DECADES OF DRESS
By Laura Layfer Treitman
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF HINDMAN AUCTIONS
By Laura Layfer Treitman
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF HINDMAN AUCTIONS
The Collection of Fashion Designer Arthur McGee, to be auctioned at Hindman on March 14, 2023, brings a selection of 45 ensembles and documents, direct from private hands to a public audience. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1933, McGee learned the art of dressmaking from his mother. Those skills were passed down to her son, who at 18 years old won a design competition and scholarship to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. He would also pursue studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology before starting his career and establishing a namesake label. Then and now, McGee was not only celebrated for his talents but recognized as a trailblazer in the industry. The net proceeds of the sale of this 45-piece collection will benefit a scholarship for emerging fashion designers from Arthur McGee Legacy, LLC.
In the 1950s, McGee is believed to have been the first African American to run an apparel showroom’s design studio on Seventh Avenue, the garment district of Manhattan. He initially worked in the atelier of American couturier Charles James. That important connection led Hindman’s Couture & Luxury Accessories Director and Senior Specialist Timothy Long to feel an immediate bond with McGee. “When I was at the Chicago History Museum, I curated the exhibition Charles James: Genius Deconstructed, in 2011, so to know McGee’s link to James made the opportunity for research and scholarship here even more exciting,” shares Long. “For those of us in the fashion and costume history field, McGee is one of those names that is widely known yet not discussed or documented nearly enough—until now.”
Even while he was employed at other firms, McGee always maintained clothing creations that he sold independently. In the manner of high-end salons like that of his former boss Charles James, McGee soon courted a roster of celebrities and entertainers such as Sybil Burton and Cicely Tyson. In the 1960s, McGee opened his first store in New York City’s St. Mark’s Place, and a second followed in Miami, Florida. When he was honored by The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying many of his sophisticated silhouettes, they aptly referred to McGee as the “Dean of African-American Fashion Designers.”
McGee passed in 2019, and it has been two of his longtime clients turned close friends who took on the roles of overseeing his estate. They are Maxine Gordon, an author, archivist, jazz historian, and currently a Radcliffe Fellow at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and Johnetta Shearer, a realtor at Beachfront Realty in Hallandale Beach, Florida, and a Certified Mastectomy Fitter with MARJ Medical in Boca Raton. Together, they have spent the last few years organizing sketches, photographs, and clothing into a testament of McGee’s legacy.
“At Hindman, we have had experience with archival materials,” notes Long, “having sold that of Geoffrey Beene, for example, giving us a knowledge and understanding of what can be worn and what pieces might fill voids for museums and other institutions or private collectors seeking to acquire.” The total of 15 lots comprise multiple pieces within each grouping, including some separates, and are primarily divided by decades spanning from the 1960s-1980s. “It’s fascinating to consider the glimpse we can now see at McGee’s practice such as origami, just like the type kids play with, that he used for exploring folds and pleats as a type of pattern,” remarks Long. Below, an interview with Gordon and Shearer provides additional insight into their interactions with McGee, and his contributions, past, present, and future.
Can you talk about how you both initially came to know McGee?
MG: I first met McGee when he had a boutique in New York City. It was a very lively period in the East Village in the late ‘60s. He began to make clothes for me and we became friends for the rest of his life.
JS: I met McGee in Miami, Florida in 1974 when I was the guest of my late friend, singer Phyllis Hyman, who was performing at a fashion show. Arthur McGee’s clothing was featured at the show. I saw his assistant wearing a dress that I learned later was called “The Shower Curtain Dress” and just by seeing that dress, I had to know more about him and the clothes. I became a client that year, 1974.
What was it like working with him? Do each of you have a favorite memory to share?
MG: McGee wanted his clients to wear beautiful garments made from the best fabrics and he wanted them to be comfortable and affordable. When there was a special occasion, we shopped for fabric together and all the people in the fabric showrooms knew him and loved spending time with him. He never seemed to be in a hurry. He made all my maternity clothes in 1978, and before that, in 1975, had begun to make garments for my late husband Dexter Gordon. In 1987, Arthur made all the outfits for Dexter and me for the Oscar ceremony (Dexter was nominated as lead actor in the film Round Midnight) and for the events for a week in Hollywood. McGee also attended the Oscars with us!
JS: It was wonderful to work with McGee—a pleasure to be in his company. He was funny, brutally honest, and just simply cool. His knowledge of fashion that he imparted not only to me but to all his clients is priceless. He really and truly cared about how his clients looked in his clothes. He taught us how to wear them, how to accessorize and how to care for them. We are still wearing pieces he made for us after all these years.
When did the idea to catalog McGee’s archives come to fruition?
MG: Before McGee’s death, he appointed Johnetta and me as his Executors and talked about how he hoped his work would not be forgotten. We began to talk about collecting his designs and establishing a scholarship in his name for emerging young designers. We formed the Arthur McGee Legacy LLC and will continue searching for more of his classic designs.
JS: I had previously participated in Hindman auctions and purchased items. I mentioned this to Maxine, we talked about it, decided to pursue it and do the necessary work. I contacted Hindman and met with Timothy Long, and the rest is history. We are delighted to be working with Hindman on the auction and are making plans to use profits from the sale to establish a scholarship fund in Arthur McGee’s name that will support emerging young designers.
What is your great hope in seeing McGee’s name and work carry on?
MG: We would like to remind the public that McGee was the first Black designer on Seventh Avenue and was an inspiration to many Black designers who followed after him. He traveled widely and was inspired by clothing he saw in Asia and Africa and his legacy is surely an international inspiration to many.
JS: My desire with this auction is to help educate people about McGee and have them learn what an extraordinarily talented African American designer he was and to keep his legacy alive in museums around the world for the world to see and know his work. His clothes are practical, affordable, timeless designs in fabrics that were classic as well. I feel that he deserves the recognition this auction can give him and that museums will acknowledge his importance as well.
A favorite piece in the sale?
MG: I would say for me it is Lot 5. It has pieces made for me from African fabric he kept rolled up in the studio. He kept adding pieces over a long period and was very pleased with the outfits and the way they could easily be folded to pack for travel.
JS: Mine is the rhinestone black cashmere coat, Lot 9. This coat is a piece that McGee did for the Coty Awards. I always wanted to get that coat to Prince because he would have been the person to wear that coat, but I never got the opportunity. The rhinestones on it are set by hand which makes it even more special.
Bidding for the March 14 auction will begin at 10 a.m. and will be available via Hindman’s Digital Bid Room. Registration for the auction is available at hindmanauctions.com/auctions/1156-spring-fashion-accessories. For more information, visit hindmanauctions.com.