by Michael Garrett·
Hidden figures are those brilliant, creative individuals who pursue a future that most can’t see and who are rarely every seen or recognized. They are visionaries who are also less visible. For #BlackHistoryMonth we’re going to highlight some of the powerhouses but not-so-famous Black men and women behind fashion and streetwear.
First up, meet the original streetwear designer, Willi Smith, who was driven by his hate for high fashion. You’re also going to meet the man behind the signature looks of Studio 54 and so many others. Enjoy as we shine the light on these Black men and women creative visionaries who were also hidden figures of fashion.
Modern rock star streetwear designers owe their careers to Willi Smith's hatred. Hatred? Yes, hatred. In the 1970's Willi Smith was an aspiring designer who started his career interning in high fashion for Arnold Scaasi. He hated it. He turned his nose up at the strict rules of high fashion. Smith felt a stronger pull and was inspired by the downtown New York art scene, so he started his own brand called Willi Wear. With WilliWear, Smith defined the ethos of streetwear when he said that his "clothes are not for the Queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by." Unbeknownst to him,Smith birthed what is now known today as streetwear.
Collections by the brand consistently featured contemporary (at the time) influences and hip-hop dancer inspired graphics, with zoot-suit inspired tailoring and baggy, loose fitting pieces. Emphasizing the way he discussed his brand is the exact way of finding out the legacy Willi Smith left with his now-classic brand, and making his imprint on today’s streetwear culture crystal clear. Along with introducing his streetwear in show settings, Smith also broke ground in his collaborations with various artists, including legend Keith Haring.
Willi Wear brought together strong graphics, wearable clothes and artist collabs, all seen as revolutionary at the time. We can't help but wonder what he would think about streetwear's push towards high fashion. What do you think he would say?
Next up, meet
Stephen Burrows: Fashion for that Disco Fever
Born in 1943 in Newark, New Jersey, Stephen Burrows created a legacy unseen by many new recruits to the fashion industry today. He sought to set American fashion free from Parisian influences, and, in so doing, eventually gave us that disco look. His early beginnings in design work led him to discover what would later become his signature zig-zag stitch, as well as an overall appreciation for the exposed lines that were unmissable on his clothing. After kick starting his career through 4-years of fashion studies, first at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art followed by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Burrows set out to allow American fashion to break free from its Parisian influence. After his years spent sharpening his design abilities, Barrows began to perfect his signature stitching technique with threads of varying colors, resulting in a “lettuce hem,” a term coined by his legacy.
With the increased success of his work, Burrows co-opted the creation of O Boutique to a cult following, eventually leading to the “Stephen Burrows’ World” boutique within a Henri Bendel store in New York City. Discovered by Cher and Diana Ross, Burrows embodied the quintessential look of the disco era. The exposure gained from his store ultimately redefined American fashion, and to this day takes much of the credit for the construction details utilized by many of your favorite brands today. Stephen Burrows: The man behind that dressed and stitched an era.
Telfar Clemens: A Niche for Everyone
Pushing up against the hyper targeting, exclusivity of fashion, Telfar Clemens found his niche: for everyone. Genderless, accessible, vegan, yet made with high caliber materials, beautifully designed, Telfar Clemens’ fashion landed right in the middle of the fashion world, quite literally.
Born in Queens, New York, a crucial portion of Telfar Clemens’ upbringing occurred in Liberia, until he returned to the United States, pursuing a modelling career soon thereafter. His first experiences with fashion provided the designer with the momentum that carried him to forming his self-titled brand while attending Pace University in 2005. The label focused on inclusivity and the idea that “It’s not for you--it's for everyone.” Since forming his brand, Telfar has remained fully self-taught, confirming his talent and creative abilities.
Like most legendary brands, Telfar started to fill a void in the fashion sphere. Consistently remaining fully unisex, Telfar’s seemingly endless number of staple pieces has made it one of the most recognizable brands in recent years. This is most often the case for the brand’s vegan leather bags, ranging vastly in color and size. Additionally, the brand has never failed in staying true to its vintage inspirations, maintaining a strong selection of resewn and reconstructed garments made for anyone, put simply, wanting to look good. Not convinced yet? Then you may want to check out the uniforms the brand designed for White Castle (yes, THAT White Castle), as well as the Ugg and Converse collaborations in the past year alone. Finding a niche is challenging for anyone, but sometimes it just needs for all of us. Call it the Telfar brilliance.