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  • Mikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Wesley Tann

J. Wesley Tann, Jr. (known to many as simply Wesley Tann) fine tuned his fashion skills early on working for some of New York’s most renowned designers. He would eventually become the first African American designer to open his own shop on 7th Avenue in New York City.

Born in North Carolina, Wesley was taught to sew by his mother. Unfortunately, Tann’s mother died when he was 13, and he left North Carolina to attend school in Washington D.C. After he graduated, he attended Hartford Art School of Fashion at night while working during the day. His time in Washington, D.C. exposed him to all kinds of people—politicians, educators, civil rights leaders and entertainers—all, unknowingly, helping to mold his future life.

Tann’s business (along with a few other designers)

was featured in the New York Times on April 9, 1963.

In the 1950s, he moved to New York where he did his apprenticeship under Paula Trigere, Oscar de la Renta and Tina Motley for Tahari. By 1961, Tann had established his own company, creating dresses starting at $75.00 and evening wear starting at $145.00. His clothes were sold at upscale department stores like Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, and B. Altman. And his clientele read like a Who’s Who list of celebrities. Diahann Carroll, Leontyne Price, Jennie Grossinger and even several Miss Americas all wore his designs. In 1962, he was chosen to make maternity clothes for then first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Tann’s work in the New York Times fashion section. The caption reads “Simple uncluttered lines keynote Wesley Tann’s spring and summer clothes”.

Tann was successful. He had a strong business sense, managing his business well (unlike many of his counterparts) and was featured in the New York Times on multiple occasions. However, Tann left his business in the early 1970s, citing the difficulties of dealing with racism from local suppliers as part of his reason for closing.

A JCPenney ad in Ebony magazine (February 1999) honoring various African American designers who made contributions