28 Days of Black Fashion History: Byron Lars

Designer Byron Lars

Some have called his clothes ‘quirky, yet classic’. Jeffrey Banks called him ‘the African American Christian Francis Roth’. And while adapting menswear into fabulous, fashionable and impeccably cut garments, Byron Lars likes to refer to his sportswear as ‘twisted American classics’.

Born in Oakland and raised in El Cerrito, California, Byron was on the path to becoming an architect when he was introduced to sewing in the 10th grade. He began designing his classmates’ gowns, delighting in the joy it gave him to see them so excited and happy. 

Byron Lars "Shirt Tales" show
Byron Lars posing with one of his ensembles from his “Shirt Tales” show, spring 1996.
Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos

After graduation, he completed a two year fashion program at Brooks Fashion Institute of Technology in Long Beach, California and later enrolled at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. While there, he represented the US at the International Concours des Jeunes Createurs de Mode in Paris in 1986. He also won the first annual Texitalian contest for fashion design students, held by the school and the Italian Trade Commission in 1987.

After leaving FIT, Lars was a freelance pattern maker and illustrator. Then, in 1991, he showed his first collection which received rave reviews. Though he’d already been a closely watched design newcomer in New York for several years, Lars’ career took off with his Fall 1992 second collection. Lynn Manulis, president of Martha International, said in an interview with Essence magazine (September, 1992) that his collection was the ‘best and most original collection that happened during the entire fashion week.’ That year, he added Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus to his client list along with other high end retailers, prompting Women’s Wear Daily to name him their ‘Rookie of the Year’. 

Women’s Wear Daily, April 1991.

By 1995, his business had gotten so busy, he had signed his first licensing agreement with San Siro for his Shirttails collection. Unfortunately, the company began selling unauthorized product to outlets and discounters, a huge no-no when you’re selling to high end stores. He would later win a lawsuit against the company, but the damage to his brand had already been done, and he saw his business slowly decline. However, an opportunity to design for one of the most famous fashionistas in the world would help him bounce back.

One of the African American barbie dolls from Byron Lars’ collection.

In 1996, Mattel asked Lars to design a collectible Barbie: both the doll and complete wardrobe. It was so successful that in 1997 he developed an entire line of African American Barbie dolls dressed in designer clothing.

Tracee Ellis Ross wearing Byron Lars in the March, 2015 edition of Essence magazine.

Lars soon returned to his roots of designing for woman and his signature pieces. In 2000, he launched a line called “Green T”, and few years later, Beauty Mark was born. Initially, the brand offered shirts and shirt dresses but has since expanded into sportswear, dresses, knits and plus size. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is a fan and has worn Beauty Mark in the White House family official portrait and at several other high profile White House events. Other celebrities including Angela Bassett are also fans of the line. In addition to Beauty Mark, Lars has also since collaborated with Anthropologie and launched a line with HSN.

Byron Lars’ sketch of a dress for then First Lady Michelle Obama.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama wearing Byron Lars.

In 2014, Pratt Institute presented him with the Fashion Visionary Award. Presented by Angela Bassett, she said, “Each creation of his is a blessing in fabric and thread. As a painter creates, . . . Byron creates magic with a needle and thread.”

Angela Bassett posing with (and wearing) Byron Lars after presenting him with the 2014 Pratt Institute Fashion Visionary Award. Photo credit: Huffington Post

I don’t feel like I have the right to brag. It’s not me, it’s through me. It’s something bigger than me. I’m a worker. The vessel. I love that.

— Byron Lars

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