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.
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.
One of the first programs NAFAD held was a conference for members at the Theresa Hotel in New York City in 1949. This was a chance for members to network among themselves, but most important, it was an opportunity to expose Black designers to their non-POC counterparts in the industry. NAFAD wanted to partner with mainstream industry movers and shakers to gain access and opportunities for its membership. NAFAD’s inaugural conference held a judging of member-submitted designs. The judging panel included Vogue managing editor Esther Lyman, famed fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, designer to the stars Molly Parnis, and popular hatmaker Sally Victor. The result was a bridge between the White mainstream fashion industry and the Black fashion talent who were looking to cross over. This was a clear example of why NAFAD was established: to create more visibility and opportunity for Black talent in fashion.
By 1951, “the NAFADers” were seeking an official partnership with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-Century Women Designer by Nancy Deihl, director of costume studies at New York University, “As designers sought further recognition for their work, the organization invited representatives from Seventh Avenue [Fashion Avenue] to serve as speakers, consultants, judges and panelists at their events. Other projects focused on expanding business opportunities.” Some of those opportunities included expanding NAFAD’s membership newsletter, Fashion Cues, into a nationally circulated magazine-like publication. In other outreach, Valdes was the director of the fashion and design workshop for Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams, where she showed interested kids the framework of fashion design.
In addition to offering members exposure to mainstream opportunities, NAFAD held an annual convention. At the 1964 convention, the membership gave the organization’s coveted “America’s Best Dressed Negro Woman” award to Josephine Baker, who at the time was one of Valdes’ clients. At its peak, NAFAD had chapters throughout the country, in cities like Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Oakland, Beverly Hills, and Compton, California. NAFAD chapters also held local fashion shows to promote their members’ design work and raised funds for student scholarships. With the founding of more mainstream fashion organizations, like the CFDA and the Costume Association of America, NAFAD began working to afford opportunities to more designers of color, and fashion professionals jumped at the chance to be in integrated fashion spaces. The last known NAFAD chapter is in Philadelphia. It held a Black designer fashion showcase in the winter of 2013, continuing the work of the organization’s founders. However, the chapter has been inactive since then.
In so many ways, NAFAD is not only a blueprint for progress but also a foundation on which Black fashion talent stands today. 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. Unlike their White counterparts, Zelda Wynn Valdes, Ruby Bailey, and the community of NAFAD members did not have White nepotism to leverage as a means of unlocking access and opportunity for themselves.
Although White nepotism was and is a hurdle faced by Black designers and other talent, we can learn from the business acumen and communal approach NAFAD members leveraged to work around it and use what they had to their advantage.