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.

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.

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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.

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