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James Dennis ‘Jeigh’ Singleton: St. Louis’ Go-To Fashion Guy Taught A Legion Of Designers At Wash U

James Dennis "Jeigh" Singleton receives the first achievement award at St. Louis Fashion Week.
Whitney Curtis | WUSTL

Jeigh Singleton joyously accepted the “burden” of being a fashion guru. He created clothes for the country-club set, church-going folk, showgirls, theater companies and items suitable for framing, all while teaching generations of Washington University design students to do the same. Mr. Singleton died Sunday in his hometown of Plaquemine, La., one day past his 70th birthday.

His guiding design principle he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992, was “The stuff must sell. Period.” But Mr. Singleton, never one for reticence, ignored his own punctuation and continued.

“A sales force, looking for things, doesn't want to hear about your self-exploration through your designs,” he added. “They want to know if it is cute and (that it will) sell.”

It was his usual irreverent tone, probably offered up with a Geoffrey Holder-like laugh, about an industry he took seriously for nearly half a century.

Mr. Singleton, who lived most of his adult life in St. Louis, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma about five years ago. He died of the cancer on Jan. 11 at the home of his sister, Cheryl Piper, in Plaquemine, La., where he had gone to live last December.

His services will be Thursday (Jan. 15) at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church in Plaquemine.

“Jeigh loved fashion and he just believed in looking good,” said Susan Sanders Block, a former student who became a part of Mr. Singleton’s student fashion show’s creative team. “He was in his greatness when he taught others.”

A Fashion Architect

Mr. Singleton’s focus on the practical side of clothing design did not preclude fantastical forays; He grew up too close to Baton Rouge’s Mardi Gras celebrations for that. For a 1992 exhibit, for instance, he embellished an ordinary parka with touches of satin, lamé and fur. A skirt and stole were likewise transformed by the favored lamé and dashes of organza and feathers.

Mr. Singleton created numerous fashion lines, including holiday wear for Rajah; a sportswear line for men and women for Raiments; a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces in concert with Poogy Bjerklie, and junior dresses for Alfred Werber/Vinceni.

He moved easily between whimsy and necessity, never sacrificing one for the other. He held fast to only a few fashion dictates, among them: “When it comes to fashion and style, keep it simple, Sweetheart.” He also declared that a woman always looks good in pearls and no man looks good in earrings.

During 40 years at Washington University, 25 as head of the fashion design department, Mr. Singleton taught his students his art, his philosophy and the demands of fashion.

"I am teaching my students to solve problems," he said in a 1993 school publication. "My feeling is, if you can design clothing, you can create anything.”

James Dennis "Jeigh" Singleton
Credit Provided by Washington University

He had set out to be neither a teacher nor a clothing designer. Growing up in his small, predominantly black bayou town, he had other dreams.

“When I was in high school, I wanted to be an architect,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 1992, “but because of the environment in which I was brought up, I never thought I could build a building.

“So I was drawn to art and found that I had a knack for drawing clothes with people in them,” he said with his usual wit. “People in my classes said they would have died from the buildings I would have designed but nobody has ever died from a bad dress.”

He also had a knack for transferring his knowledge to his students – with a velvet glove.

“I watched him as a teacher and how the students interacted with him,” said Sharon Stevens, a longtime friend and a longtime local television broadcaster. She said he was firm with his students, but “they loved him.”

He prepared his students for the tough world of fashion design through national and international competition – and they often won. Some of his students went go on to careers at Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Nanette Lepore, Lilly Pulitzer, Nike, Land’s End and Prada, among others. One of his students was renowned New York fashion designer Carolyne Roehm.

People often asked why he never defected to New York. It had been his plan, he admitted, but each time he was ready to leave, he found another reason to stay in St. Louis, so he never left.

The Doll and Train Maker

James Dennis “Jeigh” Singleton was the elder of James and Albertha Singleton’s two children. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a barber and a school bus driver. After graduating from Iberville High School in 1962, he earned a degree in clothing and design from Tuskegee Institute and then a master’s degree in costume design from Kansas State University.

Despite his adviser’s prediction that he’d never make it in fashion because he left school before completing his thesis, Mr. Singleton headed to St. Louis. He soon found a job designing dresses at Ralph Lowenbaum family’s dress manufacturing business.

Senior fashion design student Lara Kazan works with Singleton.
Credit 1993 Washington University photo
Senior fashion design student Lara Kazan works with Singleton.

He began teaching at Washington University in 1972, and led the fashion and design department from 1987 until he retired as associate professor emeritus of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts in 2012.

Throughout his time at Wash U, he continued to do independent projects, including designing apparel for people who use wheelchairs and creating costumes for St. Louis Black Repertory Company productions.

Mr. Singleton’s numerous honors included Washington University’s Distinguished Faculty Award in 1996, and the university’s Living Legacy Award in 2012. A year earlier, he had received Mathews-Dickey's Boys’ & Girls’ Club Community Leaders Award. In 2009, he received the inaugural Saint Louis Fashion Week Plaza Frontenac Fashion Achievement Award.

Had there been such a thing, he would have earned the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists’ “Faithful Supporter Award” for consistently being the high bidder at the organization’s annual photo auction. Each year, just before bidding started, he’d falsely warn, “I’m not buying much this year …”

There was little that Mr. Singleton couldn’t do artistically and, said his sister, he never squandered his time or creativity.

“Jeigh sketched endlessly; he always had a pencil in his hand,” Piper said. “He made trains out of cardboard boxes for my grandsons and beautiful handmaid dolls for my daughter when she was a little girl.”

Mr. Singleton, who was divorced, is survived by his sister.

His visitation will be from 9 a.m. until the time of funeral services at 10 a.m., Jan. 15, at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, 58830 Iron Farm Rd., in Plaquemine.

Memorials in lieu of flowers would be appreciated to the American Cancer Society.

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