What do the satin leotard of the Playboy Bunny, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s first wedding gown and a wool jacquard Savile Row suit from 2016 have in common?
All were created by people of African descent, a new exhibit, called “Black Fashion Designers,” at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology will gently remind — or perhaps inform — its visitors.
This is far from the first time F.I.T., which takes care to diversify its mannequins and hosted the memorable-sounding Harveys Bristol Cream Tribute to the Black Designer in the 1980s, has honored minorities in the industry.
But “a lot of contributions have been overlooked,” Ariele Elia, the assistant curator of costume and textiles, who conceived the show, said during a tour on Tuesday, the day before it opened. “We wanted to bring attention to the history that people have forgotten and show some of the new faces that people might not be familiar with.” And name the names, which include, corresponding to the garments above: Zelda Wynn Valdes, Ann Lowe and Ozwald Boateng.
Making no claim to comprehensiveness, the show nonetheless packs a wide cultural range into a relatively small ground-floor space. It is easily navigated, should Ms. Elia be unavailable, with an app introduced by the booming voice of the Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, who served on the advisory committee (along with the longtime Ebony commentator Audrey Smaltz, one of many African-American muses featured).
“The show is about black makers, models and designers, as opposed to ‘black style,’ ” said Elizabeth Way, a curatorial assistant who worked with Ms. Elia, underscoring what might today be obvious but bears repeating: “There really isn’t a black style.”
Some designers draw consistently from ancient African traditions, like the Nigerian-born Duru Olowu, whose peacock-like ensemble opens the exhibition, and Mimi Plange, from Ghana and then California, whose quilting on a pink dress mimics the body art of scarification and who has been championed (among many other independent designers) by the first lady, Michelle Obama. “This is, like, our last tribute to Michelle,” Ms. Elia said with palpable wistfulness.
There are items as casual as the red-and-white printed shift designed by Laura Smalls that Ms. Obama wore in July to do a “Carpool Karaoke” segment with the late-night talk show host James Corden. And looks as formal as an evening dress designed by Eric Gaskins inspired by the painter Franz Kline, a white column adorned with what looked like big black brush strokes. “Done with tiny microbugle beads!” Ms. Way said. “He crushed them down into almost nothing.” (In recent years, Mr. Gaskins has been known for crushing the hot klieg lights of the fashion industry down to almost nothing on his addictively candid blog, the Emperor’s Old Clothes.)
Some pieces are familiar, thanks to show business celebrities, like a racy black lace gown by LaQuan Smith worn — barely — by Kim Kardashian to a yacht party in Cannes in 2015, and a white-net and Swarovski-crystal minidress by CD Greene that Tina Turner chose for her “Wildest Dream” tour in 1996. “She was having a problem showing up on stage, so she needed something that would really make her shine,” Ms. Way said.
Perhaps intuiting their own obsolescence, stars are now requesting something that actually makes them light up, and the young “creative technologist” Madison Maxey has been working on such innovations at her lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But her contribution here is subtler: a computer-code-generated print on hemp whose belt incorporates recycled computer and headphone cords (radically revising the old phrase “waste not, no waist”).
Ecological concern also crops up in a T-shirt knit from yarn spun out of plastic ocean waste by G-Star Raw, the label co-owned by the musician Pharrell Williams. This is in a section devoted to protest through clothing that showcases Kerby Jean-Raymond’s “They Have Names,” a homage to 13 unarmed black men who were killed by the police. “People are interested in this because it’s so timely,” Ms. Way said, “but we wanted to show that black designers have been working with activism for a very long time.”
Some of this activism centered around AIDS, which felled Karl Davis at 25 after only six collections, the last containing a sleek evening gown with Chanelesque back pockets that stands here as a sober monument to talent not fully realized. And in midcareer, Patrick Kelly, renowned not just for bright button embellishments but for his seizing back of racist figures like the pickaninny and golliwog, and Willi Smith, who found mass success designing for a new wave of working women, mixing patterns with joyful abandon.
For a brief shining moment, after advancements in civil rights, there was also newfound freedom after hours at the disco, with its court costumers like Stephen Burrows, he of the lettuce edge (like the Toll House cookie, a happy accident), James Daugherty and Scott Barrie. “Designers were breaking away from structuralism of the ’60s, and getting into something more body-conscious,” Ms. Way said, then made a sudden break from museum-ese. “I think just really it was all about the music.”
But she acknowledged that in the current political climate the show’s title is a provocation — or, perhaps, an invitation. “You can say ‘black designers’ but that doesn’t give you any other information,” Ms. Way said. ”Except how much they’ve been left out.”