by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
When it comes to fashion, no one can make an outfit come alive like a Black woman. No matter what her skin tone, her stature – tall and slinky, short and curvy, or a combination – tall and curvy, short and slinky, we make colors pop and bring out the beauty in the lines and styles.
In watching stars walk the famed Red Carpet at the 2012 Academy Awards, it was hard to find a design that I could resonate to. There were some interesting designs, to say the least, but nothing really earth shaking or memorable. I felt I had to compliment them by default. You know: “Well it’s not as bad as the last one;” or “What were they thinking when they did that one?” In some cases they wore the dresses; in other, the dresses wore them.
It’s rather sad to see Black women trying to relate to a design that has absolutely nothing to do with their physique, skin tone, sense of fun, or culture. Most of the designers don’t factor in our curves, or the full (voluptuous) bodies we tend to have. And, for the most part, pastels do little to nothing for our rich skin tones – we, the children of the Sun and the Rainbow.
Perhaps this is what lead Elaine Baskin-Bey, an ebony-toned native New Yorker, to embark on a career in the fashion industry. The lack of representation of quality Africentric designs in the show rooms, on stage, television and more importantly, on men and women of color, inspired her to embark on a career in couture. She started early on at the High School of Fashion Industries. So it was clear that fashion was neither an after thought, or a fall back position, but a passion from her childhood.
Of course, one does not just “become” a fashion designer. The flair is born in you (or it isn’t), and is revealed as you mature. It’s like a calling. It’s the vision you see when you watch someone crossing the street, when, in your mind’s eye you find yourself dressing them in eye-catching colors, or flowing robes, or elegant Afro suits. It’s the kind of vision that Elaine weaves into every garment she designs.
Of course, the training at Fashion Industries played a great role in helping Elaine hone her talents, but she most certainly already had a naescent eye for design, color, and a flair for the dramatic. Whatever that catalyst was that first drew it out of her, Diva Designer Elaine Baskin-Bey, who is now celebrating over 30 years in haute couture, is finally opening the doors to her secrets for those who are likewise looking to make their mark in the world of style, beauty, sophistication
But, I’m writing about Elaine, not just because this is Women’s History Month – and she certainly is a Black woman who has made history on so many levels – but because I’ve crossed paths with her so many times and didn’t know it. And I’m pretty sure there are many of you who have had the same experience. I had seen her work early on in Essence Magazine, and was totally blown away by the lines. When Essence -By-Mail featured beautiful Africentric attire in their catalogue, I had ordered one or two outfits, with absolutely no idea that she was the genius behind the design. Like so many of us who were looking for clothes that reflected who we are, I would see her designs, say “wow,” and proceed to place an order.
I’m also writing this for my sisters (and brothers) who try to fit in those eurocentric clothes and find that the hems hike up in the back, or it doesn’t zip up just right, or it bunches up in certain parts of our anatomy, because we are definitely much more apt to be amply endowed. We either have to buy extra big, extra wide, or just stuff our way in. Elaine Baskin-Bey’s clothes were designed with us in mind. And, no, I’m not talking about “fat” clothes – but clothes that caressed our anatomy, and flowed in ways that accentuated the positive, and made even the negative look unique. From business attire to casual, to elegant evening wear, she had us covered!
I’m also writing this article for the younger generation who are caught between eurocentric clothes and the street clothes that don’t really complement us, or reflect who we really are, and the wealth of our cultural heritage. And, no, low hanging pants, plunging necklines, raggedy jeans, or hoodies, are not reflective our rich cultural heritage, which is straight from Africa, with a mix of positive aspects of all of these factors.
The fact is that the highly touted fashion industry is overrun with fashions locked in “eurocentric” styles, some of which have borrowed heavily from Afrocentric themes, but most of which ignored us completely. But generally speaking there is little to no credit or recognition accorded African American designers.
However, no where in the realm of “fashion” are the Black innovative fashion designers (whom many of us wear, especially here in New York City), either consistently, or prominently, mentioned. What you see, instead, is some derivative of Afrocentricity, played out on emaciated models, who tend to walk as though they suffer from some sort of physical impediment – coupled with a bad attitude – as personified by the horror make-up and the “screw-you” look on their faces as they assault the runway. This concept of fashion, along with the anorexic uber-thin, unrealistically tall models, has dominated the fashion industry for the past few years.
When Elaine Baskin-Bey emerged from the hallowed halls of Fashion Institute in the 70’s, her next step was up. And she wouldn’t have had it any other way. When you meet her, you are immediately struck by her can do attitude; and that sense of pride, coupled with an air of gracious elegance, that engages you. While she is definitely one to act on her concepts, she is neither pushy or frenetic. She exudes creativity, but in an assured manner that says, ‘be cool, I know what I’m doing, and you’re going to love the results’. A big difference from the over the top atmosphere you generally encounter in the fashion industry.
Elaine was one of the first Black designers to “cross over” early on into the world of Haute Couture. In fact, the first fashion house she worked in was located on the toney East side on Fifth Avenue, with “king of the bias cut,” designer Charles Kliebacker at the Park Royal Hotel. He took a total departure from the de riguer fashion lines and cut everything on the bias; draping fabrics in elegant style so that they accentuated the body in wonderful ways. Elaine was one of his premiere designers, though just fresh out of school.
Following that experience, she had the great good fortune to work with Italian-born fashion iconoclast, Giorgio Di Sant Angelo, whose departure from the staid and stodgy designs to embrace the natural influences of American Indian, Asian, and East Indian cultures, through the use of stretch and chiffon fabrics to bring about flowing lines and vibrant colors, meshed perfectly with her own natural Afrocentric proclivities.
From there, she moved on to Khadija Designs in Greenwich Village on West 8th Street, where she designed grand African attire for such artists as Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Melba Moore, Eartha Kitt, Kathy Sharpton, Les McCann, and Freddie Hubbard among others. Using such textiles as Kente cloth, Ashoki, and other African fabrics; mixing leathers with wools and feathers, Fashions by Elaine Baskin-Bey were considered the epitome of Afrocentric sophistication on the East Coast. The flowing lines, the elegantly designed crowns which gave a rather regal quality to any attire, were the hallmark of the day, and could be seen gracing the heads some of the most famous artists, as well as African Americans eager to express their consciousness through fashion. And her hat designs were (are) to die for! More like crowns, they adorn, compliment, and make an unmistakable statement.
Elaine Baskin-Bey, whose skin tone is deep, dark chocolate brown, knows full well what it’s like to design for Black celebrity artists. She’s dressed the best of them. Stevie Wonder, Mabel King, Marvin Gaye, Stephanie Mills, Rick James’ Mary Jane Girls, X-Clan, Popa Wu of Wu Tang Clan, Jim Brown, among a great many others.
She captured history by becoming one of the first fashion designers to partner with Avon, who featured her unique line of Crowns and Collars for Afrocentric women. Her designs appeared in Essence Magazine, Ebony, Jet, and other leading publications of the day. The beautifully coifed models wore custom designed crowns and matching collars of African fabrics, trimmed with her signature Soutasche, an innovation that graces most of her work. The Soutasche motif, which is a delicate line of chording that outlines the contour of a collar, cuff or head piece, is unique to Ms. Baskin-Bey and has emblazoned practically every one of her designs.
“I never know what shape it’s going to be until I complete it,” she said enthusiastically, in a recent conversation about her vast body of work and accomplishments. And indeed it was a conversation. One can conduct an interview with Elaine, but to get the real essence of who this woman truly is, one has to really sit down and “conversate.”
There is little she has not seen, done, or been in the fashion industry. She is what one means when they accord the title of being “blessed and highly favored,” because her life path is just that. Others, of course, might call it “luck” but too many signs point to the fact that “luck,” meaning happenstance, had very little to do with how her steps were ordered.
When she made her sojourn from New York to California, she was just going out there to explore her options of expanding the outlet for her unique fashion design. At the time she knew no one; but just “happened” to meet Mabel King, the great actress who played Evilene in the movie production of “The Wiz.” King befriended her and introduced her to the who’s who in Black entertainment – the icons of the day in Hollywood. Through her she met and subsequently designed stage outfits and wardrobes for Michael Jackson and his family, vocalist Ruth Brown, producer Quincy Jones, the great Sammy Davis Jr.
Elaine took California by storm and designed grand African attire for artists and performers, as well as for every day wear for conscientious Black men and women who wanted to display their Afrocentricity via their clothing.
Looking back on it, she credits Mabel King with her success: “You know, I had never met her before. I really didn’t know anyone in California. Someone said I might have an opportunity to do some work, so I went. When I met Mabel, she was so nice. She allowed me to work out of her garage until I got my own set up. She didn’t have to do that. I met so many great people because of her.”
This connection spawned contacts and contracts the likes of which one doesn’t just walk into. But then, there is a dynamic magnetism about Elaine Baskin-Bey, born of her love for fashion; for her innate ability to not only think, but to step outside the box; to envision a new way, try a new concept; coupled with a genuine interest in, and a warm personal regard for the people she’s interfacing with, which makes people like her.
She has designed for the top pop music artists of the day, including Stevie Wonder, the late Eartha Kitt, Rick James, Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, Cab Calloway, among others.
Along the way, she paved the way and opened the gates to business success in fashion design for other Black women – particularly actresses – on both the East and West Coasts. She designed clothing for TV shows such as The Jeffersons, and Easy Rider “The Jimmy Winkfield Story” for PBS Television.
And at a time when it appeared that interest in Black fashion on the West Coast was disappearing, she returned to New York and the Brooklyn neighborhood she loved, and reestablished her ties with the high fashion realm of New York. Subsequently, Elaine’s garments have been featured on Live With Regis and Kathy Lee, the Phil Donahue Show,The Cosby Show, The McCreary Report; as well as on the CD jacket cover for Roberta Flack (and all of her present Promotional Work).
Without missing a beat, Elaine embarked on another level of fashion design most of us would have never considered: That of designing choir robes and coordinated garment bags. Elaine Baskin Bey is currently the leader in the realm of designing gospel robes, collars, and garment bags for churches and professional gospel choirs throughout the US She has inculcated her unique brand of Afrocentricity, with her distinctive insignia – the Soutasche, which now serves as her trademark signature on all her designs.
Those of you who follow the Gospel Fest concerts, or are fans of our local church choirs may have recognized her design on such groups as sister Bettye Forbes’ Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble (Riverside Church), Phyllis Jubert’s – WWRL “Gospel Coral Singers”, Morningside Church of Harlem, Mt. Vernon’s Missionary Baptist Church, St. Lukes Lutheran Church of Brooklyn, and the Lafayette Church of God, to mention just a few. The signature reversible collars and tunics with an Africentric pattern on one side and a solid color on the other, have been worn proudly on tours, as well as at their church services.
A trail blazer in the corporate realm, as well, Elaine has produced fashion for the corporate world, including McDonald’s corporation; and is responsible for their Afrocentric uniform design that has been worn by employees across the nation. Kudos to her for her work with Revlon, Avon, “Black Radiance, “Pavion” and Le Mac Cosmetics. She can also take credit for the design of Wyandanch Security Guard Uniforms. But, closer to home, the design of the Bedford -Stuyesant (Bed-Stuy) Restoration “Tent Enclosure Project,” which resulted in an elegant draped tent that surrounded the entire perimeter of the courtyard; and the “Museum of African Art” design.
There is practically nothing that this Diva of Design puts her mind to that doesn’t turn out beautifully. She continues to amaze. So this is a kudo to the Elaine Baskin-Bey, Diva of Design who dared to take a giant step, and create an avenue of her own for other Black fashion designers to follow. Kudos as well as to all the other sisters who have had the good sense to follow her and transform the fashion world for us into a realm of elegant Afrocentricity. To all the sisters (and brothers) who want to follow in their footsteps and add to the realm of beautiful Black fashions – Thank you, because you really do make us look good. I am looking forward to the day when a commentator on the red carpet asks a Black actress the inevitable question “who are you wearing” and she responds “Elaine Baskin-Bey!”
Stay Blessed &
PS: But of course, we don’t have to wait for that eventuality, we can start now,set our own EBB Trend. GDW
bullet ColumnistGloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com
Gloria Dulan-Wilson is available for speaking engagements: Black History, African History, Foreclosure Prevention, Home Ownership, Education, etc., Contact her via email@example.com