SALE SET TO GO: Property from the groundbreaking fashion designer Arthur McGee will go under the gavel at Hindman Auctions in mid-March.
In 1957, McGee became the first African American designer to run a Seventh Avenue design studio — Bobbie Brooks — doing so at the age of 24. Largely unheralded during his career, McGee, who died in 2019, helped pave the way for other African American designers like Willi Smith, Stephen Burrows, Scott Barrie, Jeffrey Banks and B. Michael. What distinguished him from others was the multiple platforms he worked on, running his own signature shop, selling his collection to department stores and working on his own on Seventh Avenue. McGee forged into fashion at a time of great racial divide in the U.S. Post-Bobbie Brooks, he ventured out on his own working from a St. Mark’s Place atelier. He also designed the Tammy Andrews juniors label at one point for the company Stacey Ames. In 1965, he opened his own store on Third Avenue, aptly named “The Store.” His collection of clean styles was also sold via Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue. Combining African fabrics with Asian-inspired silhouettes, McGee’s apparel appealed to a wide range of shoppers crossing all ethnicities.
The McGee collection will be part of Hindman’s March 14 Spring Fashion & Accessories auction. In addition to dresses, sportswear and jackets designed by McGee, there will be photographs of him, including a few with pre-sale estimates ranging from $4,000 to $6,000.
Born in Detroit, McGee’s mother was a dressmaker who could make patterns from newspaper. He started designing hats for her at the age of 15. He first came to New York after winning a scholarship to Traphagen School of Design, and later studied millinery and apparel design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. During that time, he also worked at Charles James for a period. After being told that there were no jobs for Black designers, McGee ditched the academic route and set up his own downtown operation catering to actresses. He later segued into making clothes for Broadway actors and working for Seventh Avenue companies such as College Town of Boston. McGee once recalled how he “worked in backrooms designing whole collections with no credit,” when he started out in fashion.
McGee was a supporter of the Fashion Coalition, a group formed in 1968 to promote the advancement of Blacks in the fashion industry and to encourage more to join.