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Being Black in fashion is often boiled down to two words: access and opportunity. The luxury fashion landscape has historically been vastly White. One of luxury’s key pillars is exclusivity; another is scarcity. These principals have been upheld for centuries, not only in luxury fashion but also in the way opportunities and resources are afforded and how talent is defined.
There is a decades-long system where talent of color, mainly Black fashion talent, is left with no entryway into an already exclusive industry.
There are many examples of just how far White nepotism has propelled White fashion talent. Yves Saint Laurent was taken under Christian Dior’s tutelage after his father’s friend Michel de Brunhoff, editor in chief of Vogue Paris, shared Saint Laurent’s sketches with Dior. Anna Wintour’s father was the editor in chief of one of the most revered U.K. publications and set her up with her first job in fashion after she dropped out of high school. Stella McCartney, Paul McCartney’s daughter, was named the creative director of Chloé in 1997, just two years after graduating from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The Hadid sisters, Lizzy Jagger, Kendall Jenner, and Kaia Gerber have become some of the most recognizable faces in fashion because of who their parents are and the access it affords them.
There is a decades-long system where talent of color, mainly Black fashion talent, is left with no entryway into an already exclusive industry. In response, a collective of Black fashion designers banded together across the United States to form the National Association of Black Fashion and Accessories Designers (NAFAD) to give access and opportunities to Black fashion talent. It was the first organization of its kind.
On April 22, 1949, Jeanetta Welch Brown, in partnership with Mary McCleod Bethune-Cookman, established the New York chapter of NAFAD. This was Bethune-Cookman’s first foray into fashion; however, she had a long track record of championing Black women and advocating upward mobility of Black women in all industries through mentorship and scholarship. One of the most notable instances of these efforts is Bethune-Cookman’s co-founding of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which sponsored NAFADS’ founding and the co-founding of the HBCU that would later become Bethune-Cookman University. Brown was the national NAFAD president.
NAFAD 18th annual national convention program, July 10, 1967; Cleveland chapter. Images courtesy of Shelby Christie
Bethune-Cookman’s involvement in NAFAD was a result of her relationship with Brown, who was the first executive secretary to Bethune-Cookman in the NCNW. It’s unclear how Zelda Wynn Valdes and Brown became acquainted — perhaps through the NCNW or a connection from one of Valdes’ A-list clients. Bethune-Cookman appointed Valdes — the woman who designed the Playboy bunny costumes and dressed such Black starlets as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and Mae West — as president of the New York City chapter, which consisted of many Black fashion professionals. One notable member was Ruby Bailey, who designed costumes for Harlem theater productions and put on her own fashion shows.
NAFAD is a shining example of how Black talent was finding creative and effective ways to work around White nepotism and racial inequality in the industry at the time.
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