Home Essex County The Untold Story of Newark Fashion Comes to Life at The Newark Museum of Art

The Untold Story of Newark Fashion Comes to Life at The Newark Museum of Art

by Via Rutkowski
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Newark is the largest city in New Jersey and its rich history runs deep with inspiration and creativity. A widely untold story of Newark is its strong roots in the fashion industry, acting as a hub for the production and shipment of garments, jewelry, and accessories. Newark is also the home to several influential fashion designers and icons alike who are finally being given the attention they deserve in the Newark Museum of Art’s latest exhibit titled The Story of Newark Fashion: Atelier to Runway which will run through June 2nd, 2024. The Newark Museum of Art is located at 49 Washington Street. Read on for more about the exhibit and some of Newark’s most praised fashion designers.

via photo credit newark art museum

About the Exhibit

In February of 2024, the talented team at The Newark Museum of Art opened the breathtaking exhibit The Story of Newark Fashion: Atelier to Runway which celebrates 75 years of fashion history that emerged from Newark, New Jersey placing a highlight on 11 designers who have impacted contemporary fashion in a significant way. The Newark Museum of Art shared on Instagram: “This isn’t just an exhibition; it’s a celebration of Newark’s enduring influence and creativity, brought to life by those who know it best. From the pioneering ateliers of the past to today’s boundary-pushing designers, Newark’s fashion scene is ready for the spotlight.”

via photo credit newark art museum

The exhibit features the designer’s stunning fashion designs alongside several personal touches of their stories and historical ties to Newark. Director and CEO of The Newark Museum of Art Linda C. Harrison shares the exhibition catalog foreword: “For those who know Newark’s long history as an arts, culture, and industry leader, this will not be surprising. For others, it will be a revelation that serves to expand the canon of contemporary fashion history… The conversations included here are just a glimpse of the in-depth interviews conducted by fashion historian and guest curator Kristen J. Owens”. Kristen also said in the catalog: “As a young graduate student eager to make connections between Black fashion and cultural studies, I could not have imagined this dream would be realized through the organization of such a groundbreaking exhibition.” More in-depth bits of Kristen’s interviews with the featured designers can be found in the exhibition catalog available for purchase at the museum. The interviews will also live on as part of an online audio archive in collaboration with Rutgers University-Newark and the Queer Newark Oral History Project.

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The Muse

Stepping into the exhibit feels like a passage in time that sparks curiosity. The entire room is beaming with color, texture, and inspiration. Senior Curator Tricia Bloom took MG on a one-on-one tour of the exhibit to share the stories behind each piece. When we asked Tricia how the exhibit came to be in the first place, she credits fashion model Tracey “Africa” Norman who began planting seeds with the museum team to highlight the story of Newark fashion back in 2018. Tracey, a Newark native and current resident, is a model who is known for being the first Black trans model in the 1970’s. Tracey was also a Curational Advisor helping weave the stories together thanks to her insight, hands-on experience, and connections with the local designers.

About Tracey

Tracey worked with famous photographer Irving Penn and even graced the covers of several major publications throughout the 1970s and was one of the first Black women to be on the cover of Vogue. Tracey’s career was booming when was wrongfully outed on the set of a photo shoot in 1980, bringing her career to a halt. At this time there were no protections or anti-discrimination policies in place to protect the LBGTQIA+ community. One job got her working again: Tracey was asked to be on the cover of a box of Clairol hair dye and has continued to work with the brand to this day. Her story has inspired many throughout the years including notable LBGTQIA+ icons like Laverne Cox.

At the museum, visitors will see a stunning 78” x 96” painting of Tracey by Mickalene Thomas titled Isn’t She Lovely painted in 2022. This colorful portrait was created with oil paint, acrylic, and rhinestones and exemplifies Tracey’s elegant and regal presence. 

Several of the designers seen throughout the exhibit were friends of Tracey’s. Tricia told us how beautiful it was to see the connection between so many influential figures and designers from Newark noting how deeply collaborative it is. She told us “So much of the exhibit is about mentoring and putting your energies together to support like-minded people.” 



Featured Designers

While we don’t want to give away all of the wonders of this exhibit, we can tell you there are some jaw-dropping designs; grand hats, massive tulle gowns, and bright colors galore. A stroll through the exhibit brings you on a journey through time from the atelier of the late Wesley Tann (1928-2012)  and Emily Miles (1910-1999) who were both pioneering Black designers, to a highlight of some more contemporary talent. Designers include Melody Asherman, BrownMill Atelier, Stephen Burrows, Tyrone Chablis, Jerry Gant, Marco Hall, Shavi Lewis, Narciso Rodriguez, and Douglas Says. All of the designers featured have unique ties to Newark.

via photo credit newark art museum

At the heart of the exhibit is a runway-style stage standing tall with mannequins dressed in vibrant 1970s attire. The layout was inspired by one of the most legendary moments in fashion history: The Battle of Versailles. The Battle of Versailles was an iconic fashion show that took place in 1973 to raise funds  to restore the Palace of Versailles in France. This major event included involvement with Newark designer Stephen Burrows and supermodel Pat Cleaveland, creating a huge opportunity for Black models and designers. This glamorous moment was even turned into a documentary by Deborah Riley Draper.

At the end of the exhibit stands a floor-to-ceiling list titled “Newark Fashion – The Bigger Picture” which includes a list of over 200 names of designers, models, show producers, commentators, milliners, tailors, and shop owners who all help paint the picture of Newark fashion.

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Visiting the Exhibition

The Newark Museum of Art is located at 49 Washington Street in Newark and is open from 11AM – 5PM Thursday through Sunday. The Story of Newark Fashion: Atelier to Runway exhibit in particular will be open to the public until, June 2nd, 2024 and tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite for $10. 

What’s Next?

The Newark Museum of Art is known for hosting fantastic events. Coming up next on Saturday, May 18th is Changing it Up: An American Art Convening. The Newark Museum of Art team shared that this “exciting day-long program gathers artists, curators, scholars, and the public to explore new approaches to American art and changing geographies in museums. The keynote panel features leading contemporary artists Terence Hammonds, Erica Lord, Bony Ramirez, and Shahzia Sikander discussing their artwork in NMOA’s collection, with distinguished critic and museum historian Seph Rodney as discussant. The day also features a book signing for the exhibition catalog Bony Ramirez: Cattleya, in-gallery conversations, and a block party in collaboration with Newark City Parks to launch our new acquisition and public sculpture, Shahzia Sikander’s NOW,  2023.” The event is free but registration is required through the Newark Museum of Art’s website.

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