Fashion Icon, Ann Lowe, was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama with a mission to prove that a Negro could become a major dress designer. Although she was the great-granddaughter of a slave and slave owner, she would not internalize the spirit of inferiority, and unapologetically insisted that her bespoke designs would only be donned by the most sophisticated clientele.
Sixteen year old Lowe experienced the first of many setbacks when her beloved mother and teacher, celebrated seamstress, Janey Lowe, died unexpectedly. Young Ann learned distinguished sewing techniques from her mother and her grandmother, Georgia Cole, and was exposed to luxurious fabrics while working at the family business. With little to no time to grieve, Ann picked up Janey’s mantle and diligently, but effortlessly finished four gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Elizabeth O’Neal. Then, like every driven young woman, she wrestled with whether or not romance and a career could coexist under one roof, when her new husband, Lee Cohen, told her to quit working as a seamstress in exchange for a more traditional lifestyle. Considering a socioeconomic culture in which a single marital status would dictate low esteem and poverty, she briefly complied, before leaving her husband to design a dress for a socialite in Florida.
Lead by her mission, Lowe enrolled at S. T. Taylor Design School in New York City in 1917. “The director didn’t believe I could learn the things they had been teaching there,” she said. While disappointed, but never defeated, she completed her coursework in a separate room from her white counterparts, and earned her degree in half of the time that was expected. Twenty-one year old Lowe moved to Tampa, Florida and opened Ann Cohen, a dress salon modeled after her family’s business in Clayton. Although she catered to Tampa’s wealthiest women, many of them, being overcome by a spirit of supremacy and spite, cheated Ann by talking her “down” to lowering her prices by hundreds of dollars; consequently, she continuously experienced financial hardship, as well as, tax issues with the IRS.
In 1928, she relocated to New York City to launch her career as a couture fashion designer, where she worked on commission in stores such as Chez Sonia, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. Elegant designs and delicate craftsmanship won her the reputation as “high societies best kept secret” to white patrons including the Rockerfellers, the Vanderbilts, and the Roosevelts. Her name preceded her in reference to the quality of her design, but her deep melanin proved to be a constant hindrance in receiving public acknowledgement for her luxurious creations. Once again, Lowe was hired in 1953 to design an illustrious wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier, as well as, 10 bridesmaids’ dresses and a dress for the mother of the bride. Tragically, a pipe in Ann Lowe’s Gowns, a salon on Lexington Avenue, burst ten days before the wedding, and completely ruined the gowns. After resourcing the rare ivory taffeta fabric from the supplier, Lowe, along with her staff, picked up Janey’s mantle and worked day and night for seven days to deliver the historical gown. The groom, John F. Kennedy, privately, thanked her for creating an exquisite gown for Bouvier, but neither he nor his bride publicly acknowledged that a Negro had designed the dress. In 1968, Ann Lowe Originals was opened on Madison Avenue, where she worked until retiring in 1972. Ann Lowe died on February 25, 1981 in Queens, NY after suffering from an ongoing illness.
“...we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed…” are words that describe the life of a black woman that proved that a Negro could and would become a major dress designer. Now, it is understood that many of the systemic adversaries that she faced are still in full effect today; even so, the 1204 Lounge recognizes Ann Lowe as an Elite, Fortified, and Triumphant dress designer and Fashion Icon!