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Inspiration

Arthur McGee | Profiles in Sewing History

Known as the first African American to head a design studio on Seventh Avenue

Meet Arthur McGee. This visionary had a career spanning more than four decades. He served as the head designer of multiple fashion companies, had his own retail spaces, and sold his collections to well-known department stores. Yet not many people have heard of him, seemingly due to the color of his skin. While Arthur faced plenty of prejudice throughout his career, he wanted to change this for future generations and worked hard to break down racial barriers in the fashion industry.

Dr. Aziza Bey (left) with her mentor Arthur McGee (right) in 2013. Photo: Robert McCain. Courtesy of Dr. Aziza Bey.

Arthur McGee’s early years

Arthur Lee McGee was born in Detroit, Michigan, on March 25, 1933. His father, George, worked in road construction, while his mother, Rose, was a dressmaker who made her own patterns out of newspaper. Rose was a big inspiration for Arthur. In fact, as a teenager, Arthur began making hats for his mother. This was just the beginning of his creative journey.

When Arthur was 18 years old, he entered a scholarship contest to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion in Manhattan and won. He later attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where he studied apparel design and millinery. While in school, Arthur also began working for American couturier Charles James. Arthur’s college days didn’t last long, however. Less than a year in, he was told there were no jobs for people of color, so he quit.

Proving them wrong

Arthur persevered by setting up his own business where he often designed pieces for Broadway cast members. By 1957, he was hired to design for Bobbie Brooks and, as a result, is considered to be the first African American to run the design room of an established Seventh Avenue apparel company. He also became the lead designer for the College Town of Boston label in the 1960s and ’70s.

According to a 2009 Women’s Wear Daily article, Arthur said that when he started out, he was “working in backrooms designing whole collections with no credit.” Therefore, it’s no surprise that he chose to venture out on his own. In the 1960s, Arthur set up his own studio on St. Mark’s Place in New York City. By 1965, he opened his own store on Third Avenue, and later opened a store in Miami. His designs were also sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Henri Bendel, and more.

Gray herringbone tweed hooded cape designed by Arthur McGee from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane.

Soon enough, Arthur was dressing celebrities, including Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, and Stevie Wonder. He even made a custom suit for jazz musician Dexter Gordon to wear to the Academy Awards when he was nominated for the 1986 film ’Round Midnight.

His designs

Arthur liked to design garments that were classic, elegant, and could stay in a client’s wardrobe forever. His designs often had simple lines, were unadorned, easy to wear and move in, and fit his clients well. He also took a lot of inspiration from African and Asian aesthetics and designed numerous wedding dresses during his career. Arthur suggested in a 2009 video interview for the Met museum that making so many detailed wedding dresses caused him to have an aneurysm. Unfortunately, after several more aneurysms, Arthur passed away at 86 years old in Manhattan.

Wool culottes with pockets designed by Arthur McGee, from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane.

Legacy and contributions

Being an African American fashion designer in the 1950s was no walk in the park for Arthur. He faced prejudice throughout his career and, as a result, worked hard to bring more diversity to the industry. Not only did he mentor young designers and students, including the late Willi Smith, but he supported the Fashion Coalition, which was a group formed in 1968 to help African Americans join, and succeed in, the fashion industry.

It took a long time, but Arthur was eventually recognized for his efforts. His work has been displayed in exhibits at FIT and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. In 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a prestigious lunch to honor his career. Arthur also received Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Harveys Bristol Cream Tribute to the Black Designer in 1981 and, in 2010, from the Lifeforce in Later Years (LiLY) organization.

While many consider Arthur to be the dean of African American designers in New York, he didn’t appreciate being referred to in such a way. In a Newsweek article, he explained, “We are not ‘black’ designers but American designers, the way Bill Blass is an American designer. As soon as you categorize us, you can erase us.”

What do you think about Arthur’s ability to follow his passion and persevere? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Sources

Braithwaite Bey, Dr. Aziza. “Arthurmcgee.com.” The Fashion of Arthur McGee, 2007-2019, arthurmcgee.com/arthurmcgee-com-1.

Feitelberg, Rosemary. “Pioneering Designer Arthur McGee, 86, to Be Honored at Memorial.” WWD, 19 July 2019, wwd.com/eye/people/pioneering-designer-arthur-mcgee-86-to-be-honored-at-memorial-1203224281/.

Genzlinger, Neil. The New York Times, 29 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/fashion/arthur-mcgee-dead.html?searchResultPosition=1.

Hagerty, James R. “Arthur McGee Broke Down Barriers for Black Fashion Designers.” The Wall Street Journal, 9 Aug. 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/arthur-mcgee-broke-down-barriers-for-black-fashion-designers-11565361000.


Ilustration: Steven Fleck

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  1. user-7846608 | | #1

    One of the great benefits of the Black Lives Matter movement has been a huge expansion of information and attention paid to people of color who made important contributions to all walks of life in America but whose contribuitons were either ignored or -- to use his words -- erased. Giving credit where credit is due is important so that we see each person as a person of worth and not as some misbegotten stereotype. Thank you for this article. I would have liked to see more of his elegant designs. How can they be seen on the internet?

    1. DanaFinkle | | #3

      I honestly wasn't able to find many images of his work besides what was in the gallery on the Arthur McGee website: https://arthurmcgee.com/design-gallery. However, here is one of his designs from the MET museum's collection: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/164168 and some from the National Museum of African American History & Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/collection/search?edan_q=Arthur%20mcgee.

  2. user-7033044 | | #2

    “Arthur liked to design garments that were classic, elegant, and could stay in a client’s wardrobe forever. His designs often had simple lines, were unadorned, easy to wear and move in, and fit his clients well.”

    That’s exactly what I’m looking for today.

  3. plopfloat | | #4

    Loved this article. Thanks so much for such an inspirational story of a true American designer!

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