Ann Lowe, Jackie Kennedy’s Wedding Dress Designer, Was Almost Left Out of Fashion History. Charlene Prempeh Wants to Make Sure That Won’t Happen Again.

In her new book, the author of Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design explores the relationship between identity and creativity. “This body of work serves as a timely reminder of why it’s important to scrutinize the way people are treated and to think about what the outcomes are when Black people are treated with a lack of integrity,” she recently told Vanity Fair.
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From Serena Brown/Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy J.Paul Getty Trust & Smithsonian National Museum ofAfrican American History & Culture.

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In the introduction to Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design, author Charlene Prempeh writes that the book is “ultimately an inquiry of what it means to create when your Blackness is inescapable.” The idea to trace 100 years of Black design history through larger arcs that probe into the relationship between identity and creativity first came to Prempeh, the founder of creative agency A Vibe Called Tech, while she was consulting on “Pioneers of the Past,” a self-portrait series of Black artists in collaboration with Gucci and the North Face. An unfamiliar name came into Prempeh’s purview: Ann Lowe. Prempeh, who is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times, centers her work on championing Black creatives and could not believe this was the first time she was learning about the designer who created the ivory silk taffeta wedding dress that Jackie Kennedy wore to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953.

This sparked Prempeh’s curiosity, leading her to consider what other names she might now know, that others might not know, that should be integral in the lexicon of design history. Research ensued, resulting in a compendium that not only introduces 100 years of Black design but also interrogates what racial politics can reveal about the way we understand history.

“I made a conscious decision early on to instead explore themes. Looking at Ann Lowe made me think about what other Black women have been involved in the fashion space of the first ladies? So you have Elizabeth Keckley and Michelle Obama. Ditto Norma Sklarek in architecture. I wasn’t looking at Black female architects overall: I was interested in using architecture as the departure point to understand what it means to be the first. Because that still happens today,” she said.

Portrait of Elizabeth Keckley.Courtesy the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites, from the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Prempeh recently spoke with Vanity Fair about how the book came together, the implications of the erasure of Black creatives in art history, and the power of language.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vanity Fair: I was at the “Women Dressing Women” exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and came across a dress designed by Zelda Wynn Valdes (who is included in your book) featured through imagery in the exhibition as opposed to other designer’s original garments and this kind of tangible grappling with the racial politics in America and the way they inform the preservation of art was really powerful to me. What kind of obstacles did you encounter in your research process that were indicative of erasure that has happened over the past hundred years?

Charlene Prempeh: It was COVID, so just getting into libraries to see things wasn’t easy or straightforward. In terms of personal artifacts of the designers…let’s say, for argument’s sake, I was writing a book on [Yves] Saint Laurent, right? There would be someone somewhere who has archived all of his lessons, all of his objects, all of his postcards…

An appointed historian whom you can meet with.

There was none of that for the designers. I knew there had been some interesting writing done, but there weren’t huge swaths of critical books around the designers, which I thought was quite interesting. With other designers, there were counter-perspectives, which help you navigate your own vision [of their work]. But for these guys, there’d be one or two books maximum, and then a lack of any critique on those books. There wasn’t this kind of body of work to understand their practice. For me, that’s what was most obvious, how there hasn’t been serious thought applied over the years.

Joyce Bryant in a figure-hugging gown by Zelda Wynn Valdes, 1953.Van Vechten Trust. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Were there moments in your research that were really maddening, really satisfying, or just really surprising to you?

Two things come to mind straight away. The Ann Lowe letter to Jackie Kennedy [after Ladies’ Home Journal referred to Lowe only as “a colored woman dressmaker” in an interview with Kennedy in 1961], even just thinking about it makes me a bit teary. That moment of her saying, “You have to respect me. You have to show me respect, show my discipline respect.” I found that letter unbelievably moving. It gave a voice to how I’ve felt in the past, how other Black women I know have felt in the past. I felt really proud of her. It’s not easy to speak to power like that when you have very little of your own.

Another moment that always makes me laugh is when I think about Willi Smith and James Baldwin on holiday in the South of France. James Baldwin was basically ranting about the hell that is being Black in America, and Willi Smith was like, “I just want to make clothes.” Both of those dances are so valid. Do we need to engage in the struggle? I think the answer is, it’s up to everyone individually. I hate the assumption that because you are someone of color, or because you’re Black, that you then have to be miserable. It’s a choice. You decide how you want to engage, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be through your professional legacy. Or at all, in fact.

Black creatives deserve the right to simply exist in their creativity in the same way that white creatives are allowed to. When a white designer calls themselves a dressmaker, they’re humble, and they’re commended, and they just care about the clothes. But when you think of someone like Ann Lowe, it’s a different conversation because the connotation [of dressmaker] changes. That’s where it gets very complicated. For you, what is the role of language in this context?

I find with [Black creatives] I interview, that they are so particular about how they’re described, how their work is positioned, so rightly concerned about their skills being diminished—language can do that quite quickly. It’s weaponized in that way. When it comes to the hierarchy of design, it matters a lot for Black creatives.

McBain’s iconic “Black is Beautiful” advertisement for Vince Cullers Advertising, 1968.Emmett McBain, 1968. Reproduced with kind permission of Letta McBain. Courtesy of University of Illinois Chicago, Special Collections and University Archives.

In the United States, February is Black History Month, and it becomes a time where all of this niche Black history gets brought to the forefront and then everything kind of disappears again. With this book being released in February, why is it so important to continue these conversations beyond this month?

There’s a very different experience in being Black in London from my understanding of being Black in America. Right now, in America, there is such a backlash taking place around diversity in politics, in schools, and in corporate spaces. This body of work, and the history of what’s taken place, serves as a timely reminder of why it’s important to scrutinize the way people are treated and to think about what the outcomes are when Black people are treated with a lack of integrity, and that’s not something just for this month. It’s not even something that’s specific to design. These stories give us a segue to seeing how little has changed, but also to think about what beauty can arise when Black creativity is given the space to thrive.