28 Days of Black Fashion History: Gordon Henderson

A native of Berkely, California, Gordon Henderson seems to have been born with style. In second grade, he put together an outfit complete with a scarf tied as an ascot for a class picture. As a single parent, his mother sewed her own dresses from Vogue patterns to save money. By the time he was in high school, Henderson would also be sewing his own clothes.

After a short time at the University of California at Davis, Henderson transferred to Parsons School of Design. A year after in graduated in 1984, he because a design assistant at Calvin Klein. Six months later, he left Calvin Klein and began freelancing.

Illustration from Gordon Henderson during his days at Parsons

In 1987, he launched his Gordon Henderson line. The success of his line and talent enabled him to land an exclusive deal with Saks Fifth Avenue and earn the Council of Fashion Designer’s Perry Ellis New Designer of the Year award in 1989. Even People magazine would crown him “fashion’s man for the woman who works.”

There are hundreds of designers for ladies who lunch, but there are very few designing for working-class people.

Fashion designer Gordon Henderson going over his fashion sketches at home. (Photo by Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

A year later in 1990, he launched “But, Gordon” a lower priced line for his clients who wanted new design faster and less expensive. By the next year, his sales exceeded $6 million, according to People magazine. He’s also maintained a custom, bespoke line which launched when he designed John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s wedding suit for his marriage to Carolyn Bessette. 

John F. Kennedy, Jr. in the wedding suit designed by Henderson.

Some might describe his designs as classics with a twist. He’s known to use offbeat colors and unconventional color combinations and using inexpensive fabrics but treating them in an expensive way, all while keeping the prices affordable for the working woman. His goal was to make women’s lives easier through fashion, creating versatile, easy pieces that would complement a women’s lifestyle.

My success comes from the bottom up. I feel like I’m communicating with the woman on the street, the working woman. I want to get them excited about ‘real’ clothes again–the kind they can afford,” he says. “My challenge is to create a staple in the wardrobe.

Los Angelos Times, May 30, 1990

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