Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bee Blunt
At Bee Blunt, Classic American Style Is Rooted In Black American Luxury And History
Designer and founder Portia Blunt is part of the generation of women who grew up with the immaculate examples of Black elegance portrayed by Diahann Carroll in Dynasty and Diana Ross in Mahogany. She’s part of the even more special sorority of women who saw this level of style and grace on display in their daily lives as well. For Portia, it was the church ladies and their hats; it was her aunt Helen, who commanded any room she walked into; and it was her mother, who planted the first seeds for her clothing line, Bee Blunt.
“My mom dressed me in a very specific way that I didn’t necessarily appreciate when I was little,” she recalls. “And now when I look back, everything that I wore was very purely her aesthetic: a classic American style, very preppy and sophisticated. My mom really dressed like a Black Jackie O. That’s what I saw all the time so I didn’t know what to label it, other than just normal.”
In grad school, long after she abandoned her dreams of becoming “the Black Madeleine Albright,” Portia’s graduate thesis led her to examine the influences of Hip-Hop artists on fashion. And that research was the first time she came to understand just how far the history of Black designers and creatives in fashion goes back.
“The fact that I never learned anything about it in school and that no one talked about it really sparked something in me to really dig in and learn as much as I could about the contributions of African-Americans in the fashion industry so that it never got lost,” she says.
While this mission found its way into every facet of her career as an apparel industry executive, it wasn’t until she witnessed the portrayal of Black American aristocracy on HBO’s period drama “The Gilded Age” that Portia began thinking about how to showcase that part of American history through the lens of fashion.
Having vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard with her family, she turned there for her first bit of inspiration. “I love the island so much,” she explains, “and there is a rich history there that people don’t really know about until they get there. People don’t learn about how that island was a safe haven for African-Americans to vacation as far back as the 1800’s.”
She began researching other well known historic Black vacation towns and beaches like The Inkwell and Oak Bluffs and came to find that there were dozens such beach towns in America’s history, which have all either disappeared or become the kind of places that, ironically, may seem inaccessible to Black people today.
“I started learning about SANS at Sag Harbor, Bruce’s Beach in LA, and American Beach in Florida on Amelia Island,” Portia recounts. “In the DMV you’ve got Sparrow’s Beach, Carr’s Beach, Highland Beach– which is where Frederick Douglas has a beach home that he never had the chance to live in.
“I could imagine a world where those were the hotspots, where that’s where you wanted to be for vacation,” she continues. “That’s a sentiment that’s been preserved in Martha’s Vineyard. But I think there’s a huge opportunity in Michigan for Idlewild, for example, which was one of the premiere lake beaches where all the entertainers went to vacation.”
Bee Blunt’s approach to classic American style is rooted in these sacred, albeit forgotten, safe spaces. The goal is to infuse what that lane in fashion has always represented with the vital influence of Black culture, which always existed. The goal is also to use the brand’s story to inspire its consumers to rediscover these places and share their history, “so that the stories around those institutions don’t die.”
If you’re in Martha’s Vineyard, be sure to check out Bee Blunt’s pop up event August 5th – 9th, 2023 at Island Outfitters – 1 Post Office Square, Oak Bluffs, MA.