They fell in love with fashion. They remixed looks, dressed our favorite characters, ignited the industry, took what others might’ve seen as scraps and made them beautiful. They carved out a space for themselves. Featuring Jeffrey Banks, Ceci, Romeo Hunte, Law Roach, Letesha Renee, Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Miko Underwood, Brandice Daniel, Jasmine Guy, Connor McKnight, Monica Miller, April Walker, Monica Morrow, Boz Bradshaw and Randy Cousin.
Syllabus for this episode
- Throughout history, Black people have always had that “special sauce” that has created a style tradition that is uniquely resourceful and innovative. The book Stylin’: African-American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit takes us through that history.
- Black people have seen the influence of their style travel across the globe, and the book, How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style, provides a complete survey of how we “slay.”
- We all have a story about that certain thing we wore that made us feel special or seen. Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion inspires us to remember what those things were, and explains how it’s vital in keeping our culture alive.
- When host Kimberly Jenkins had the opportunity to meet the late fashion legend André Leon Talley, he joined her at Parsons School of Design as she hosted a screening of the documentary, The Gospel According to André, in effort to give Talley his flowers.
- Fashion veteran Bethann Hardison also has a motherly connection to a “Different World” star referenced in our upcoming episode on HBCU style.
- How many Black fashion designers throughout history can you name? Podcast guest Elizabeth Way provides us with the much-needed book, Black Designers in American Fashion, as an essential reference guide.
- Guest Darnell-Jamal Lisby penned this profile on the admired Willi Smith and speaks about Smith’s design approach in this episode.
- The late designer Patrick Kelly showed Black fashion design hopefuls just how far you could make it in an industry known for being famously exclusive. Which is why we recommend the piece, “Patrick Kelly Was the Jackie Robinson of High Fashion”.
- A contemporary of our podcast guest Jeffrey Banks, along with the late designers Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly, our profile on Stephen Burrows celebrates the fashion designer who dressed our bodies to dance and move.
Transcript of this episode
Kimberly: “Style has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. If we can’t have ham, we’ll boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands. We prove the human spirit will prevail. We will take what we have to make what we need. We need confidence in our knowledge of who we are.”
Those beautiful words were penned by the incomparable poet, activist and educator, Nikki Giovanni, in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101.
And I adore this quote. It’s a perfect illustration of the special sauce that’s embedded in the Black American experience. Making a way out of no way, even when our access is deliberately denied. Creating or finding beauty, despite the circumstances.
It’s a reminder that Black American history is American history, period! In all of its iterations. On this podcast, we’re choosing to focus, on the fashion.
This is The Invisible Seam, where we open up the archive of American fashion and celebrate its Black contributions. This is Episode One: No Blueprint
I’m your host, Kimberly Jenkins. I’m a fashion scholar, industry consultant, and all-around curious person when it comes to the influence and history of what we wear.
But fashion history doesn’t tell us the whole story, and fashion has a history of mis-representation when it comes to Black people. The industry relishes in the style, but too often minimizes or ignores the contributions of Black creatives, rendering them practically invisible. Popular fashion brands have profited off of Black culture. They don’t hesitate to monetize it. But how often are they honest about that? How often do they shine a light on it, and pass the mic to Black scholars, curators, stylists and designers? Well, that’s what we’re doing here.
In each episode, I’m taking you on a journey through various elements of the Black experience in the fashion industry. We’re going to peel back the layers on a complex and beautiful past, present and future.
It’s impossible to capture the entire rich history of Black culture and fashion. But over the course of this series, we’ll tell you some fascinating stories and talk to some of the smartest folks I know.
Darnell-Jamal Lisby: My name is Darnell Jamal Lisby. I’m a fashion historian and curator.
Letesha Renee: Hi, my name is Letesha Renee and I am the owner and designer of Eugene Taylor brand.
Law Roach: Hi, my name is Law Roach image architect, celebrity, super stylist. I say that as humbly as possible.
Miko Underwood: My name is Miko Underwood. I am the founder and designer of Oak and Acorn Only For the Rebelles.
Brandice Daniel: I am Brandice Daniel and I’m the CEO and founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row.
Jasmine Guy: My name is Jasmine Guy. And I’ve been in School Daze and A Different World. I graduated from those schools.
Connor McKnight: My name is Connor McKnight. Now, I have my own brand. It’s my namesake label by Connor McKnight.
Monica Miller: My name is Monica Miller and I’m a professor of English and Africana studies at Barnard college.
April Walker: My name is April Walker. I am a maker and creator. I am also, as I like to say, a necessary rebel.
Monica Morrow and Boz Bradshaw: My name is Monica Morrow, wardrobe, stylist, costume designer. I’m Boz. I’m just her right hand.
Randy Cousin: My name is Randy Cousin. I’m senior vice president of product concept and proud leader of the People’s Place Program at Tommy Hilfiger.
Romeo Hunte: Hi, I’m Romeo Hunte, CEO and creative director of Romeo Hunte.
Ceci: My name is Ceci and my official title is Ceci. Some people call me the GOAT.
Jeffrey Banks: I am Jeffrey Banks. I am a clothing designer, men’s, women’s, kids. Uh, I’ve also designed a home, which I’m very proud of. And, later in life I became an author.
Kimberly: Those are some of the voices you’ll hear throughout our episodes; a few of the people working in many diverse areas of the industry.
Generally, when most people think of fashion, the focal point tends to be on models, celebrities and high profile designers. But, this often misses the important contributions of those who write articles, work behind the scenes of films, TV shows and music videos – and even the educators in academic institutions, museums and archives.
This particularly hits home for me, as my role as a fashion lecturer and researcher is rooted in the fascination with what we wear and its cultural impact.
I first fell in love with clothes, through my mother’s closet. I was raised in a Black Christian household, and Easter was a big deal. It was a time for fellowship, but also a time to dress up and show out with your style.
I still remember the details of my Easter outfit from when I was a little girl. My dress was white and had a wide, layered skirt made of wiry tulle. The fabric flared out like I was a doll. It had short, puffy sleeves and a little vest. My patent leather mary-jane shoes, lace trimmed socks and small purse that was crocheted by my Aunt Ann were all the whitest white! My hair was in a rollerset – identical to my mother’s signature style – and was adorned with a white headband. I felt beautiful that day – even though I had no real understanding of its significance.
I remember telling my mom, I wanna wear that again! And she told me, no, you can’t – that’s only for “Easter Sunday.” And I just thought, well, I wanna dress like this every day. If this is what style is, I want more!
A lot of the people I spoke with for this show also had an initial spark, the thing that inspired them to forge their way forward, even without a blueprint. I wanted to hear about those moments and influences – big or small – that set these people on the path to their respective careers.
Jeffrey Banks: My mother says that I could draw recognizable things, not stick figures when I could barely walk.
This is Jeffrey Banks. Designer, businessman and author. He came up directly under the tutelage of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, and designed for the popular label Merona Sport – increasing its sales by tens of millions of dollars during his tenure.
Jeffrey Banks: So it was August, 1963. I was 10 years old. What happened was, my parents were very concerned as were their friends, they all felt it was very important to go to the March on Washington, but they were concerned that there might be violence and so they asked, Myrtle Thompson who had been the head of the nursery school if she would open up the school for the day and have all of the kids of, of, of their friends stay there for safekeeping while their parents were at the march. And I remember reading a Ladies’ Home Journal that she had lying around. And I told Ms. Ms. Thompson that I was going to be a designer, just like Saint Laurent. And she put a real damper on it. She said, well, who, who, who’s ever heard of a Black designer? That’s, that’s ridiculous. And of course that only made me more determined, to prove her wrong.
Kimberly: And prove her wrong he did!
Jeffrey Banks: When I was 13, I made a ten-year plan of where I wanted to be by the time I was 23, that I wanted to have my own business, that I wanted to have won a Coty award that I wanted to have met Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and pretty much everything that I put in that list I, I had achieved.
Kimberly: Jeffrey’s ability to not only have lofty goals but achieve them is a talent as special as his design skills and business acumen. I mean, he surpassed his childhood dream and received 2 Coty awards, in 1977 and 1982. This was a prestigious award in the American fashion industry at the time, like the equivalent of an Oscar. The glass ceilings he shattered are made even more incredible when you remember, he was doing this in the 1970s and 80s.
Growing up, I would memorize all of the top models. I knew their personality traits, what country they came from, and even who their favorite designers to walk for were. As my interests evolved, it was no longer just about Naomi Campbell – I gravitated towards figures like Andre Leon Talley, Bethann Hardison and later on, Jeffrey Banks. And speaking with him reinforces how important that representation was to me then and still is now.
But as I tried to figure out my career, I wondered if my love for fashion conflicted with my love for social justice, culture and environmental sustainability. Then, while studying cultural anthropology and art history, I had this aha moment, I realized that these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. And so I started to experiment with combining those worlds. One of my professors in undergrad encouraged me to write papers on the impact of dress – and to even apply to grad school. I went on to earn a Masters degree in Fashion Studies, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sometimes, our interests in our youth create a direct line to our career trajectory. Without us even knowing.
Ceci: Well, as I grew older, I now have a greater understanding of the fact that there’s lots of things that we’re exposed to as children. And you don’t really realize that it’s gonna be a thing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but for me fashion and costume design really became a thing.
Kimberly: Ceci is a prolific costume designer, who didn’t take a traditional route to where she is now.
Ceci: My mom used to sew for myself and my sisters, I’m the youngest of 5. And I started sewing when I was four. And a lot of it was out of necessity. And, you know, I didn’t go to school for fashion design. These were just God-given talents that I honed and that I just, you know, kind of forged my way through the industry and manifesting different opportunities and you know, one thing led to the other.
Kimberly: Ceci has worked on shows like, A Different World (more on that later in the series), Sister Sister, Living Single and most recently The Wonder Years reboot. And, one of the foundational elements of her craft was established through her daddy and daughter dates to the fabric shop as a child.
Ceci: My dad used to take me to his favorite store, and he would say, Ceci now right here, this fabric look at it. Now this is elegant. This is beautiful. And look at this combination. If you put this with this, oh, beautiful, it’s impeccable. Now look at this here. Now this right here, no, this is cheap. You don’t want this the, don’t, look at that. And he would teach me what tone on tone was. He would teach me what you know, about tie pins and accessories. And, I just loved going there with him. And my dad built a, uh, sewing room for my mom. Floor to ceiling on two walls were just bolts and bolts of fabric. So I started sewing for my dolls, and then I started sewing for myself at four.
Kimberly: Ceci’s entry into the industry was made possible after working behind the scenes of a fashion show for a networking organization she was part of.
Ceci: Well, the next morning a photographer that was part of this networking organization called and says, Ceci, bring everything you have bring. I said, what are you talking about? Bring everything you have from last night, whatever you have in your closet, just whatever you made, just bring it, bring it, bring to the studio. So I get to the studio and they’re doing a print ad for Mountain Dew with Bunny DeBarge and Janet Jackson. As the shoot is going on, the art director said, oh my God, you are the best stylist ever. You are just amazing. Like I can’t. Oh, just great. So I was like, oh great. Thank you so much. Thank you. When he walked away, I whispered to the photographer. I said, what the hell is a stylist? And, which sounds ludicrous today, cause everybody knows what that is. But when I started, I had no idea that that was a career.
Kimberly: Fashion is an endeavor of the heart and soul. It says so much about how we view ourselves, and what we want to project to the world.
Romeo: Hip Hop spoke to me, Biggie was like one of the first hip hop albums, each track, I was like obsessed with that whole album.
Kimberly: Romeo Hunte is a designer. His clothes have been worn by Michelle Obama and Beyonce. He’s the CEO and Creative Director of his namesake label, and has collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger on a capsule collection.
Romeo: Also, like everything from Wu Tang to like, Lil Kimberly, Foxy and Diddy and Mase and the whole vibe. Like it was just, I think that even with their style was very much like it was, it was suits and it was swag and it was, um, you know, Jay-Z, everybody was like, you know, they had their own iconic looks.
Kimberly: That New York energy, influential in Romeo’s upbringing, can also be found in his unique designs today.
Romeo: When it comes down to New York really it’s, it’s the word fly, dope, fresh. And then swag, I think swag is just, you know, they all kind of have the same meaning, but, it’s kind of like taking clothing and just having your own twist or your own narrative. Before, like, when I first started, I did not want to be labeled as a streetwear designer. I just really wanted people to really see what I was bringing to the table and overall look. And I think today, streetwear is not just, oh, it has to be like ripped jeans and a t-shirt or baggy or oversized. You have to make it your own. Like, you can wear a gown and make it streetwear. And I feel like, you know, that’s just what, I have like a great balance between like something that could be formal, or street or it’s a great combination of high, low.
Kimberly: When talking about “Blackness and fashion,” streetwear inevitably comes up. It has Black America’s cultural fingerprint all over it. For various, and sometimes complicated reasons, many Black designers find their entry point into the industry via streetwear. It can invoke a sense of pride for some, and for others, a feeling of being boxed in.
But with all that said, the significance and influence of streetwear should not and cannot be denied. After all, the vast majority of us aren’t wearing luxury or couture on a daily basis – especially these days.
So! What do we consider or define as streetwear? We took to the streets of Brooklyn and asked some people their thoughts.
Speaker 1: Uh, streetwear to me, I feel like, you know Jordans, whatever sneaker you got, I like Jordans so I wear Jordans, or a good pair of jeans, a shirt, a biker jacket or a hoodie depending on the weather, maybe a fitted hat. So that’s what streetwear is to me.
Speaker 2: Basically whatever’s in, whatever’s hyped, whatever’s selling. What’s popular, what’s on social media.
Speaker 3: It goes according to your mood. Yeah, that’s how I am.
Speaker 4: I mean, I’m from New York, everything we do is streetwear, so I think it’s anything that is personal aesthetic turnt up. However – you know whether it’s a suit, whether it’s formal wear, whether it’s jeans and Timbs. Like, it’s all streetwear to me.
Speaker 5: Something that’s always changing and evolving, right. What was popular yesterday can kind of change overnight, you know. And it’s young and it’s energetic. Because young people pretty much set streetwear trends, whatever they are.
Kimberly: Streetwear is always changing and resignifying itself. So even though the fashion industry sometimes thinks of it in a limited way, I want us to remember that the creativity and innovation within streetwear is boundless. And it will continue to evolve based on our lifestyles and interests.
I’ve had the honor of speaking with so many talented, and knowledgeable people in the fashion industry and academia. But there are two people, foundational to fashion, whom I’ve never spoken with.
Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly are no longer here to tell us their own stories. Their absences stand out in particular – it’s a painful reminder of a generation that was irrevocably changed, from those who were lost to complications from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Both men became notable figures in the fashion industry and innovators in their own right.
Willi Smith pioneered looks inspired by the streets of New York. He made loose and comfortable clothes that were made from high quality fabrics, but were still accessible to the average person’s pocket.
Darnell: Willi only used natural fibers. He was not into using, uh, synthetic fibers.
Kimberly: Darnell-Jamal Lisby is one of the voices you heard earlier. He’s a fashion historian, an Assistant Curator at The Cleveland Museum of Art and previously worked on the “Willi Smith: Street Couture” exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in 2021.
Darnell: He was only using wool, cotton, uh, and linen in majority of all of his clothes. And he sold them for very inexpensive prices. And you were still getting fashionable ensembles for a very convenient price. So in all things considered, every aspect that fashion touches today, Willi Smith was an arbiter of taste back then who was doing this.
Kimberly: Willi’s brand, WilliWear, was wildly successful and it was one of the first labels to carry both womenswear and menswear under the same name.
Willi was an “artist’s designer,” fearless in his collaborations with other artists. His creative vision was not exclusive to clothes. He was just as comfortable designing limited edition T-shirts with his friends in the New York art scene. He was also designing for ballet, film and interior spaces.
In an appearance on the popular 1980s talk show Donahue, WilliWear was featured for the entire hour, and Willi Smith shared his design outlook with the audience.
Archival of Willi: I, I spend like a lot of time, in the street, trying to observe what people are wearing, what they need, what they don’t need, I’m one of those designers that, I don’t, I don’t let the sort of fashion world dictate to me, and, I just think you should be able to work all kinds of looks into your existing wardrobe.”
Kimberly: Just in the way I fell in love with clothes through my mother’s closet, Willi was inspired by his mother and grandmother. He once wrote, “my mother and grandmother were always ladies of style, they taught me that you didn’t have to be rich to look good. I believe that good clothes don’t have to be expensive.”
Our elders often leave us with unspoken but lasting memories that help shape who we become. Like Willi Smith, Patrick Kelly learned his first lessons in fashion as a child growing up in Mississippi, watching his grandmother.
Patrick’s upbringing had a profound impact on his design sensibilities. He took racist imagery from The American South, and remixed its power to fit his own ideas of representation and whimsy.
In fact, one of the most iconic symbols that you could spot from a Patrick Kelly collection was his appropriation of the “golliwog” — known to most of us as the cartoonish “blackface.” Kelly took this triggering symbol and reclaimed it as a way to confront its original, harmful meaning, placing it playfully on various chic, body-conscious dresses and even his shopping bags.
His body hugging designs were also in celebration of all body types. He had this to say, in a 1989 interview.
Archival of Patrick: “You have to be proud if you’re big, if you’re round, if you’re skinny, if you’re short, if you come to me you’re definitely going to have a smile, cause the things are whimsical.”
Kimberly: But Kelly’s designs weren’t all about provocation – they were also a nod to his upbringing… and paid homage to those he loved. For instance, another way that you could spot a Patrick Kelly piece, was through the generous use of colorful buttons. Kelly would often have countless buttons added to a shoulder-padded ensemble, formed in the shape of a big heart. This was a direct callback to his grandmother, Ethel Rainey’s influence. She would add mismatched buttons to Kelly’s clothes as a humble way of keeping his clothes together, and Kelly never forgot about those marks of care. It speaks to the larger tradition within African-American culture of making do and doing it with style.
Both Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly were at the height of their careers when they passed.
Patrick Kelly had recently become a member of the Chambre Syndicale, an exclusive group of designers based in Paris. He was the first American included.
Willi Smith’s label WilliWear was netting over 25 million dollars at its height in the 1980s. And he collaborated with artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Keith Haring and Spike Lee.
Had Willi and Patrick remained with us, there’s no telling what the reach of their visions would’ve been.
The ripples these two men have created, by disrupting still waters, are still being felt today.
Black culture has contributed to the story of American fashion. And this podcast is a way to pay homage to some of those contributions. Over the coming episodes, we’ll take a look at how Historically Black Colleges and Universities have broadened the understanding of Blackness.
We’ll take to the streets and investigate the role our clothes play as we protest injustice.
We’ll get into the history of influential textiles and styles.
And, we’ll talk about the future, and what work lies ahead.
In our next episode though, we’re talking music!
We discuss the rise of hip-hop, the fashion that came to prominence alongside it, and share stories from the people who were not only there, but instrumental in the evolution.
April Walker: We were ripping up our jeans, we were painting on them. We were bling blinging. We were bleaching. We were doing all these things, but I couldn’t go in the store and buy something that expressed that lifestyle of who we were.
Elena: I can’t have this conversation without tipping our hats to Ralph McDaniels and Video Music Box.
Monica: 20 years ago it would’ve been met with so much resistance. Now. It’s like, what do you need? Because they see the importance of our culture!
Kimberly: While you’re waiting for the next episode, you can check out resources that dive into the topics we talked about here, and more! Find this episode’s syllabus right below the episode description, wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Like I tell my fashion students – you have to know your history, to understand the present and shape the future.
The Invisible Seam is an original podcast created in partnership with The Fashion and Race Database, Tommy Hilfiger’s People’s Place Program and Pineapple Street Studios.
I founded the Fashion and Race Database in 2017 to center and amplify the voices of people who’ve been racialized and marginalized in fashion. Our work, like this podcast, focuses on illuminating under-examined histories and addressing racism throughout the fashion system.
I’m grateful to the Tommy Hilfiger People’s Place Program for their support of this project. The People’s Place Program exists to advance and support underrepresented communities in fashion and beyond. They’ve made this show possible. My co-visionaries are Randy Cousin, SVP Product Concepts and People’s Place Program, and Dominique Bacote, Manager, Earned Media Communications and People’s Place Program.
And from Pineapple Street Studios, our Executive Producers for The Invisible Seam are Je-Anne Berry, Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Max Linsky. Himie Freeman is our Production Coordinator and Yinka Rickford-Anguin is our Associate Producer.
The Invisible Seam is produced by Stephen Key, Sophia Steinert-Evoy, and me, Kimberly Jenkins. Our editor is Aaron Edwards.
Our Head of Sound & Engineering is Raj Makhija. We are engineered to perfection, or very close to it, by Davy Sumner. Original music by OakTown Soul and additional tunes from Epidemic Sound.
Teri Agins, Sha’Mira Covington, Kimberly Drew, Nick Nelson and Miko Underwood reviewed episodes as part of our advisory committee. Thanks for sharing your expertise and perspective, and giving thoughtful notes.
Legal services for Pineapple Street Studios by Bianca Grimshaw at Granderson Des Rochers and Katy Alimohammadi at Donaldson Calif Perez.
Fact checking by Will Tavlin. Our show art was designed by Curt Courtenay and Lauren Viera at Cadence 13.
Additional material by NBCUniversal Syndication Studios and Bell Studios.
Special thanks to Sharon Bardales, Emerald O’Brien, Mara Davis and Ken Maiden.
Thanks for listening!