On January 26, the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid tribute to designer Arthur McGee at a wonderful luncheon sponsored by Wachovia. Donna Williams, chief audience development officer, was the mistress of ceremony. There were also remarks by Thomas P. Campbell, director, Harold Koda, curator in charge, the Costume Institute, Richard Baker, chairman of Lord & Taylor, and legendary actress Cicely Tyson. It was beautiful to see him surrounded by his friends, top designers and fashion VIPs, and experience his genuine warmth and smile.
Designer Arthur McGee was a pioneer of fashion on Seventh Avenue for African-American designers. He actually laid the groundwork for designers like Scott Barrie, the late, great Willi Smith, Stephen Burrows, B. Michael, Jeffrey Banks and James Daugherty, who reached their peak in the late 1970s. He always had a gracious smile. One of his major celebrity clients, and there were many, was Cicely Tyson. For this editor, he was part of the “Magnificent Seven” hottest designers of the times. He was also greeted that evening by Susan Taylor, who featured his designs regularly in Essence magazine, Bethann Hardison, Andre Leon Talley and several other significant friends. Born in Detroit, Mich., in 1933, Arthur McGee entered his fashion career at the young age of 18. Back then, he entered a scholarship contest that was sponsored by the Trap Hagen School of Design in New York. McGee also studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). It’s where he honed his skills in millinery and apparel design.
Although he was still a student at FIT, he worked with American couturier designer Charles James. Later he began producing his own fabulous designs while pursuing employment in New York’s apparel manufacturing industry. In 1957, McGee became the first African-American designer to run a design room of an established Seventh Avenue apparel company, Bobby Brooks. Transcending racial barriers, his talent was remarkable. For the company, his line sold to such stores as Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor.
In the early 1960s, McGee opened his own store and became the designer of choice for many celebrities, including Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson. McGee is known as the dean of African-American designers. He has also mentored several young talents, including Aziza Braithwaite Bey (Elena Braith).
The Defining Style Advisory committee was founded by Aziza Braithwaite Bey to recognize African-American designers of color who had been overlooked in fashion history. The committee seeks to create visibility for those designers through a variety of projects.