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NAFAD’s Pioneering Role in Boosting Black Designers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Claire McCardell’s American Style to Be Spotlighted at Museum at FIT

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The renewed interest in the work of Claire McCardell is still going strong, with the Museum at FIT gearing up for Wednesday’s opening of “Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation.”

Decades have passed since the designer pioneered the American look, but her influence on American sportswear prevails. Zippers, pockets, ballet flats and wrap dresses were all part of the designer’s arsenals of firsts. Tory Burch, whose spring-summer 2022 collection was inspired by McCardell, is a champion of her work. Somehow, 65 years after her death in 1958 at the age of 52, the designer’s work is gaining more interest with new generations of creatives.

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Strong-willed and pragmatic, McCardell’s indelible mark — the understated (but not undone) casual American look — was forward-thinking in the previously cookie-cutter dressing of the mid-’50s. Well-proportioned and affordable, her clothes, which spanned from bathing suits to ready-to-wear, were designed with a wide range of body types in mind. Understanding that “clothes may make the woman, but the woman can also make the clothes,” McCardell once said, “When the dress runs away with the woman, it’s a horror.”

Nine McCardell-crafted garments drawn from the Study Collection at the Museum at FIT will be on display through April 16 on the FIT campus. Seniors in the school’s art history and museum professions undergraduate program Nico Frederick, Christina Pene, and Emma Sosebee have curated the show, which also includes reproductions of advertising,

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In addition to the student-curated show at the Museum at FIT, the “Claire McCardell” exhibition is on view at the Maryland Center for History and Culture’s Museum in Baltimore through November. McCardell’s designs are featured with family letters, interviews and archival documents. The show was curated by the Tory Burch Claire McCardell fashion fellow Robyn Levy, whose fellowship was made possible by the Tory Burch Foundation. Last year Burch penned the foreword for the reissue of McCardell’s 1956 book “What Shall I Wear? The What, Where, When and How Much of Fashion.”

On another front, the Museum at FIT will unveil “¡Moda Hoy! Latin American and Latinx Fashion Design Today” on May 31. The exhibition will celebrate the work of designers of Latin American descent including stalwarts like Aldolfo Sardiña, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Alexandre Herchcovitch, Edmundo Castillo, Victor Alfaro, and Haider Ackermann, as well as Willy Chavarria, Maria Cornejo, Isabel Toledo, Gabriela Hearst, Jonathan Cohen, Nous Etudions’ Romina Cardillo, Luar’s Raul Lopez and Kika Vargas. With text in English and Spanish, the show will feature 60 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, including multiple new acquisitions. The show will run through Nov. 12.

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Diane von Furstenberg Exhibition Slated for Brussels Fashion & Lace Museum

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Diane von Furstenberg will be the subject of an upcoming exhibition at The Fashion and Lace Museum in Brussels, where the designer was born.

“Woman Before Fashion,” which will be on view from April 21 to Jan. 7, 2024, will explore von Furstenberg’s career in fashion with a focus on the iconic wrap dress, as the silhouette prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

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The museum’s curator, Nicolas Lor, has divided the exhibition into four chapters, recognizing von Furstenberg as both a person and a designer. The pieces presented in the exhibition came from the archives of the House of Diane von Furstenberg.

“It is both exciting and emotional to be honored with the first European exhibition of my work in my native city, Brussels,” said von Furstenberg.

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The Fashion & Lace Museum, founded in 1977, is housed in a group of historic houses in the heart of Brussels close to the Grand-Place. It holds some 20,000 items. Lace, clothing and accessories are on display dating from the 16th century. Its collections are the most important in the world for Brussels’ creation and clothing.

As reported, Lor has also written a book called “Woman Before Fashion,” which will be published by Rizzoli in late September and ties in with the exhibition. The book features nostalgic and contemporary photographs of DVF’s journey as a designer, featuring original essays discussing the intersection of DVF and her designs with feminism, gender politics and entrepreneurship. It also shows the wrap dress worn by DVF, and models such as Jerry Hall, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford.

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In addition, von Furstenberg is the subject of a documentary being directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani-Canadian journalist, filmmaker and activist, which will be out in January on Hulu.

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G-Star Raw Releases AI-designed Denim Collection

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G-Star Raw is going deeper into the technology space with its latest denim launch.

The fashion brand on Tuesday released an AI-designed denim collection that was created with AI app Midjourney. With the app, G-Star Raw created 12 cape-like denim designs and ultimately manufactured one style, which will be displayed at the brand’s Antwerp store. 

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“Innovation is ingrained in the G-Star DNA,” said Gwenda van Vliet, chief merchandising officer at G-Star Raw. “We believe in giving our fashion designers the freedom to bring their dreams through AI. While anyone could make a design using AI, at G-Star Raw we have the craftsmanship to make those designs into real garments. We should see AI as enhancing the creative process, rather than taking it over.” 

G-Star Raw's AI-designed denim

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G-Star Raw’s AI-designed denim.

Courtesy of G-Star Raw

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G-Star Raw’s AI-designed denim collection falls in line with the recent wave of AI technology infiltrating the fashion industry. There have been apps such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, which are art and image generators, and ChatGPT, which generates elaborate written responses based on a user’s prompt. 

While these AI platforms are still new to the fashion world, some companies have already started embracing them. For example, Pantone looked to Midjourney last December to create an immersive visual experience for its 2023 Pantone color of the year, Viva Magenta. 

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The AI-designed collection is also G-Star Raw’s first major initiative of the year. Last year the brand introduced a “Haute Denim” hat collection created by designer Stephen Jones. The brand also released a campaign last fall featuring model Cara Delevingne for its fall denim campaign.

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