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Meet 10 Black Icons Who’ve Shaped Fashion History

Who decides what a fashion icon looks like? Stylist Melissa Chataigne spotlights 10 creatives responsible for driving the fashion industry forward toward a more stylish and inclusive future.

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It’s fun to watch the fashion industry anoint and dethrone new trends each season. But when it comes to who is in or out, that fun can turn cutthroat—and tends to make for a more homogeneous-looking industry. 

The prevailing look, which over-indexes on thin, white bodies, has been challenged throughout fashion history, often by Black trailblazers devoted to pushing the boundaries of what a fashion icon looks like. But their work to drive the industry forward isn’t always met with the accolades they’ve earned. It’s something top of mind for TV host and style expert Melissa Chataigne, a TODAY Show regular who uses her platform to advocate for a more inclusive fashion scene, from Los Angeles Times op-eds to her blog and weekly newsletter, Elevated Living.

“It feels like all the ‘great ones’ are departing daily,” she says. “The recent passing of fashion editor, tastemaker, and creative director André Leon Talley has made me think of how much he and countless other Black creatives contribute to the luxury fashion world playing the proverbial ‘maid,’ ‘assistant’ or ‘friend,’ only to never receive due credit from the celebrities, designers, and people they made into millionaires.” 

“These mavericks laid the groundwork for how we view the arts and paved monumental opportunities for us,” she continues. “And yet, Tally died facing eviction, fighting bankruptcy, and feeling rejected and disposed of by many of the people he made rich and famous.”

Here, Chataigne pays tribute to Tally, plus nine more fashion industry giants who didn’t just elevate style as we know it, but made it possible for new generations to move the needle even further.

Image by Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images

A New Line: Robin Givhan Interviews André Leon Talley [WATCH]

Washington Post Live

Melissa Chataigne: “André was a true living encyclopedia of fashion—who also pushed the field forward in so many glorious ways. He helped craft the Obamas’ style, elevated TV shows from Top Model to Tamron Hall Show, and was Anna Wintour’s backbone at Vogue for many years. Without André, who knows if we would have had legends like Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Naomi, Tyra Banks, or Lindsay Peoples Wagner? Certainly, there would be no place for me on television.

I love this interview by Washington Post critic-at-large, Robin Givhan, about André’s life and career. It’s all-encompassing and beautiful, like his greatness.”

Sewing for Joy: Ann Lowe

Nancy Davis
National Museum of American History

MC: “Ann Lowe was one of the first high-end African American fashion designers—and she dressed all the high society women, from the Roosevelts to the Rockefellers. Lowe is also responsible for designing one of the most famous wedding dresses in history: The gown Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married JFK. (She designed the wedding party’s dresses as well). Shamefully, Lowe didn’t receive proper credit for her contribution to fashion history until years later.”

The Bond Between Mary Todd Lincoln and Her Seamstress [WATCH]

Smithsonian Channel

MC: “Before Elizabeth Keckley became Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal dressmaker, she was enslaved by a family in St. Louis. After buying her freedom, Keckley established herself as a skillful seamstress for the most influential women in Washington D.C., as well as a civil activist and author. What is most interesting is that people either claim that Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln were very close—or that Keckley was miserable. We will never know.”

Overlooked No More: Jay Jaxon, Pioneering Designer of French Couture

Rachel Felder
The New York Times

MC: “As the first Black designer of French couture, Jay Jaxon worked in esteemed Parisian fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Dior, creating both couture and ready-to-wear. From the streets of Paris to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame to his native New York, the Queens-born fashion designer left his mark; a traveling exhibition by his posthumous biographer, Rachel Fenderson, ensures many more will know his name.”

Six Facts About Stephen Burrows, the Pioneering African American Designer of the ’70s

Greta Jelen

MC: “In 1973, American and French designers went up against each other in the dramatically named ‘Battle of Versailles’—a fashion event so major, Donna Karan attended only as an assistant. If you watched the Netflix film Halston, you might have noticed that there was only one Black designer in the midst, Stephen Burrows. Burrows, a classmate and contemporary of Jay Jaxon, went on to become the king of ‘70s fashion (Cher and Diana Ross were fans), and the first African American designer to capture international fame under his own name.”

Tracy Reese Says She’s Experienced More Discrimination for Her Gender Than Her Race

Whitney Bauck

MC: “I could not make this list and not include Ms. Tracy Reese, who has been a Board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) since 2007—and has been holding the door open for Black designers for even longer. Reese specializes in women’s ready-to-wear clothing, accessories, and home fashions, with a specialty in slow fashion. In this short piece, she offers great advice to other designers looking to pave their way in the industry.”

Naomi Campbell Meets Virgil Abloh [WATCH]

British Vogue

MC: “When someone close to your age dies, you always reflect on your own mortality. I’ve always admired Virgil Abloh as he, like me, was raised by immigrant parents in Illinois, attended a Big Ten School, and switched careers to fashion. Virgil rose through the ranks, surpassing barriers of color and class, to be the first Black artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line—and CEO of his own label, Off-White. His impact on the world through fashion, art, and culture will be forever felt, especially as he fought to make space for people of color in the fashion world. His untimely death is a reminder that we must create, love, celebrate, and live a #lifewellstyled. Here, watch one of my favorite interviews of Virgil as he describes how he manifested his rise.”

This Meghan-Markle-Loved Designer Is About to Change the Entire Fashion Industry

Samantha Sutton

MC: “Victor Glemaud is one of my favorite designers, known for his joyful knits that stun on the runway, as well as in his recent diffusion line for Target. Glemaud is of Haitian descent and started his career in fashion PR before going on to create a name for himself with stunning, size-inclusive knitwear adored by stars like Selena Gomez and Ashley Graham. He’s also an incredible example of someone who ‘lifts as he climbs,’ having recently started the digital-first networking and mentoring group IN THE BLK, devoted to ‘creating and expanding spaces for fellow Black designers.’ I’m always inspired by his passion and vision, as well as his mindful aesthetic.”

Salone Monet Talks Shoe Company and Inclusivity [WATCH]

BNC News

MC: “It’s easy to write off nude heels as a frivolous accessory—unless they literally don’t exist for you. So I’m grateful to Salone Monet, who launched a line of color-inclusive nude shoes that quickly became favorites of Oprah, Beyoncé, and other one-named wonders. She’s a brilliant designer who works to identify barriers hiding in plain sight; keep an eye out for her designs, which will also be featured at the Black in Fashion Council discovery showroom at Fashion Week in fall 2022.”

5 Reasons Why Grace Wales Bonner Is a Force of Fashion

Chioma Nnadi

MC: “Grace is the breath of fresh air fashion needed. This Jamaican-Brit is a force devoted to changing and elevating the way we get dressed. She manages to bring art, activism, and music to her work, treating fans to poems and Solange performances at her fashion shows, and incorporating the work of Black writers from James Baldwin to Ishmael Reed into her designs. Though Grace is newer to fashion than many on this list, her devotion to lifting those around her—fashion industry people or not—is notable. I think it’s safe to say that she’s the future of Black fashion.”

Melissa Chataigne

Melissa Chataigne is a television host, style expert, speaker, and content creator known for her on-screen work for TODAY, Access Hollywood, and E!’s Daily Pop—as well as her YouTube channel, The Chataigne Room.

A Chicagoland native and Haitian-American, Chataigne is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has over 13 years of experience styling celebrities and working as a brand ambassador and style consultant for some of the biggest names in fashion and beauty. In addition to her writing work (from the Los Angeles Times to her blog and weekly newsletter, Elevated Living), Chataigne is the founder of lifestyle brand, Oui Carole, known for handmade ceramics for intentional living.