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Rita Kohn

designer, businesswoman, and civic leader, was born Alpha Coles in Lynchburg, Virginia, the youngest of eight children of Alphonso Carroll Coles and Minnie Pugh Coles. Growing up, Blackburn attended a segregated school system, and went on to win a scholarship to Howard University, from which she graduated with honors, attaining a bachelor of arts in Design and a master of fine arts in painting and Art History. In 1964 she moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband, Walter Scott Blackburn, who had completed his degree in architecture at Howard. She commenced work as a freelance designer of clothing and interiors.

Blackburn's petite figure and radiant good looks created opportunities for her to model, and she accepted a steady job at the prestigious L. S. Ayres & Company in downtown Indianapolis. Concurrently, she hosted a half‐hour daily talk show from 1972 to 1978, Indy Today on WISH ...


Ingrid Schorr

curator, fashion designer, dancer, and artist, was born James Watson in rural Woodruff, South Carolina, to sharecropper parents whose names are unknown. Little information about his early years is available except that he attended the Fashion Institute of New York and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before moving to New York in the 1960s.

As Chanticleer established himself as a fashion designer in New York City he also began to propagate the biographical embellishments and falsehoods that would be repeated until his death: that he was born in Harlem to a Barbadian concert pianist and a Haitian high school principal; that he completed a master's degree at the Sorbonne; that as a five-year-old he designed a prize-winning folding chair for a competition at the 1940 World's Fair.

Whether or not he grew up in Harlem Chanticleer identified so strongly with its place at the center of black history and ...


Donna L. Halper

suffragist and political activist, was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1872 (some sources, notably U.S. Census records, say 1874) to Alfred and Barbara Dillard. Little is known of her early life, but she received training as a dressmaker and clothing designer, studying in London and Paris as well as in the United States.

On 28 September 1898 she married William Harvey Higgins, who had recently graduated from medical school in North Carolina. They lived in New York City while he completed some additional training at Long Island Medical College, and during that period Bertha operated her own dressmaking shop. By 1903William Higgins had opened a medical practice in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was one of the city's few black physicians. As was customary in those days, Higgins gave up her profession after the birth of the couple's first child, Prudence, in 1913 However ...


Lisa E. Rivo

fashion designer, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Letha Kelly, a home economics teacher, and Danie Kelly, variously a fisherman, cabdriver, and insurance agent, who left the family when his son was a boy. Patrick and his siblings were raised by their mother and grandmother, Ethel Rainey, a maid and cook.

As a young boy Patrick was struck by the absence of black models in the fashion magazines that his grandmother brought home from her work in the homes of local white families. By junior high Patrick was designing and sewing dresses for neighborhood girls, and by high school he was designing display windows and drawing newspaper ads for local stores. Following his 1972 graduation from Vicksburg High School he spent two years at Jackson State University before dropping out and moving to Atlanta where he volunteered to design the shop windows at the Yves ...


Elizabeth Way

fashion designer, was born in Clayton, Alabama, to Jack Lowe and Janey Cole Lowe. Little is known of Jack Lowe, however Janey Lowe and her mother, Georgia Cole, were talented dressmakers. The family moved to Montgomery, Alabama, when Ann was a young child, and her mother and grandmother ran a successful business, designing gowns for the wealthy white women of the city. They taught Ann their skills, and by the age of five she could recreate flowers from the garden with their fabric scraps. Though many women could sew in the early twentieth century, Lowe learned advanced dressmaking techniques that equipped her to create couture-quality gowns, as well as to own and operate her own business, a rare achievement for a black woman at the time.

In December 1914 Janey Lowe died leaving the sixteen year old Ann to finish four gowns ordered by the first lady of ...


Eleanor D. Branch

fashion designer, was born Willi Donnell Smith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Willie Lee Smith, an ironworker, and June Eileen (Bush) Smith, a homemaker. He had two siblings, a brother Norman and a sister Doris, known as Toukie. As a child Smith showed an interest in art and, encouraged by his parents, also took an interest in clothing design. He attended Mastbaum Technical High School, where he studied commercial art. In 1962 he studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art but knew almost immediately that he would rather be a fashion designer. At seventeen his ambitions took him to New York City and the Parsons School of Design. During his two years at Parsons, he worked as an illustrator for designers like Arnold Scaasi. When he left Parsons in 1967 he freelanced for the Bobbie Brooks Company and did ...


costume and fashion designer, was born Zelda Barbour in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of seven children of Blanche Christian Barbour, a homemaker, and James Barbour, a cook on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Zelda received a Catholic school education that included training in music. As was typical for girls growing up in the early twentieth century, she learned to sew as a child by making doll clothes. She refined her technique observing her grandmother's skilled dressmaking and recalled in a 1994 interview (Gonzalez, 1994) that at a young age she made a dress for her grandmother that so pleased the older woman that she was buried in it.

During her long career Zelda Valdes was known by various names including Zelda Valdes Zelda Wynn Valdes and Zelda Wynn Her career in fashion began when she moved to White Plains New York as a teenager where she worked in ...