By RENEE MINUS WHITE
Fashion & Beauty Editor
I met Arthur McGhee, a distinguished African-American designer, during the late 1970s. A gentleman and fashion designing scholar, he was one of several great Black designers reigning on Fashion’s Seventh Avenue including Willi Smith, Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows and B. Michael to name a few. He greeted me with a smile and always responded truthfully to questions. He was kind and well-respected throughout the fashion industry. His recent passing, reported to me last week by famed haute couture designer B. Michael, was surprising. It’s been such a long time since he’s been mentioned in these New York Amsterdam News fashion editorials. Arthur McGhee was known for his amazing draped designs and beautiful beading details. His fabulous contributions in costume designing were outstanding. His looks were glamorous and elegant.
According to B. Michael, “Arthur McGhee was a grandfather of fashion designers of color.” Inspired by his mother, who simply loved hats, he wanted to study millinery and apparel design. After attending Fashion Institute of Technology for about six months, he suddenly stopped going to classes, because someone told him, “There were no jobs for Black designers.” While studying at FIT, McGhee began working for couturier Charles James. From there, he began creating costumes for Broadway actors, and worked for several Seventh Avenue companies as well. “When I started, I was working in backrooms designing whole collections with no credit,” stated McGhee.
In 1957, McGhee gained a head designing position in the design room of Bobby Brooks, the top apparel company. He was the first African-American to hold such a position. His design aesthetic was classic silhouettes with a twist. Often, he created his garments in African fabrics, making them unique. His loose-fitting Asian-inspired garments were quite popular, too. McGhee’s designs have been sold in Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, Eventually, he opened a shop in the 1960s, and created fashions for celebrities including Lena Horne, Sybil Burton, Mrs. Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson and Stevie Wonder.
There’s a short film that was shown during an honorary luncheon in 2009 that was given by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it, he talked about his experiences being the first Black designer on Seventh Avenue, his inspiration and his design progress. In 2010, the Fashion Institute of Technology honored McGhee with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the fashion industry for the last four decades. “I could make $8,000 designing two dresses for an ad where the clothes match the car,” McGhee commented. “Then I would walk into an office wearing a custom-made suit and they still assumed I was the messenger.”
Ever the mentor, Arthur McGhee was known as the dean of African-American designers. He mentored many young, emerging designers throughout his career. “When you love fashion, you do it, no matter what. They try to keep us in a corner, but I know I’s good, and I’ll be designing when I’m 95,” he once said.