Rachel Fenderson, MA Fashion Studies ’18, AAS Fashion Design ’08, is Shining a Spotlight on Obscured Creatives
Jay Jaxon was the first American and Black American to be the head designer of French Haute Couture Maison Jean-Louis Scherrer in 1969. Jaxon would go on to work for the most celebrated couture houses of Paris in the 1970’s, where he designed for Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Jean-Louis Scherrer, and Pierre Cardin’s American Market. He started his own brand in the 1960s during the reign of the Garment District Era, and went on to create pieces for singers including Luther Vandross, Annie Lennox, and Thelma Houston, as well as costumes for movies and television shows like “Angel,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
For decades, Jaxon’s name has been hidden from various histories of fashion design, and his contributions erased. Thanks to the lead authority on Jay Jaxon, Rachel Fenderson, MA Fashion Studies ‘18, Jaxon’s name has recently reentered the fashion landscape, where he has been the subject of exhibitions curated by Fenderson at the Mona Bismarck, Queens Public Library, and the Queens Historical Society, in addition to the biography Fenderson is currently writing about the talented designer.
Fenderson first became aware of Jaxon as she researched designers while earning her AAS in Fashion Design in 2008. Initially, Fenderson didn’t see herself portrayed among the designers she found, but when she expanded her search to include the keywords “Top Black Designers,” she was introduced to Jaxon, who, like her, was also from Queens, but had the least amount of historical data available.
“I thought if he could make it in the industry then I could too, and that is the definition of why representation is so crucial,” explains Fenderson. “It would have been extremely monumental and magnetic for me to know the extent of his vast and outstanding career, especially during that time when I was studying to be a fashion designer. If you can’t see what you can become, how can you manifest it?”
Prior to pursuing her Master’s in Fashion Studies at Parsons Paris, Fenderson completed her AAS in Fashion Design at Parsons in New York, and then went on to start her own fashion label, Pepper Jacques, with her sister. As a Master’s student in 2017, Fenderson wrote an essay about four designers of color who started their own brands during the Jim Crow Era, which was inspired by a lack of a diverse fashion history in the curriculum, “and the fact that I did not see myself represented in the historical narrative, especially when I knew we were always there,” said Fenderson.
Fenderson’s essay included the work of Jay Jaxon, which led one of her professors to encourage her to expand her research, which became the basis for her thesis project, “JAY JAXON: A Biographical Study and Media Discourse Analysis Reinstating A Designer Into Fashion History.” As a fashion designer and industry professional herself, Fenderson is aware of the challenges Jaxon faced, and plans to continue working to shift the industry to be representative of how the world actually looks.
“I want the readers, first time experiencers, students, scholars, historians, designers, and the like to know that Jay Jaxon is resilient and that is where his brilliance resides,” says Fenderson. “He was designing and creating in an industry that is built on a foundation of Whiteness and White European Beauty ideals. To withstand that, to rise above the incessant racism, deplorable treament, and the caste system as described by Isabel Wilkerson, while busting down doors and kicking over blockages to maximize his full potential as a designer is above and beyond – its plate shifting.”
Fenderson credits her time at Parsons with training her for her role as an interdisciplinary curator and critic, and she has applied many of the lessons she learned while studying in Paris to the exhibitions she’s curated about Jaxon. Her time at Parsons was also integral for her approach to writing Jaxon’s biography, as she was able to visit museums and archives in Paris which gave her vital access and insight into Jaxon’s past.
Throughout her thesis research, Fenderson was struck by the fact that Jaxon was excluded from history, and began to question who, exactly, is in charge of documenting the past, and what it means for humanity and historiography when the histories of Black People are not fully told and/or omitted. Since Fenderson began her work highlighting Jaxon’s role in fashion, she plans to continue illuminating the contributions of Black people who have similarly been excluded.
“I want to know who is disseminating and recording history, and for what purpose,” she says. “How could someone like Jay Jaxon be left out of, erased, and thus removed from the historical narrative? My Master’s degree has prepared me to contextualize and analyze primary/secondary sources using the methodologies of quantitative and qualitative research, oral history, narrative writing, and critical discourse analysis to execute my forthcoming book.”