Celebrating black design - Designer Biographies

Stephen Burrows and model Jennifer Brice

Stephen Burrows and model Jennifer Brice

Stephen burrows

Stephen Burrows broke into New York's fashion scene in the late 1960s as a young graduate of FIT. Burrows loved to dance and frequented downtown clubs; often creating tailor-made outfits for his friends' nights on the dance floor. Before long his designs caught the eye of Geraldine Stutz, the owner of Henri Bendel, who was so impressed with his skills she gave him a boutique in their flagship Fifth Avenue store.

In 1973 Burrows made history as one of five emerging American designers selected to represent the US at the infamous Battle of Versailles. Burrows's presentation stole the show with his vivid colors, form fitting silhouettes, and most notably, his use of eleven black models. At the sight of Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, and Bethann Hardison, the audience of over eight hundred jumped to their feet, clapping and roaring. Burrows had broken fashion conventions and the racial barrier, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest designers of his time. 

Burrows lives and works in New York City. He a celebrated member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and is the recipient of numerous honors including the 2014 Andre Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award.


Scott Barrie

Scott Barrie, née Nelson Clyde Barr, was born in Apalachicola, Florida in 1946. Barrie was Influenced at an early age by his godmother, who had designed and made clothes for Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Barrie began designing at home as a teen and made plans for a future in fashion on Seventh Avenue. At the time, his mother famously warned him, "blacks don't make it there."

But Barrie pursued his dream, and arrived in New York City in 1962. Barrie supported himself with a series of jobs on Seventh Avenue and began cutting and sewing jersey dresses of his own designs in his apartment. After landing orders for Bloomingdale's and Henri Bendel, Barrie was able to open his own eponymous showroom in 1968.

Barrie moved to Milan in 1982, and designed for various labels produced by Japanese company Kinshido, as well as Italian design house Krizia. 

Barrie died of brain cancer in 1993 at the age of 52 in Alessandria, Italy.


Tracy Reese

American fashion designer Tracy Reese was born on February 12, 1964 in Detroit, Michigan. Reese inherited her passion for creating beautiful things and an eye for fashion from her mother. Some of her earliest memories are of designing and creating outfits from scratch with her mother on their sewing machine.

Reese went to Manhattan to pursue a career in fashion design. She attended Parsons School for Design and graduated in 1984. Early in her career, Reese worked at a small contemporary firm called Arlequin under Martine Sitbon. Reese went on to be appointed design director for women’s portfolio at Perry Ellis, and established her eponymous label in 1998. The label Tracy Reese was quickly picked up by Barney's New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and later expanded to include the lower priced lines Plenty And Frock!

Reese was inducted as a member of the CFDA in the year 2000.


Patrick robinson

Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Robinson grew up in Southern California where he began designing clothes for fellow surfers at the age of 14. After moving to New York and attending the Parsons School of Design, Robinson became an assistant to American-born couturier Patrick Kelly in Paris in 1986.

He left Paris to work briefly for Albert Nipon in New York, then returned to Europe as the Design Director for Giorgio Armani in Milan. Robinson, a New Yorker at heart, moved back in 1994, to become Senior Vice President of Design, Merchandising and Marketing for Anne Klein.

By 1996, Robinson started his own collection, winning numerous awards and named one of Vogue's top 100 rising stars in 1996. In April 2003, Robinson became the Creative Director of Perry Ellis Women’s Sportswear and then in 2005, was named Artistic Director for Paco Rabanne.

Robinson has been a Council of Fashion Designers of America member since 1994. In March 2004, Robinson received a CFDA Fashion Award nomination.

He continues to attract the eyes of celebrities and fashionistas alike with his eye for flattering cuts and chic luxurious style. Robinson is married to Vogue editor Virginia Smith, and the couple had their son, Wyeth, in 2003.


Bill Smith

Born in 1936 in Madison, Indiana, Bill Smith was highly creative from and young age and was encouraged by his family to explore his many artistic interests. After high school, Smith studied visual arts and dance at Indiana University and then left for New York pursue a career in dance.

While dancing under Alwin Nikolaisdance, Smith took a part time job casting and soldering with a jewelry company. As Smith's skills in fabrication grew, so did his love of jewelry design, and he soon left dance to focus full time on his jewelry. In 1958 Smith set up a small business in Murray Hill, Manhattan.

Smith worked steadily, building his career and reputation and in 1968 began working as head designer of Richelieu, at that time the second largest jewelry firm in America. After just two months with the company, executives were so impressed with Smith they made him vice president. Later that year, he was commissioned to exclusively create all the jewelry for the Broadway production of Coco, a stage musical about the life of Coco Chanel starring Katharine Hepburn.

Smith became known for his designs that paid tribute to his African heritage. His work was often bold and sculptural, and mixed elements such as semi precious and precious stones with fringe, cord, and suede. In 1970, Smith was awarded the prestigious Coty Award for his groundbreaking designs. 

Smith went on to design for top accessories and jewelry companies Cartier, Mark Cross, Omega, and Hattie Carnegie for Anne Klein. 



Simon was born in Kalamazoo Michigan. Artistic from an early age, Simon moved to Detroit in the 1960s and got a job as an apprentice to Zoe Dressai Dorland, a former couture sewer for the house of Lanvin in Paris. Dorland taught Simon draping, pattern making and sewing. Simon's first jobs on his own were making fantastic one of a kind costumes for drag queens and strippers in Detroit for their traveling shows. 

Simon moved to Los Angeles in 1978, and although already an skilled sewer and dressmaker in traditional couture design, he enrolled in Los Angeles Trade Tech College to learn sportswear and ready to wear pattern making. Since his arrival in Los Angeles, Simon has made costumes and clothing for countless productions, both film and stage, and dressed many of Hollywood's elite. His production credits include the burlesque costumes for The Treat and Last Day of Summer, and private clients include Lynn Whitfield, CCH Pounder, Gregory Hines, and Lorraine Toussaint.

In the late 1990s, Simon had the designed Chaka Khan's tour costumes, and most recently created costumes for Master P's dancers. 

Simon lives and works in Los Angeles. 


Patrick Kelly

Kelly, a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, studied art at Jackson State University and then attended Parsons School of Design. While living in Atlanta and working as an unpaid window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent store, Kelly sold reworked, recycled clothes and attracted private clients with his signature brand of unihibited spunk. In 1988, Pierre Bergé, chairman of YSL took notice of Kelly and personally sponsored Kelly to move to Paris and form womenswear fashion house Patrick Kelly Paris.

In 1988 Kelly became both the first American and the first person of color to be admitted as a member of the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode.

Some of Kelly's most memorable garments incorporated masses of multicolored buttons or grosgrain ribbons clustered together. Other motifs, like the use of hats and splashy accessories, celebrated his rural southern roots. Kelly also created works using controversial images drawn from popular culture, bringing issues of racial stereotyping to the forefront.

Kelly passed away at age 35 on New Year's Day, 1990 due to complications from AIDS.




carl jones 

Jones was born in Tennessee in 1955 but grew up in the Watts section of South-Central Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, he attended El Camino College, majoring in architectural engineering; he also studied at Otis Parsons School of Design and Trade.

Cross Colors was launched in 1989. Launched on the premise of producing “clothes without prejudices” Cross Colours helped establish a fashion market based around black youth. The clothing was used to broadcast political and social messages. 

The company’s success was so dramatic that Cross Colours took a booth at Black Expo U.S.A., an African American trade show, “to let consumers know we’re black-owned,” the company’s marketing director told Business Week. “We didn’t intend to come across as a militant company,”Jones noted in Black Enterprise —though he does take pride in Cross Colours’ pointedly multicultural staff. “We simply wanted to be known for making clothes for African Americans. That’s what our style is about, our colors, our fit.” As far as everyone else was concerned, he said, “We figured, if they dig it, they do; if they don’t, they don’t.”


Willi Smith

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in February 29th, 1948, Willi Donnell Smith studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and attended Philadelphia College of Art for fashion illustration. He then moved to New York City to go to Parsons The New School for Design.

In 1967, Smith quit Parsons to pursue a career designing on his own. In 1969 he designed a label for Digits, a sportswear company. In 1973, Smith, along with his sister Toukie Smith, founded their own clothing company that soon failed. Smith continued to design and in 1976 he went into business with Laurie Mallet and called the company "WilliWear Limited."

He designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book and comic strip in 1987, and the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986. Smith also designed clothes for Spike Lee's film School Daze.

Smith passed away at 39 due to complications of pneumonia on April 19th, 1987.