The Rainbow Coalition

Until recently, African-Americans were easy to find in the garment industry: they were the ones pushing the racks of dresses along Seventh Avenue. Long after blacks made their marks in other areas of American culture, the fashion world made room for at most one or two idiosyncratic black geniuses--a Willi Smith, a Patrick Kelly. Now, suddenly, a whole new generation of black designers is bringing a distinctive sensibility to American clothes, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as the Los Angeles playgrounds and the slinky, sequined gowns of Sarah Vaughan.

Some of the clothes make specific references to American black culture-like the commercialized, hip-hop designs of Los Angeles-based Cross Colours, a partnership of Watts native Carl Jones, 37, and Thomas Walker, 34. Or, in a more vein, the flamboyant evening dresses of C. D. Greene, 36, inspired by the stage gowns of black musical stars of the '40s. But others have wholly idiosyncratic and unexpected influences. The second-skin pantsuit designed by 27-year-old rising star Byron Lars was inspired by a photograph of the pioneering (white) American aviator Amelia Earhart. And unless you happened to know that Eric Gaskins is black, you certainly couldn't tell it from his $2,500 silk evening suits on sale at Bergdorf Goodman. Gaskins, 34, creates elegant clothes that reflect the Old World tailoring and classic sensibility he learned when he apprenticed at Givenchy nearly a decade ago.

Cross Colours began less than two years ago with an original idea: to create brightly colored hip-hop designs for young black men, a large and mostly neglected market. Last year it sold more than $15 million in baggy jeans, quilted nylon and plaid jackets, and graffiti T shirts emblazoned with messages that denounce gangs and promote racial harmony (RACISM HURTS EVERYBODY YA DIG or STOP VIOLENCE SAY IT LOUD). Cross Colours sells a message with each garment-- CLOTHING WITHOUT PREJUDICE appears on almost every red, green and black hangtag and advertisement. The clothes became so popular they crossed into the mainstream and are now selling briskly at chains like Macy's, Bullock's and Merry-Go-Round. For 1992, the company is projecting sales of $40 million.

Few other black designers have the same sensibilities; most have middle-class backgrounds and come to fashion from backgrounds in art, architecture or the liberal arts. Greene's passion for architecture and 1940s movies is reflected in his evening dresses, glamorous and sculptural. He uses sequins, mirrors, metal cubes or plastic discs to create a three-dimensional effect. These dresses, which sell for about $2,000, are worn by wealthy women who go to Palm Beach on weekends and want a hot dress to wear to Au Bar or by celebrities like Robin Givens, Whitney Houston and Ivana Trump. Greene, who has been in business since 1989, says his sales are growing steadily every year; they reached half a million dollars in 1991.

Eric Gaskins's upscale designs are popular with elegant women, who find his delicate, embroidered ChantilIy-lace cocktail dresses ($3,000) more French than flashy. Gaskins's refined sensibility sells well at Bergdorf's, where he signed an exclusive contract for the New York sale of his spring collection. Joseph Boitano, a senior vice president at Bergdorf's, says the store will continue to carry the line in the fall. "He provides a clean, sophisticated evening dress with a young twist to it that is difficult to find in the market," says Boitano.

Byron Lars, the newest Seventh Avenue sensation, also finds new ways to make women look good. His clothes help them look sexy-but never vulgar-and stylish without looking pretentious. Like a sculptor, Lars builds in padded curves at the hip of argyle sweater dresses and sews bras into shirtwaist dresses. For his fall collection, he showed aviator jackets in hourglass shapes and full white silk opera coats that floated like parachutes. The show was a big success-the press loved it, and 75 stores (specialty shops and branches of chains like Macy's, Bullock's and Nordstrom) bought the line for fall. Bloomingdale's plans to feature Lars in its fall promotion, re-creating his show and ending it with toy airplanes that circle the store's windows by remote control. That's a big takeoff for a 27-year-old designer from San Francisco who's been in business for only one year, but Lars has a sponsor with a track record. Mary Ann Wheaton is in the business of launching promising fashion designers-managing their production, offering advice on merchandising and representing their lines to retailers. She worked with Patrick Kelly when he was in Paris and helped bring his ready-to-wear business from $700,000 to $7.5 million in 18 months. In February 1991 she took Lars on and placed his clothes in 10 top stores within five days.

Clearly, none of this has anything to do with the streets of south Los Angeles--which suits these designers fine. "We are not 'black' designers but American designers, the way Bill Blass is an American designer," says Arthur McGee, who has been designing dresses since the 1950s and still sells his clothes from a small shop in Manhattan. "As soon as you categorize us, you can erase us." "When people talk about black designers, there's an assumption that everyone is working with a street-based vocabulary," says Gaskins, adding, "That's a total misconception." Gaskins, who was raised in rural Massachusetts and graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio, knows little of urban streets. "But black people love to look good," he says. "I remember going to family parties as a child, and all the women were dressed beautifully, carefully with great individualistic flair. They all took great pride in how they looked, and that probably taught me to love beautiful clothes."

Of course, they are aware, like blacks anywhere, of the heritage of discrimination they must overcome. In 1956, when McGee was a student at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, the dean advised him that he'd be better off looking for a job as a presser. Twenty-five years later, Patrick Kelly had to take his button-studded tube mini-dresses, black baby-doll pins and watermelon motifs to Paris before he was taken seriously in the United States. Ask Lars if he's ever encountered racism on Seventh Avenue, and he flashes one of his megawatt smiles and says he's standing on the shoulders of the black designers who came before him. He worries, though, that Seventh Avenue has a kind of informal quota system-allowing only a few black designers to make it at a time. "Now that Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly are dead, it's like a void, so it's hip to be a black designer," Lars says. "In the '70s designers were known for their work; they weren't as much celebrities as they are today. Now it's a media circus. People want to know the designer's face, and when that face is black, race becomes an issue."

For Lars, it is also a challenge he acknowledges and accepts. "In general terms, black people don't have as much as white people, so early on, you have to learn how to get a lot more out of a lot less," he says. You have to push the limits and try harder." Maybe that's what gives these new designers their cutting edge.