Lois Alexander Lane; Founder Of Harlem Institute of Fashion

Lois K. Alexander Lane, 91, started a museum to highlight African Americans' contributions to the fashion business.
Lois K. Alexander Lane, 91, started a museum to highlight African Americans' contributions to the fashion business. (Family Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lois K. Alexander Lane, 91, who started a fashion institute and museum in New York's Harlem neighborhood to interest blacks in the garment trade and highlight their contributions to the industry, died Sept. 29 at the Magnolia Center nursing home in Lanham. She had Alzheimer's disease and liver cancer.

Mrs. Alexander Lane was a seamstress, boutique owner and 36-year federal employee, mostly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and its predecessor agencies. She retired in 1978 as a HUD community planning and development officer in New York.

She had a home in Washington much of her working life but settled in New York in the early 1960s to complete a master's degree in retailing, fashion and merchandising at New York University.

Her thesis explored the history of blacks in retailing, and her research led to discoveries of many unheralded African American dressmakers. Her continued interest led her to start the Harlem Institute of Fashion in 1966 and the Black Fashion Museum in 1979.

The institute gave free courses in dressmaking, millinery and tailoring as well as courses in English, mathematics and African American history. It brought Mrs. Alexander Lane many community honors, including the 1992 Josephine Shaw Lowell Award for her efforts to improve the lives of New York's poorest residents.

The museum, an arm of the institute started with a National Endowment for the Arts grant, exhibited clothing designed, sewn or worn by blacks since the 19th century.

One highlight was a collection of dresses the late Ann Lowe designed for wealthy patrons such as the Rockefellers, Roosevelts and DuPonts. Lowe also designed the wedding grown of future first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

"In the process we discovered that few Americans -- black or white -- are aware of the contributions made by black Americans in the creative fields of fashion," Mrs. Alexander Lane told The Washington Post in 1981. "There is an oft-quoted myth that black people are 'new-found talent' in the fashion field and we want to change that."

She had a touring component of the museum and in 1994 opened an extension in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, where it struggled for an audience and closed this June along with the Harlem Institute of Fashion.

Lois Marie Kindle was born July 11, 1916, in Little Rock, where as a young woman she liked peering into department store windows to sketch dress designs. She later started custom-wear boutiques in Washington and Harlem.

She was a 1938 graduate of what is now Hampton University in Virginia. In the 1950s, she did freelance photography for black newspapers and was vice president of the Capital Press Club, an organization for black journalists.

She founded the National Association of Milliners, Dressmakers and Tailors and was a former president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. She also was a charter member of the National Council of Negro Women.

Her marriages to Maxwell Thomas and William Alexander ended in divorce. Her third husband, Julius Lane, whom she married in 1971, died in 1997.

Survivors include a daughter from her second marriage, Joyce Bailey of Greenbelt; a sister; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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