It Took Two Years to Put Together FIT's Black Fashion Designers Exhibition

What was it like to work with the designers and get their input?

Elia: Most of our reaching out was to the newer designers, to fill in the gaps in recent fashion history. We worked directly with Olivier Rousteing, for instance—we sent along a request for a piece that represented his design aesthetic and philosophy. So many of these looks were inserted into our permanent collection, so we had to examine how these designers impacted the fashion industry as a whole and how they performed from a business standpoint.

Way: The exhibition also includes an app, so we were able to speak to some designers who lent their voices and told their stories: Eric Gaskins, Andre Walker, and TJ Walker and Carl Jones of Cross Colours were among my favorites. We also had Dapper Dan, who Ariele worked with during a previous exhibition.

What are you hoping this exhibition does for people’s knowledge of black designers?

Elia: We wanted people to walk away with the knowledge that there is a richer history of diversity in fashion than what is being showcased in the media today. Most people know Halston was big in the ’70s, but we also wanted to educate them on Scott Barrie, who was huge during that era as well. Diversity in fashion creates a more interesting industry. We need a slew of voices to be heard.

Mimi Plange dress.

Courtesy of F.I.T.

Do either of you have a particular favorite look or piece from what you curated?

Way: We have a beautiful design from Duro Olowu that is a lace and leaf motif cape. You can see the exquisite work and craftsmanship that went into that piece. It’s right at the front of our exhibition.

Elia: One of the other exciting pieces is by CD Greene. He originally created the design for Tina Turner’s “Wildest Dreams” tour so that she would stand out onstage. The cut and construction of it is great.

There’s also a lot of focus right now in fashion and across several industries to make sure that stories about black culture are actually being told by black voices. When you were putting this together, is that something that came up or something you considered?

Way: A lot of our research for this exhibition came from Women’s Wear Daily and contemporary press, going back to the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s even. Interviews with designers were things we listened to, as well as talking to them ourselves. We absolutely not only read about but also discussed discrimination in the industry with the designers, and we found that it mirrored the larger discriminatory attitudes of the country at various times in history. But most designers weren’t really looking to dwell on that. So many were simply looking to be identified as designers and to be given credit where they hadn’t been in the past. So many of these stories have been left out of the fashion narrative, so we wanted to highlight them.

Elia: We also commissioned two videos for the exhibition: one with designers and one with models. In them, they talked about their struggles and the importance of diversity in fashion. And on February 6, we’ll be having a fashion symposium—based on the themes and designers featured.

Courtesy of F.I.T.

That sounds amazing. What will that day entail?

Way: We’ll have a number of different speakers and scholars to talk about the intersection between African and African-American culture and fashion. Teri Agins, June Ambrose, Grace Wales Bonner, Dapper Dan, Carly Cushnie, and Michelle Ochs will be in attendance. Jeriana San Juan will also be there.

Black Fashion Designers will run at FIT until May 16, 2017. Share your experience using #BlackFashionDesigners on Twitter and Instagram.