Designer Ann Lowe Was Fashion's 'Best Kept Secret', But Not Anymore

Ann Cole Lowe was an American fashion designer and the first African American to be come a noted fashion designer. Lowe's one-of-a-kind designs were a favorite among high society matrons from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Born in 1898 in Clayton, Ala., Lowe came from a family of dressmakers. Her grandmother Georgia Cole made clothes for her plantation mistress before becoming a free woman in 1860, and her mother, Jane Lowe, was an expert seamstress and embroiderer. Learning from both women, Lowe became skilled at creating intricate fabric flower adornments that would later become one of her signatures. The women eventually moved to Montgomery, Ala., where they ran a successful dressmaking business. When her mother died suddenly while making gowns for the governor’s wife and daughters, Lowe, then 16, completed the project and subsequently headed the family business.

A wealthy Floridian impressed with Lowe’s skills invited her to move to Tampa and become her family’s seamstress. “It was a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed of,” Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “I picked up my baby and got on that Tampa train.” Lee Cohen, her husband who disapproved of her ambition, sent her divorce papers.

As word of her talent spread, her clientele increased.

Lowe, however, wanted to be more than a dressmaker. In 1917, at the age of 18, she took a sabbatical from her job in Tampa to enroll in a couture course in New York City. With her employer’s support and encouragement, Lowe enrolled at the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York. When she arrived, the head of the school was aghast that he had admitted a black woman, and he tried to turn her away. She studied alone in a separate classroom because white students did not want to attend class with a “Negro.” Ironically, her designs were often upheld as examples in the same classes she was forbidden to attend, and she successfully completed her two-year design program in half the time. Lowe returned to Tampa, opened a shop, and hired 18 seamstresses to help her keep pace with requests for balls, cotillions and other formal affairs. Business was good, but Lowe was eager to fulfill her dream of working in New York City. Taking $20,000 in savings, she closed shop and headed north.

The Great Depression hit soon after she arrived in the city. To make ends meet, she took work designing and sewing for prestige labels like A.F. Chantilly and Sonia Gowns. Those jobs were her introduction to New York society—and its introduction to her—though its members wouldn’t immediately know it, because the labels on her creations bore the company’s name.

Lowe’s career really took off during the prosperous postwar years when wealthy women flocked to the opera, theater and galas and needed the appropriate attire. Debutante balls were growing in popularity as well, so there was a new generation of socialites to design for. “The girls were coming out in those days, and she was so good at making cotillion dresses,” Smaltz says. “She had lots of upper-echelon clients”—du Ponts, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, Posts, Bouviers and Auchinclosses among them.

Lowe opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem in 1950, and Ann Lowe’s Originals on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue in 1968, making her the first African American to have a business on the high-end retail strip.

In 1953, when Ann Lowe received a commission to create a wedding gown for society swan Jacqueline Bouvier, she was thrilled. Lowe had been hired to dress the woman of the hour, the entire bridal party and Jackie’s mother. But 10 days before Jackie and Sen. John F. Kennedy were to say “I do,” a water pipe broke and flooded Lowe’s Madison Avenue studio, destroying 10 of the 15 frocks, including the bride’s elaborate dress, which had taken two months to make.

In between her tears, Lowe, then 55, ordered more ivory French taffeta and candy-pink silk faille, and corralled her seamstresses to work all day. Jackie’s dress, with its classic portrait neckline and bouffant skirt embellished with wax flowers, went on to become one of the most iconic wedding gowns in history.

In 1962, Lowe was in a bad spot. She had closed her salon due to outstanding costs, taken a job as an in-house dressmaker at Saks, quit that, lost her eye to glaucoma — an operation she couldn’t afford and which the doctor provided gratis — and owed $12,800 in back taxes. But then she got a call from the IRS saying an “anonymous friend” had taken care of her costs. Lowe told both the Saturday Evening Post and Ebony that she believed it was Jackie, who Lowe had remained close with.

“[She] was so sweet,” Lowe told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “She would talk with me about anything.”

That generous gift allowed Lowe to reopen her business, and it was soon bustling. In a typical six-month period she and her three to five pattern-cutters and seamstresses would complete 35 debutante gowns and nine wedding dresses. But she was still bleeding money, and losing her eyesight, to boot. “I’ve had to work by feel,” she told the Saturday Evening Post. “But people tell me I’ve done better feeling than others do seeing.”

Unfortunately, decades later, Lowe would die broke and unknown at age 82.

In 2003, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston held a special exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy nuptials. Visitors got to see various mementos from the 1953 wedding, considered the social event of the season at the time. A highlight of the exhibit was Bouvier’s ivory silk-taffeta bridal dress, which received a lot of media attention for its exquisite design. It also sparked renewed interest in the woman who made it.

Thanks to some relatively recent efforts, Lowe is having another fashion moment. An exhibit of her dresses at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is exposing thousands of visitors to her legacy and artistry. Julia Faye Smith’s 2016 biography, Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe, America’s Forgotten Designer, filled with archival pictures, puts Lowe’s life and career in historical context. And there is even a children’s book, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, by Deborah Blumenthal and Laura Freeman, which introduces little ones to this American great. May she never fall into obscurity again.

Article Credit: New York Post & The Root

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