The Story Behind the Iconic Estate Hosting Pyer Moss’s First Couture Show

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Kerby Jean Raymond’s location choice for his first-ever Pyer Moss couture show is historic as it is symbolic. The designer—whose Thursday show was postponed by a rainstorm and rescheduled for Saturday—decided on Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, the estate of America’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker.

Villa Lewaro was commissioned by A’Lelia Walker, Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter, and designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first Black registered architect in New York. Its location is about a mile away from other notable American billionaire properties such as the Rockefeller Estate in Kykuit and the Lyndhurst mansion. The property itself has an Italianate architectural influence, and was furnished with the same aesthetic in mind. Some details included bronze and marble accents, paintings, and luxurious tapestries. The name Villa Lewaro originates from the first syllables of A’Leila Walker’s previous name, Leila Walker Robinson.

Madam C. J. Walker intended for Villa Lewaro to be not only her home, but a place of community. In a 1917 interview with The New York Times about her mansion, Madam C.J. Walker—who was at the time New York City’s wealthiest Black woman—said, “I am not a millionaire, but I hope to be some day, not because of the money, but because I could do so much to help my race.” When the beauty mogul lived in the 34-room mansion, she hosted gatherings for the minds of the Harlem Renaissance such as James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

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This isn’t Jean-Raymond’s first time presenting at a historical event space: he held Pyer Moss’s spring 2019 show in Weeksville, one of the country’s first free Black communities, and later paid musical homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the King’s Theater in Flatbush. As a brand dedicated to preserving and celebrating Black heritage and activism within the fashion community and beyond, it is more than fitting for this monumental moment to take place in Madam C.J. Walker’s home.

After Walker’s death in 1919, ownership of the estate changed several times. The property was officially designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, notes that Villa Lewaro “embodies the optimism and perseverance of the American entrepreneurial spirit.”

“Thanks to the exceptional stewardship of Ambassador Harold E. Doley, Jr. and Mrs. Doley who owned and lived at Villa Lewaro from 1993 to 2018, Villa Lewaro retains a high degree of historical integrity,” Leggs adds. “The National Trust is honored to hold the preservation easement on this unique cultural landmark, which allows the National Trust to permanently protect its architectural integrity and the physical evidence of Walker’s remarkable life and legacy.”

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According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Villa Lewaro was bought in 2018 by the New Voices Foundation, founded by Richelieu Dennis. The foundation, which helps women of color entrepreneurs grow through resourceful leadership initiatives, will continue the upkeep of the estate and planning for future uses.

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