Rocio Sanchez: [00:00:00] Welcome to Transition of Style, the podcast about fashion, identity, and how queer leaders are disrupting the fashion industry today. Except for today’s a very special episode because it’s October, which celebrates LGBT History Month in the United States and it’s time to go back in history. My name is Rocio Sanchez.
Rocio Sanchez: Feel free to use any pronouns for me. I’m a digital marketer with a specialization in queer business and fashion, and I also did a master’s thesis in queer fashion. And one of the highlights of my experience of academia is the emphasis on history and how history is recorded. And that’s why it’s really important for me to take this episode as it’s being launched in October to celebrate somebody in the fashion industry that needs more recognition.
Rocio Sanchez: I really wanted to highlight somebody who lived [00:01:00] that life of non-heterosexuality, but also was a pioneer and really set the stage for people who followed him. His name is Jay Jaxon. He was the first black haute couture designer. He also was a costume designer for movies that you’ve known like, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and just so many off the bat. His credits go really, really long. He has such a long career and to talk about it today is Rachel Fenderson, who is a designer herself, but also a historian who wrote a master’s thesis on Jay Jaxon after having discovered his work just by researching in a Parisian library.
Rocio Sanchez: Its just a beautiful story and I just can’t wait to hear more from Rachel. So thank you so much for, for being here Rachel.
Rachel Fenderson: Thank you for having me.
Rocio Sanchez: Yes, of course. So the reason we brought you on is because you are the authority figure on Jay Jaxon. And I want you to introduce who Jay Jaxon was [00:02:00] and his legacy today. So tell me more about, who was Jay Jaxon?
Rachel Fenderson: Okay, so Jay Jason Jaxon was born Eugene Jackson on August 30th, 1941 at Jamaica Hospital, which is located in Queens, New York.
Rachel Fenderson: He grew up in South Jamaica housing projects, which is known as 40/40 Projects, that’s the nickname.
Rachel Fenderson: Later he would move in with the Weber family in St. Albans, Queens. Which was very instrumental for him because that is where education was extremely important to the parents. They were both professionals within the educational system. And he also learned how to sew while living with the Weber family.
Rachel Fenderson: And then from there he went to Jamaica High School. After Jamaica High School, he went to Hunter College. After Hunter College, he went to law school. From law school, he decided to pursue costume design and fashion design, and that’s where he went to FIT.
Rocio Sanchez: That’s where this all comes from, right? The point of this episode is to really highlight Jay Jaxon and who [00:03:00] he was in the fashion industry. And that was just his runway into fashion. He ended up at FIT. Tell us more about what happened after that.
Rachel Fenderson: Jay Jaxon’s then girlfriend, which is Renee Hunter, very instrumental in his life. They were very good friends all the way up until his death. And even after his death. She still visits his life partner, which is also one of her good friends, Lloyd Hardy.
Rachel Fenderson: So Jay made a dress for his then girlfriend, which got a lot of recognition. It was a white floor length dress, which had about a hundred buttons on the center front. And from there he decided, okay, you know what? He wanted to pursue fashion, and make it his lifelong dream.
Rachel Fenderson: So he decided to leave law school. Which, if you think about it at the time, that’s probably not conventional to leave law school and to pursue a career in fashion design. Especially considering where Jay Jaxon was coming from as a person who was born in the heart of the Jim Crow era. So to be able to even [00:04:00] have the audacity to, dream in terms of being an artist or creative is really remarkable.
Rachel Fenderson: So once he went to FIT, which I oftentimes advocate for your classmates, your colleagues within your industry. Those are the people who will be by your side to help shepherd you through and help see you excel. So one of his classmates introduced him to buyers at Bonwit Teller, as well as Henri Bendel.
Rachel Fenderson: And that’s how he was able to have his collection. His first collection, ever collection, was launched there, and so they picked up six pieces. From the six pieces, he made close to I believe $19,000, and he utilized that money to help move him to Paris.
Rocio Sanchez: And that’s where we’re going off to next. Paris is where we have a connection because we went to the same Master’s Program, but coincidentally we did not cross paths. You graduated before I went in. And, I just [00:05:00] remember being connected to you because we’re both Queensies, right?
Rocio Sanchez: Like I’m just literally a neighborhood away. So it was also interesting to learn that Jay Jaxon was from Queens and then also went to France and Paris, like we did. So, I would love to talk more about his experience in France and his work in France and beyond.
Rachel Fenderson: So, if we think about also that incredible feat for him to go from Queens, New York to go from, Jamaica High School to then Hunter College, to then law school, and then have the audacity to change his dreams to then pursue fashion. And then from there, accumulated enough money for him to go to Paris, which his family saw him off at the airport, and sent him his best well wishes. Upon me discovering exactly the timeframe or the time period in which he arrived in Paris, which would’ve been February 1968.
Rachel Fenderson: What’s very crucial about that is that it was showed up in a documentation, which was correspondence between [00:06:00] Givenchy and Jay Jaxon. So in the notation from Givenchy to Jay, it says “Oh, thank you. I received your letter. I’m super excited to meet with you and see you.” But unfortunately, he was going into the mountains for some sort of respite.
Rachel Fenderson: This is Givenchy. But he said, you know what? Please come by the studio anyway, check out the garments and my assistant will help you. And I’m, I’m excited to know that you are here in Paris.
Rachel Fenderson: That particular year, that was two months prior to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which was on April 4th, 1968. And then I believe like a year and two to three months before the Stonewall uprising, right? In New York City, which then would be the launch of the catalyst for the gay rights movement.
Rachel Fenderson: I was reading an article that said, he immediately started to assist the fashion designer known as Jean-Louis Scherrer. And by him becoming the assistant fashion designer would then lead to him making fashion history, becoming the first African American [00:07:00] haute couture designer.
Rachel Fenderson: Which was something that was detailed heavily in the newspapers. But one of the other key things that I, I do want us to take into account, is a notation or this desire or love for African American people that the French had, which was called Negrophile.
Rachel Fenderson: And this initially was introduced, I would say probably in the early 1900s. So we had a lot of different artists, creatives and entertainers were leaving the United States, leaving New York, coming to France because they wanted to seek a space where they could do their art, perform, without experiencing the terrible terror of racism.
Rachel Fenderson: Right. And hatred towards black people. So, you had Ella Fitzgerald, you had Duke Ellington, Langton Hughes, James Baldman, Richard Wright. All of these people, I would say helped to make space for Jay Jaxon. Helped to have him be able to experience his art [00:08:00] and his craft in a way because they laid a path for him to follow, right? Their presence being in, France helped to open doors for Jay Jaxon.
Rocio Sanchez: I love that. I love that. So remind me again, when did Jay Jaxon come to Paris? Was 19, late 1960s.
Rachel Fenderson: Yes. It was February, 1968.
Rocio Sanchez: Okay. And then what, how long did he stay there?
Rachel Fenderson: So he would’ve stayed there for approximately 9 to 10 years.
Rocio Sanchez: Mm-hmm. I wanted to be sure about the timeline because notably, the Battle of Versailles happened in 1973, right? So this is like prime time. Like he was there too. So Battle of Versailles for, for those listening was a fashion show held at the Versailles Palace that had these amazing garments and amazing designers and organized by just like people really, really established in the fashion industry.
Rocio Sanchez: And notably, it was a fashion show that really launched a lot of careers of Black models. And Black people in the industry. So it kind of speaks to [00:09:00] that, I wouldn’t say obsession cause it was, it was well earned of course. But, the Parisian gaze upon these different, diverse backgrounds is quite particular.
Rocio Sanchez: And I feel like Jay Jaxon, however far away he was from that fashion show, that really pivotal moment in fashion history, he was there. You know, so he was part of that. What do you think about that acknowledgement?
Rachel Fenderson: So, how Jay Jaxon might’ve been present, would’ve been being an assistant designer to either Mark Bohan for Christian Dior, or for Yves Saint Laurent. So part of the reason why I say it’s either or is that it’s, again, looking at his resume and the timeframe, I would probably lean more to Yves Saint Laurent.
Rachel Fenderson: Depending on the timeframe, or it might have been Christian Dior, I’m not a hundred percent certain, but I know both of them did participate in the Battle of Versailles. So it was, it’s interesting also that you have, it’s American designers versus French haute couture designers, right. And within these American designers, a lot of [00:10:00] them produce ready to wear.
Rachel Fenderson: But to your point, it also helped to solidify that the United States, New York City in particular, That these American designers can produce excellent garments, can put on a fashion show and be able to compete on the same grand stage as fashion in Paris.
Rachel Fenderson: And even when we look at it, in this space, that Battle of Versailles also helped to solidify ready to wear. It helped to show that ready to wear could be a strong contender, right? That not only haute couture garments have the center stage, but that ready to wear, which was just on the rise as well.
Rachel Fenderson: And for those who don’t know, ready to wear is designer level clothing that is not haute couture, right. Cause haute couture is very specific measurements. It’s also made to your, your body. It’s also depends on how the garment is sewn, how the buttons and the beading work.
Rocio Sanchez: Its highly regulated.
Rachel Fenderson: Right. How it’s regulated, also like where it’s done. To be haute couture there’s so many different rules and [00:11:00] classifications for your brand to be recognized as haute couture and usually determined by The Chambre Syndicale in France. And you also have to have like headquarters in France. They usually invite you or you can apply for membership. You know, you have to have a certain amount of employees.
Rachel Fenderson: I, I believe it’s like, if I’m not mistaken, either 95% of the garment needs to be handmade. So there can be some sewing machine work done, but majority of the garment must be handmade. So like, it’s the labor. Also the branding of French haute couture and what it means for a garment to be French haute couture.
Rachel Fenderson: So even in this ways, it’s fascinating to see how the American designers were able to compete with the French designers.
Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. Yeah. I, I’ve really wanted to paint this picture of like, what world was Jay Jaxon in. Because people can be into fashion and not necessarily know what the Battle of Versailles is like, they just like to style themselves and stuff.
Rocio Sanchez: But the Battle of Versailles really for people who study fashion history, people who are really, really into it. They know what the Battle of Versailles is, right? They know who [00:12:00] Yves Saint Laurent is, you know, and how Yves Saint Laurent from the sixties and seventies is way different from the Saint Laurent now, right?
Rocio Sanchez: It’s really, really important to paint the picture of like, Paris really has built itself as a capital of fashion and how the Battle of Versailles really disrupted that and how many things disrupted that. And Jay Jaxon was in that orbit. Definitely.
Rocio Sanchez: That’s why I’m such a fan of your work because you really uncovered that and you really focused a lot on Jay Jaxon’s work and where he was like, where he was while all this other stuff was going on. Now we know his accolades, now we know what his, his cv, his, his resume.
Rocio Sanchez: We know where he was at. But what was it like to be Jay Jaxon to the best of your knowledge? Because you’re really coming from a historian perspective. And of course your work, you discovered his work after he had passed, right? So you’re just coming from oral history, his surviving family members and things like that.
Rocio Sanchez: So I would love to know, what was Jay Jaxon like in this world as a Black man who was not straight? He, he, [00:13:00] he went out with men, loved men, had fulfilling lives with men in France and back in the States. I would love to know more about what his experience was like.
Rachel Fenderson: So right off the bat, the first thing that I asked is, did Jay Jaxon know how to speak French? And everyone laughed, like they said no. And part of the reason why they laughed is because the only word he knew was, “œuf” which is “egg.” So he, I, I believe, did I say correctly?
Rocio Sanchez: It’s œuf.
Rachel Fenderson: Oh, correct. See
Rocio Sanchez: I’m not, yeah.
Rachel Fenderson: So which, which is an egg. Right. And that’s when he would order, when he would go to restaurants because he didn’t know how to order anything else. But I think even in that, like to have that level of determination to be able to go to another country, you don’t speak the language. Also, you show up there and you’re coming from a place where, and as I mentioned to you, where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered and assassinated, right? And that was a person who spoke peace and spoke love, and spoke judging someone [00:14:00] based on the content of their character and not necessarily based on their presentation, how they look and how they present to the world.
Rachel Fenderson: So coming from that and him landing into Paris, France and heading into the fashion industry, I think it’s a whirlwind of experiences that a person may have. But a few things that were mentioned about Jay is that he loved to cook, he loved to dance, he loved music. And also remember he’s in his twenties, what would a person in their twenties be doing in Paris?
Rachel Fenderson: But living your entire life, having fun.
Rocio Sanchez: Going to bars.
Rachel Fenderson: Going to bars, going to clubs, meeting different people. From my understanding, I believe that’s how he met Yves Saint Laurent, was actually at a Parisian club. And from, from what I was told, it would’ve been a move palace. But however, that club did not exist then. So the two clubs that I mentioned to you was, is, Lu
Rocio Sanchez: Mm-hmm.
Rachel Fenderson: the other one is Yes.
Rocio Sanchez: Lu and Luk, which are not, [00:15:00] I believe, uh, just from Googling, are not around in the same, like, they’re not clubs now. They, I think they exist in some iteration, especially Les. Like the chronology here is a little bit off, right? Yeah. We didn’t have Google back then, so it’s not easy to like see the, the, the record there. But we could definitely trust that these places existed. Definitely. These bars and clubs existed in Paris where, a lot of LGB T folks, particularly gay men, like they, congregated and they had fun, just like people in their twenties now in Paris.
Rachel Fenderson: Just like people in their twenties now. But you know what’s interesting? So if we even like explore that context, it’s like, okay. You are a Black person. You are a designer. And you’re also gay, and you have the audacity to be exactly who you are and show up in the world in this way.
Rachel Fenderson: And, I’m sure just like any other human person, it probably bothered him to have experiences where cannot love who you wanna love, freely, openly, without experiencing hatred or [00:16:00] vitriol. Right. So what I can say is that to his experiences when I asked about this. His partner at the time, Mr. Katu said that Jay Jaxon and him, you know, they dated, went to places like any other couple would. And the thing that he did mention though was that when Jay Jaxon was working for different brands, that Jay Jaxon is just as important to the fashion industry, was just as talented as Yves Saint Laurent, but if it was a different time, he would’ve been able to excel.
Rachel Fenderson: So I asked him to elaborate. I was like, you know, what does that mean? He’s, he just said, you know. If it was like, so let’s say now, like his talents probably would’ve been more honored and recognized and he wouldn’t have had some of the experiences that he had. And so I, I asked him, I was like, could you tell me further?
Rachel Fenderson: And so he gave me an example that when Jay was working for one of these brands, he would have to come in in the off hours when everyone else wasn’t there. And [00:17:00] I was like, what? Why? That’s such an odd thing, especially as a fashion designer. Part of the work is to collaborate. Especially if you have a team and let’s say they are the sewers or the seamstress, or you have the pattern makers.
Rachel Fenderson: In order for them to make the garment correct, you need to be present. And especially, for me, I’m also a fashion designer, so coming from my background, I know what it is to make patterns, produce garments and sew, right. And even when I’m working on my own collection, I do all of that work right now.
Rachel Fenderson: And so from my understanding with Jay Jaxon, Jay Jaxon is a triple threat. And triple threat in the industry meaning he can do his own illustrations, he can sew garments, he can make patterns. Oftentimes a designer may not be able to do all three.
Rachel Fenderson: Sometimes they might only be able to do the illustrations, but they may not know how to sew or make patterns. Or you might have a person who’s extremely good at sewing but doesn’t know how to make a pattern well, or doesn’t know how to do illustrations. So in a case of Jay, he was a triple threat.
Rachel Fenderson: He could do all three extremely well on his own. So,[00:18:00] I think it can be stifling where you are trying to do your best as a creative. And then you get these different accolades and then afterwards it seems like the reward is not there. Right? So picture, you’re making garments on the big stage for Liza Minnelli.
Rachel Fenderson: Right. For Bette Midler, you’re making garments for Luther Vandross. You are a costume designer also, while releasing your own fashion collections in France, while making haute couture, as the head couturier for Jean Lu Chare, only to have different instances of microaggression where your history is intentionally being erased.
Rachel Fenderson: And, it shows up in very specific ways, right? So if we look at French Vogue and we look at American Vogue. Consistently, they covered Jean Lusk’s collections up until the point where Jay Jaxon took over the fashion house. All of a sudden there was no review of his collections. And this is very specific to both French and [00:19:00] American Vogue.
Rachel Fenderson: So it was very interesting to be able to see Jay Jaxon go into this world, take over this fashion house. Yes, his history was removed and it just made it more difficult for a person like me at the time who was, getting my master’s, but I was super determined to find this information.
Rachel Fenderson: And what my teacher told me is very specific and key. He’s like, it’s not just what you find, it’s also what you don’t find, where he should be in. So that’s one of the reasons why I definitely mentioned that both French and American Vogue did not cover the reviews of Jay Jaxon’s collections. However, a lot of Europeanpublications did.
Rachel Fenderson: So the French publications that did cover him is Lamond,Figaro a com comeback, I believe covered him as well. And then you had some Spanish publications and Dutch publications that covered Jay Jaxon . Actually the Spanish publications and the Dutch publications, Jay Jaxon saved that content himself in his portfolio, which I do speak to about designers have an auto agency, which is a term that I coined [00:20:00] in my thesis, essentially just mean to help protect and preserve your own history. Very important.
Rachel Fenderson: Even how he outlined it is exactly how I present it in the different exhibitions that I’ve done on Jay Jaxon’s life.
Rocio Sanchez: That’s why you’re able to sit here with me today and, and have all the other podcasts that you’re doing. You got an obituary written in the New York Times, because of your work, you really uncovered this, and, and it’s, your work.
Rocio Sanchez: You discovered his work. He was very deliberate in trying to record his own work in some way or another. And so something I wanted to mention to close out, which is just. Your work, did all these things that we just talked about. His work allowed for that to happen. And one thing that I wanted to mention is just to honor the fact that, like Jay Jaxon is obviously here no longer, can’t speak for himself.
Rocio Sanchez: And so those records are what we have, right. And obviously the oral history of the people around him. And so we’re very intentional in not, putting labels that we throw around [00:21:00] all the time today. Right. So queer back then, for example, was very, very, political, but also was, rather a slur, right?
Rocio Sanchez: In many places today, it’s still a slur. So it’s like, to put that on somebody, when they can’t speak for themselves, may not be the the best way to honor that person. And so that’s why, for me it’s important for you to come here and just say, Hey, this is what I found. This was his experience, right?
Rocio Sanchez: So he was just, a talented, talented man, a triple threat, as you said, who happened to be African American. Who happened to love men in the way that he did. And so it’s really wonderful to hear from you, and I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I can’t wait to show the world.
Rocio Sanchez: Where can people find you?
Rachel Fenderson: Sure. So if they would like to find my historical work, they can find it at rachelfenderson.com. It features newspaper articles, it features, podcasts. And then also it features a lot of virtual exhibition reviews that I did because obviously when Covid happened, the exhibition was closed to the public, but I was still able to do virtual [00:22:00] tours.
Rachel Fenderson: So it gives you like a full on, super in-depth breakdown of Jay Jaxon, his life, what he was experiencing. The different interviews that I’ve had, speaking to his colleagues and his friends, his family. Only for him to also be able to return to New York. Largely he left Paris because of racism.
Rachel Fenderson: When I asked his partner at the time, his partner said, yeah, that’s the reason why he left Paris. And I just can’t imagine what his world would’ve been, had he had the opportunity to stay and be able to overcome those type of obstacles, but only to return to the US and face those obstacles still head on.
Rachel Fenderson: It was still there. But I think that speaks to the talent and love for his craft that. Even though it can be depressing and to experience that, he was still able to persevere and move beyond it.
Rachel Fenderson: One day he decided to go back into the fashion industry, and this is where he worked as a designer and as a costume maker within the Design Guild. And he was creating for a lot of the shows that we love, such as Ally McBeal, Buffy the [00:23:00] Vampire Slayer, and so on. Which is kind of cool because I watched those shows as a teenager.
Rachel Fenderson: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the movie, he was one of the designers for that. Its just interesting to see that he was still able to come back within the industry. And one of the things that he left with Lloyd, because he did die of prostate cancer on July 19th in 2006. But one of the things he left with Lloyd, he said, you know, the fashion industry just, it isn’t racist anymore.
Rachel Fenderson: And although we know that that isn’t exactly true, but I think what he was speaking to his experience as a costume designer at the time, and this would be. I think the early 2000s when he made this reference, and I believe what he was trying to say was what he was experiencing in the sixties and in the seventies and the eighties, which became so debilitating that he stopped designing and stopped creating.
Rachel Fenderson: He would still create for his friends who were a lot of celebrities actually. But he wasn’t creating in the way that he used to. Right. One of the things that was so interesting to see, was that he did come back [00:24:00] and he did have this feeling and that feeling was based on the fact that his craft was being honored for what it was.
Rachel Fenderson: However, what I can say is, although he’s not here, so I can’t speak for him, but it’s, to know that the racism that he thought subsided does still exist because it shows up in, academia. It shows up in the curriculum. It shows up in what we’re being taught. And it shows up in the fact that he was intentionally left out of history and being erased from the narrative.
Rocio Sanchez: Hmm. Well thank you for the work that you’re doing, cause you’re bringing it back forth and every time you show up in a talk like this or something else, it’s just furthering that. So thank you so much, and thank you for being here.
Rachel Fenderson: Thank you for having me, Rocio. I love, love speaking with you and it is such a pleasure to meet you. First of all, Parsons proud, we love each other very much.
Rachel Fenderson: Of course. Yeah. Yeah.
Rachel Fenderson: Thank you for having me.
Rocio Sanchez: Transition of Style is brought to you by FC [00:25:00] Podcasts, a division of Fashion Consort. Learn more about how FC Podcasts can help you with podcasting, from strategy and creation, to production and marketing at fcpodcasts.com. That’s fcpodcasts.com. Thank you FC Podcasts, for making Transition of Style possible.
Rocio Sanchez: Now, back to the show.
Rocio Sanchez: Welcome back to Transition of Style. As you heard in today’s episode, record keeping is one of the most important things you can do as a fashion designer or as an overall brand leader. If it wasn’t for Rachel Fenderson’s work at Parsons Paris, Jaxon may never have gotten the retroactive obituary written for him in the New York Times.
If it wasn’t for Rachel Fenderson’s work and master’s thesis, we may never have found out that Jay Jaxon was the first African American to lead and design a haute couture fashion house. I think there’s so much we can learn from Rachel Fenderson’s work as a fashion historian, [00:26:00] as well as from Jay Jaxon’s story.
But let’s break it down to three actionable goals that brand leaders and queer fashion owners can use to their advantage today. First, be your own record keeper. Rachel had to scour Parisian libraries when she was in grad school to find any mention of Jaxon’s work, and later found more resources via Jay’s surviving family and friends.
Thankfully, she was able to continue this record keeping long after his passing. Think about how you could do the same, whether you are a designer or a business owner. Who knows who could be writing about you in 50 years time? Make future historians work easier by setting up accessible archival points.
Newspaper clippings, online features, physical garments, include it all. Second, learn from French fashion heritage and museums and archives in general. Unfortunately, had the French fashion world appreciated Jay Jaxon’s work a little bit more, maybe his work would be featured more prominently in world famous fashion museums. Your goal may [00:27:00] not be to end up in the Palais Galliera in 50 years time, but researching these institutions and how they value their legacy and fashion heritage could give you pointers on how to preserve your own.
Lastly, remember that you don’t need the validation of Western fashion cultures to make your mark. Yes, it is very clear that French fashion history is rich in its own right, but Black and Brown folks influence in it is hardly recognized. That’s why Rachel Fenderson’s work is so important, and that’s why yours is too.
Remember who you do this for, whether it’s for yourself, for your family, or for your community.
Thank you so much for listening to Transition of Style. I’ll see you next time.
Rachel Fenderson (she/her) is a fashion designer, historian, exhibition curator, biographer, and academic who uncovered the vast archive of Jay Jaxon, the first African-American haute couturier. Rachel Fenderson obtained her master’s thesis from Parsons Paris (MA Fashion Studies) where she discovered Jay Jaxon from old newspaper clippings in Parisian libraries and archives. She is now based in Jamaica where she continues to preserve Jaxon’s legacy and build her own as a fashion designer.
Rocio Sanchez, host and producer
Caitlin Whyte, audio engineer
Sophie Jacqueline, video editor