Fashion was changing by the mid-20th century. Christian Dior revived the French haute couture with his “New Look”; Dorothea Towles Church, the first successful Black model, arrived in Paris, and the mass-marketing of ready-to-wear apparel was on the rise.
At the same time, a bold vision would challenge the lack of Black talent in the American fashion industries. In 1949, Jeanetta Welch Brown founded The National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers (NAFAD). And, while the name may not be familiar, NAFAD would be a trailblazer in an industry still struggling with the equal measure of Black designers.
Welch-Brown organized NAFAD after finding no advertisements supporting Black business in a souvenir journal celebrating New York’s Fashion Industries Golden Jubilee. To assist her vision, she enlisted Mary McCloud Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, whom Brown then worked for as executive secretary. Bethune would be a worthy ally for the group. Her contacts and active role in education and politics guaranteed access to her social network. Welch-Brown spent no time getting word to the press.
WWD would announce the organization’s founding shortly after its initial meeting on April 25, 1949, with frequent reports on the group’s activities for two decades.
Still, coverage surrounding the group had disappeared by the ’70s. And where is NAFAD today?
At the edge of the ’50s, the American fashion industry had already begun to gain recognition in Europe. The “American Look,” touted by acclaimed designer labels like Norman Norell and Claire McCardell, saw sportswear rising, yet fashion was still a dressmakers’ market. The dressmaker was a mainstay in many communities, yet many of them were unidentified independent talents lost amid the global fashion conversation. Brown set out to change that for the Black community. Her mission for NAFAD, as told to WWD in 1949, was to organize an association to develop professional status and attain better relationships with manufacturers, the press, and fashion consumers for Black designers already in the field.
NAFAD’s beginnings offer a glimpse into the group’s influence. Its initial membership included representatives from 10 states and the District of Columbia, with 100 members, according to WWD’s reports and confirmation from one of NAFAD’s last active members, Belinda McGuire. That number would grow substantially in less than two decades, creating a wide reach for the association. McGuire noted that a few members in all fashion categories, from ready-to-wear to accessories, still run their own businesses.
With that level of membership, support inside the group was strong. Its three-day membership events included fashion shows, a dinner, and trade presentations from notable fashion figures at hotels and restaurants like New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Tavern on the Green, known for the social set. The same went for membership events in other cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Other attributes of the group’s influence are credited to its membership. The list of accomplishments is long and includes designer Zelda Wynn Valdez, credited with designing the Playboy Bunny suit, dressing Josephine Baker and other Black icons, and costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her passing. There was also Lois K. Alexander, the designer and educator who created one of the first fashion schools, The Harlem Institute of Fashion in 1966, and The Black Fashion Museum in 1970 to support Black Americans wanting to enter the fashion arena, with a place of their own to showcase their work. And these are just a few recognizable names in fashion history.
“It’s not that we weren’t there; we were considered custom designers. But I know that we were doing something special. In the fashion industry, it’s rare to hear the names of custom designers,” said Tina King, NAFAD’s long-standing archivist. King noted the modicum of success for some of its members, but most remained independent entrepreneurs with businesses in bridal, special occasion dressing, tailoring and millinery. “Many members, including myself, didn’t get the same opportunities as our white counterparts,” she said.
Custom designers were an invaluable resource for the Black community. These designers made the ability to create one’s individual style more accessible.
Noting the benefit of being a part of the group, McGuire spoke about the training NAFAD provided. Providing good service and impeccable quality at affordable prices was essential in gaining community support for Black talent. This work ethic also assisted those custom designers in garnering recognition for the group in and outside of their membership.
“It was about recognition. If someone likes what you’re wearing, word spreads about your work.” King said. She spoke to WWD about her skills with leather and worked with clients like Audrey Smaltz, model and founder of the Ground Crew, who had visibility in many social circles and helped to bring attention to her designs.
As an organization, NAFAD supported Black designers in many ways. But as the industry expanded, participating in local fashion events for custom clients wasn’t enough. “We needed access to commercial manufacturing, retail spaces, education on the business side, and financing.” King felt that if members had those opportunities, perhaps the fashion world wouldn’t have to continue having the same conversations. She said it was a missed opportunity then and still is today for the industry.
Similarities exist for many early associations like NAFAD. McGuire stressed the importance of educating designers in the fashion business, which remains an obstacle today. “If you don’t continue to educate talented designers in all aspects of the fashion business, you’re just fighting against the status quo. Staying informed of your business is the key to sustaining it. I started LenGuire Fashions in 1977 and joined NAFAD to learn more about fashion’s retail and financial sides, a minor objective for NAFAD,” she said.
She noted that NAFAD had its shortcomings but it persevered to preserve important attributes and aspects of a community of people and was essential to her career as a Black designer and educator.
Fashion moves on, and it changes rapidly. The talent is there but it is only one part of the puzzle. At McGuire’s point of entry, in the mid-1980s, the organization was already off the radar of the fashion press, including WWD. NAFAD’s annual fashion shows remained strong, and the group’s community had pluses. Still, over time, that only represented a small aspect of what was needed to assist members in building a sustainable fashion business. McGuire observed that the business model was more like a sorority organization, relying on membership dues to maintain during its active years. This type of model made it hard to attract younger members trying to get into the commercial fashion business.
Over time, running the organization in this manner, with a lack of corporate sponsorships or endowments from members who died, and not wanting to change to meet the demands of the fashion industry, eventually led to the group becoming inactive by the early 2000s.
These obstacles are faced by many associations over time. Will there ever be a solution? King and McGuire certainly think so. McGuire said that she is constantly fielding questions about restarting NAFAD but knows the work it would take and the changes that need to be made. Each hopes to see a new generation of creatives take up the mantle and sustain the shift NAFAD set out to achieve.
And while the full impact of NAFAD’s work in the fashion industry remains hard to measure, King supplied WWD with a list that included small but significant commercial successes for NAFAD and its members supporting the group’s mission statement as documented in WWD in 1949. These include:
1969 — Philadelphia chapter scores the first window display at Strawbridge & Clothier devoted to Black designers on the city’s main shopping strip.
1970 — Freddie Mae Williams became the first Black milliner sold in Sears Department Stores in Cleveland, Ohio.
1970 — Alzie Jackson became the second milliner from NAFAD to have his collection sold at J.C. Penney’s in Philadelphia.
1979 — Lois K. Alexander founds the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem.
1986 — Larnell Baldwin, a master tailor, opens his tailoring shop on Philadelphia’s historic Fabric Row.
1998 — NAFAD member Elena Designs Jewelry of Washington, D.C., was marketed at Nordstrom.
Associations supporting the fashion industries have a long-standing history, but for those focused on Black creatives in fashion, the road to sustaining their missions is not easy. At a time with as many or more social injustices, NAFAD and the women who held to its mission were indeed trailblazers. In fact, in 1951, NAFAD would become the first and remains the only group focused on elevating Black designers in fashion to have a charter as part of the National Council of Negro Women. That remains in place and active to date.
NAFAD — The National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers, should be added to the top of the list of associations with familiar acronyms like HFR — Harlem’s Fashion Row, and BDC — Black Design Collective, among others founded under the same mission: to change and sustain equal measure for Black designers in the fashion industry.
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