Born into a farming family in North Carolina in 1929, John Wesley Tann was taught how to sew by his mother. After she died, 13 year old Tann left North Carolina to attend school in Washington D.C., boarding at the home of civil rights activist Adam Clayton Powell, who took an interest in Tann’s education. After graduating from high school Tann took various jobs during the day while attending the Hartford Art School of Fashion at night. In 1953 he moved to New York where he apprenticed with Pauline Trigere and Oscar de la Renta. In 1959 Tann was identified in a Walter Winchell gossip column attending a night club in the company of Lena Horne.
Tann got a break in 1960 designing for a firm that made clothes for its own shops but allowed him to sell any refused designs to other clients. In February 1961 Tann established his own company and, with a staff of five, made cotton dresses ranging from $75.00 to $450, and evening wear from $145.00 and up.
Wesley Tann is regarded as the first black designer of Seventh Avenue and over the years designed for a wide range of clients including Jacqueline Kennedy, Leontyne Price, Diahann Carroll and several Miss Americas. His clothes were sold through Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, and B Altman. His interests shifted to interior design in the 1970s and in recent years he has even been known to teach etiquette lessons!