that of a Black woman. Despite the potentially lonely education, Lowe studied hard and graduated early in 1919. Lowe and her son returned to Tampa, Florida and opened her first dress salon. It successfully catered to Tampa’s high society. However, Lowe returned to New York City in 1928 and lived in New York for the rest of her life.
After working for a time under the auspices of various labels on commission – including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, Lowe grew weary of not being credited for her work. In 1950, Lowe and her son opened a second salon, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, on Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Lowe’s unmatched designs thrilled high society matrons from the 1920s to the 1960s. She became known as “society’s “best-kept secret” (Minutaglio). Ebony magazine called her the “Dean of Designers.” Much like my mother taught me, Lowe learned and practiced that the inside of the garment, however unseen, was as important as the outer appearance. The inside of her garments were beautifully finished with her trademark excellent technique.
Lowe is best known for her ivory silk taffeta wedding dress design worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. However, Lowe was snubbed by Kennedy who when asked by reporters about her dressmaker, responded that she had wanted something French, but instead “a colored dressmaker” did it (Martin). Only one reporter, Nina Hyde of the Washington Post, actually followed up to discover Ann Lowe’s name (Martin). All of the numerous other stories ran without any mention of her. Understandably, Lowe was very disappointed.
While Lowe commanded high prices for her designs, she was often talked down and barely made a profit on what should have been lucrative sales.
This marked underprofitting plagued Lowe’s business years and left her at once bankrupt. She even had a loss of over $2,000 on the Kennedy dress that is one of the most iconic gowns of all time. Lowe charged only $500 for the ensemble that actually had to be made twice! The original gown was destroyed in a freak flood that ruined Lowe’s design studio and several of the Kennedy designs including the bride’s and some bridesmaids’ dresses. Lowe swallowed the cost, re-ordered fabric, and had her seamstresses working overtime to re-make the dresses. After all of the sacrifices Lowe made, she was still asked by guards at the wedding venue to use the service entrance because she was Black. Lowe refused, stating that the dresses would not be delivered at all if they had to be delivered under an umbrella of prejudice. She said, “If I have to use the backdoor, they’re not going to have the gowns!”
Lowe was challenged in later life with bad eyesight and completely lost one eye, with the other later being saved by surgery. She told the Saturday Evening Post that although she had to “work by feel”, people told her that she had “….done better feeling than others do seeing.”
Sadly, Lowe died at 82 on February 25, 1981, without achieving notoriety or financial success that equals her current renown.
Though she did not live to see it, a collection of five of Lowe’s designs are presently held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three of her designs are on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Several other of her designs were included in an exhibition on black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016. A children’s book, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe written by Deborah Blumenthal was published in 2017. Author Piper Huguley wrote a historical fiction novel about Lowe’s life.
“1953 – Ann Lowe, Jacqueline Kennedy’s Wedding Dress.” Fashion History Timeline, 13 June 2020, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1953-lowe-kennedy-wedding-dress/.
Laneri, Raquel. “Why Jackie Kennedy’s Wedding Dress Designer Was Fashion’s ‘Best Kept Secret’.” New York Post, New York Post, 16 Oct. 2016, nypost.com/2016/10/16/jackies-wedding-dress-designer-is-finally-recognized/.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Ann Lowe.” Last modified 16 January 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Lowe.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 – September 26, 2001) was an American fashion designer and costumer. She is credited as the original creator of the Playboy Bunny costume. Valdes is frequently quoted as having said of herself, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful…”
Valdes was born Zelda Christian Barbour in Chambersburg, PA, but grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina where she trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music. In the early 1920s, Valdes worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, Valdes began working in a high-end boutique as a stock girl. Eventually, she worked her way up to sales and making alterations. Valdes was the boutique’s first Black sales clerk and tailor. She knew how to design for any body type and could accentuate the best of every body.
She claimed to own the first Black owned business on broadway when she opened “Zelda Wynn” in 1948, her design and dressmaking studio in New York. Valdes dressed a host of celebrities and charged near $1,000 for a single gown in the 1950s (that would be about $10,000 US today). Wynn was one of the founders of the NAFAD. The clothing label featured at the top of this post is from a dress worn by Ella Fitzgerald (circa 1940s), designed by Zelda Valdes.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Zelda Wynn Valdes.” Last modified 23 January 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_Wynn_Valdes.
Mildred Blount (born 1907) was an American milliner (hat maker) noted for her creations for the production of Gone With The Wind, and for celebrities and other people in high society.
Blount’s worked at Madame Clair’s Dress and Hat Shop in New York City, where she developed an interest in millinery. She and her sister, who was a dressmaker, later opened their own dress and hat shop with target market of wealthy New Yorkers.
Blount’s career was energized after her designs were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She was asked to design hats for the films Gone with the Wind and Easter Parade, as well as for the cover of the August 1942 Ladies’ Home Journal. Later in the 1940s, Blount ran a hat shop in Beverly Hills, California. She catered to clients such as Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marian Anderson, and others. Blount reportedly died in 1974 in Los Angeles, California.
Wikipedia. 2021. “Mildred Blount.” Last modified 25 September 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Blount.