Arthur McGee, Fashion Designer Who Dressed Cicely Tyson and Stevie Wonder, Dies at 86

Arthur McGee - Publicity - H 2019
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He became the first African-American designer hired to run a design room on Seventh Avenue in 1957.

Arthur McGee, widely known as the grandfather of fashion designers of color, has died. He was 86. 

The designer died July 1 in New York after a prolonged illness.

McGee became a pioneer in the black fashion community, inspiring and mentoring the likes of Willi Smith, Elena Braith, Scott Barrie and B Michael. Following McGee's death, B Michael said in a statement, "Standing on your shoulders, it was an honor to call you friend. Thank you for your invaluable contribution to the tapestry of American fashion."

In the 1960s, McGee opened his own shop on St. Marks Place and became the go-to dresser for stars including Stevie Wonder, Cicely Tyson and Lena Horne. He was honored in 2009 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Tyson and B Michael attended the luncheon. 

Born in Detroit in 1933 to a dressmaker mother, McGee began to make hats for his mom at age 15. "My mother liked hats and I said, 'I'm going to make hats for her,'" he told the MET.

McGee left for New York at age 18 after winning a scholarship contest for the Traphagen School of Design, and later attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied apparel design and millinery, in which he was placed due to his experience making hats growing up. 

During his six months at FIT, McGee worked for English-American designer Charles James, who was a "genius in the art of sculpting fabric," according to the MET. McGee said, "I quit [FIT] because they said to me, 'There's no jobs for a black designer.' So I left." 

He went on to create Broadway costumes and work on Seventh Avenue, making pieces for Sibyl Burton and Josephine Premice. 

But it was in 1957 that McGee made history as the first African-American designer to run a design studio — Bobbie Brooks — on Seventh Avenue in the garment district in New York. "When I'd go to look at lines of fabric, I'd go to the fabric company and they'd say, 'Well, where's the designer?' They'd walk right by me. I'd say, 'It's me,'" McGee said. "It was always like that. It was just ridiculous." 

McGee sold his line to stores Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor, according to the New York Amsterdam News, which wrote, "Transcending racial barriers, his talent was remarkable."

"In the '50s, I could make $8,000 designing two dresses for an ad where the clothes matched the car," McGee told Ebony in 1980. "Then I would walk into an office in a custom-made suit and they still assumed I was a messenger. Today there are probably 99 black designers instead of just one exception as I was, but the system will not allow talented people of dark skin to become owners of a business or millionaires like the white designers who often built careers copying the technique of someone like Stephen Burrows. But when you love fashion, you do it, no matter what. They try to keep us in a corner, but I know I'm good, and I'll be designing when I'm 95." 

McGee opened his store in the '60s on St. Marks Place, which was "becoming a street style runway," wrote author and local Ada Calhoun in the book St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street. "People paraded in their beads, bell-bottoms, flowing prints and Sergeant Pepper jackets." Calhoun wrote that St. Marks Place became "a gathering place for black power activists" and quotes McGee as adding, "There was always something nice happening there." 

McGee also spent a lot of time in Miami and sold thousands of kimono-sleeve shirts using African fabrics at a reasonable price point. "Now, you can't wear any of the stuff that you buy. It costs two arms and three legs, plus some more," he said. His inspirations included Charles James, Claire McCardell and Adrian for his plain suits. "That's the kind of clothes I wanted to make and that's what I did," McGee said of his mudcloth dresses and other apparel (adding that wedding dresses were his nemeses after making countless gowns). 

In cementing his legacy, McGee mentored many young designers who came behind him, said Braith after his death, including as a guest teacher to the many students she taught at schools such as Virginia Commonwealth University, College of Saint Elizabeth and FIT. "Arthur will be missed by his family, many friends, mentees, muse, clients & students. McGee was a kind & giving spirit with a great sense of humor. I pray that he is joyfully dancing with the ancestors," said Braith, his former assistant designer in the 1960s (also known as Aziza Braithwaite Bey).

In 2010, FIT honored McGee with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is survived by his brother Gordon.