Overlooked No More: Jay Jaxon, Pioneering Black Designer of French Couture

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

As a promising young designer in Paris in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Jay Jaxon worked in the ateliers of esteemed Parisian fashion houses like Jean-Louis Scherrer, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, creating couture and ready-to-wear for them. Later he designed costumes for films, TV, dance performances and singers’ tours.

His aesthetic was consistent, with a focus on clean, fluid pieces designed with the drape of each garment’s fabric in mind. There were flowing trousers and easy jackets; skirts and dresses cut on the bias for movement. Though they expressed simplicity, his garments, even sporty ones, carried a sense of sophistication and grace.

“To me, clothes have to have a certain amount of elegance,” Jaxon told the journalist Yvette de la Fontaine of Women’s News Service in 1970, when his first collections for Scherrer were being unveiled. “Then they must be worn with elegance, with style. That is my couture.”

They were designed with a determined sense of inclusivity. “I’d like to make my contribution a mixing — making it in love,” he told de la Fontaine. “I’ll use the colors of all the people of the earth — cream, beige, tan, brown and some yellow and reddish tones, possibly stressing the combinations of brown and white.”

He would become the first Black designer to work in the top-tier couture ateliers in Paris. His background, however, was of more humble beginnings, having been born the son of a blue-collar worker in a housing project in the Jamaica section of Queens.

His journey toward “fame and glory,” as de la Fontaine put it, was an evolution, one that included altering his birth name — to what essentially became his brand — at the suggestion of the influential fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert.

“She wanted him to have a name that had some punch to it,” Lloyd Hardy, his partner of two decades, said in a phone interview. He settled on Jay Jaxon.

“No one knew that his real name was Eugene,” Hardy added.

Eugene Jackson was born on Aug. 30, 1941. His father, Sidney Jackson, worked for the Long Island Railroad as a track driver, and his mother, Ethel Rena-Jackson, was a housekeeper. The household was traditional and strict, though Eugene was more outspoken than his three older siblings, a trait he retained throughout his life.

“He was a little different than the rest of us in that he talked back and he voiced his opinion,” his sister Arlene Patterson said in a phone interview.

As a teenager, Jaxon moved in with a family that lived nearby, helping with child care while attending high school. The family frequently made clothing at home, using fabric and patterns from bustling Jamaica Avenue. Jaxon enthusiastically joined in, said Rachel Fenderson, who has curated several exhibitions about Jaxon and is writing a book about him.

Jaxon earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in Manhattan in the early 1960s. He attended the New York University School of Law for about a year with the intention of becoming a lawyer but decided that he was more interested in clothing and enrolled in a costume design course at the Fashion Institute of Technology, also in Manhattan. Before long, with money he saved by working as a bank teller, he enrolled full time.

There he met kindred spirits like the designer Stephen Burrows, a fellow student. In an interview, Burrows said that Jaxon “knew more about fashion than almost anyone I knew at the time,” from years of reading fashion magazines. He was also well-versed in Manhattan’s high-end clothing stores.

During that period, Jaxon dated his first boyfriend, the hairdresser Kenneth Battelle, who chose to be known by his first name only. Battelle’s affluent clientele included philanthropists like Bunny Mellon; some of his ritzy patrons became Jaxon’s early customers.

Jaxon graduated from F.I.T. in 1966; by then he had started to sell his designs at stores like Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller. His goal, however, was to get to Paris, the era’s epicenter of fashion, and by the end of the decade he had moved there and found work as a designer.

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A model wearing a tri-color dress designed by Jaxon in the late 1960s, when Jaxon moved to Paris, the era’s epicenter of fashion, to make a name for himself.Credit…William Connors/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Before long he became noticed for his adaptability, easily translating his designs for different labels as well as meeting the tastes of independent customers.

“He’s like a chameleon,” Fenderson said by phone. “He’s able to design for any brand.”

In addition to the visionary Yves Saint Laurent, Jaxon variously worked under Marc Bohan at Christian Dior and was on the design team at Jean-Louis Scherrer.

By the mid-1970s, he had returned to New York City and started his own brand. His focus was on elevated sportswear, like trim, collared jackets and polished, pleated trousers, which he also designed for other companies, like Pierre Cardin. Still, his name wasn’t widely known. A 1979 New York Times review of a group fashion show that included pieces by Jaxon referred to him as one of several designers “on the first rungs of their success.”

In the mid-1980s, Jaxon moved to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Lester Wilson, a choreographer friend whom he had known since childhood.

There he designed costumes, including a crisp, double-breasted, menswear-inspired suit for the singer Annie Lennox to wear to the 1984 Grammy Awards as well as outfits for dancers in a 1983 television tribute to Motown Records. His costumes also appeared on TV shows like “Ally McBeal” and “American Dreams” and in movies like “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005).

Jaxon designed several pieces for his friend the singer Thelma Houston, including a jacket made from a vintage wool quilt and, for a performance in Australia, a chartreuse silk cape lined in neon orange letters reading, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” the title of one of her hits.

“He had the ability and the creativity, and along with that a sense of refinement and elegance, to work on any level that you wanted him to,” Houston said in an interview.

He made and altered each garment in a spare room of the house he shared with Hardy, his partner of two decades, in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Jaxon died of complications of prostate cancer on July 19, 2006. He was 64. At his death, Hardy said, he was planning to introduce a plus-size dress line.

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