28 Days of Black Fashion History: Jeffrey Banks

Jeffrey Banks, Designer

“Whoever heard of a black designer?”

Those words from an unassuming young caretaker stuck with Jeffrey Banks but was the catalyst that pushed him to pursue his talent and excel as a successful American fashion designer, who just happened to be Black. “My parents always made me believe I could do anything I want as long as I was willing to work hard for it.”

Born in Washington, D.C., he knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a fashion designer. At 16, he’d begun to work for the men’s clothier Britches of Georgetown and grew to love the style of Ralph Lauren. At one point, the owner of Britches suggested he pick up Lauren, who was visiting D.C. for a charity fashion show, from the airport. They struck up a conversation during the ride, and Lauren, who was charmed by Bank’s enthusiasm, decided to hire him. Three weeks after graduating high school, Banks began what would become a three year working relationship and long lasting friendship with Ralph Lauren.

A Macy’s advertisement for Jeffrey Banks’ menswear.

He continued working with Lauren until his final year of college at Parsons, when he left the company due to the mounting pressure of working nearly full time and trying to get his degree. However, not long after he left, Calvin Klein offered him the opportunity to come work for his company, allowing him the flexibility to come in when he could and offering him a weekly salary. It was an offer he couldn’t resist.

Looks from Jeffrey Banks. Photo: Bruce Weber

After his time at Calvin Klein, he would work for companies such as Nik-Nik clothing and sportswear and even design a line of men’s furs for Alixandre, a line which he won a Coty award for, the youngest designer ever to do so. And in 1977, he launched his own signature menswear collection.

A 1987 advertisement in GQ magazine showcasing Jeffrey Banks’ white trousers.

Banks can merge comfort with whimsy and sophistication and is often influenced by ‘old Hollywood’ icons of the 1920s and 30s. His incredible style, fashion and business sense has led him to positions with Merona Sport in the 80’s where his ’spectator sportswear’ increased sales from $7M to $85M; Johnnie Walker Scotch, where he created casual sportswear and timepieces that helped make the line more appealing to younger, affluent men; and a deal with HSN to design housewares which helped their home division become of the biggest with Banks being their top resource.

An advertisement for Jeffrey Banks for Saks Fifth Avenue.

I design clothes that are masculine, classic, but classic with a twist–either through color, fabrication, or both. — Jeffrey Banks

During his prestigious career, Banks has received two Coty Awards, a Cutty Sark award for US Menswear Designer of the Year, an Earnie Award for Boyswear and the Pratt Award for design excellence. He’s also co-authored three books. He is a former board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and former board of trustee for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Above is an interview with Banks done by the CFDA.

Jeffrey Banks posing with one of his books.

[L]earn about the business of fashion. It’s not art, its something that people buy and wear. — Jeffrey Banks

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