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April 20 2014

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Act Like You Know Arthur McGee

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A sizable but nevertheless intimate group gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday afternoon to honor one of fashion’s most provocative unsung heroes, African- American designer Arthur McGee. Born in Detroit in 1933, McGee recalled his mother’s sewing from a young age, a memory that would later inspire his career in design. He entered a design scholarship contest at the age of 18 and later moved to New York to attend FIT, where he sharpened his talent for millinery and apparel design. By 1957, McGee was running a Seventh Avenue apparel company, called Bobby Brooks, the first African-American to do so. McGee’s talent exceeded social and racial barriers. He sold to a range of department stores including Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, and Lord & Taylor, and after opening his own store in the sixties, he designed for celebrities like Sybil Burton, Mrs. Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Josephine Premice. Still, McGee has never been one to wax eloquent about prejudice and inequality. “It’s great to be acknowledged as an African-American designer, but I don’t see in black and white,” said a humble and gracious McGee. “I was really dressing everybody.” Luncheon attendees like André Leon Talley, eBay’s Constance White, Lynn Yaeger, and Thelma Golden were treated to a host of speakers—including Thomas P. Campbell, the newly appointed director of the museum; the Costume Institute’s Harold Koda; and actress Cicely Tyson—and a screening of filmed interviews with the witty McGee. The event was accompanied by an exhibition of McGee’s pieces (among them his iconic shirt dress and mud cloth rompers), which were curated by the Costume Institute.

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Arthur McGee

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