The concept behind Harlem’s Fashion Row started simple enough. Brandice Henderson, its founder, was attending a fashion show in Brooklyn and thought her beloved neighborhood, Harlem, deserved its own runway. She introduced Harlem’s Fashion Row in 2007 with a small fashion show with 15 volunteers at work behind the scenes.
Five years later, her company is one of the most popular designer collectives during New York Fashion Week to give worthy designers of color a platform. Originally a grass-roots movement, Harlem’s Fashion Row now enables emerging artists to showcase their talent among industry connoisseurs including top buyers, editors and bloggers.
Their Sept. 7 show at Lincoln Center marked the fifth anniversary of the organization and drew such names as Natalie Cole, Vanessa Williams and Nicole Murphy (Eddie Murphy’s former wife), who walked in the show wearing a design by Omar Salam. Fashion insiders like Corynne Corbett, Essence magazine’s beauty director; Julee Wilson, Huffington Post style editor; and Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sat front row.
More than 300 people attended the presentation, which featured five designers. Nzinga Knight, inspired by a recent trip to Dubai, showed embellished pieces including a blush gown with hand-embroidered mirror detail. Omar Salam’s spring 2013 collection for Sukeina was marked by voluminous shapes like a billowing silk organza tulip jacket worn over a lace dress. For her Ashtyn line, Latisha Daring sent kimono sleeve jackets and tribal-printed skirts down the runway. Joseph Bethune debuted structured separates in camouflage and denim for the brand Bethune Brothers. Kevan Hall introduced a collection of crepe sheaths, peplum dresses, petal skirts and gowns covered in tiered palettes.
But the show wasn’t merely about clothes. The organization’s primary purpose is to push designers of color forward in the business of fashion. “I hope that through H.F.R. we create a company that acts as a bridge for designers of color to get into fashion,” Ms. Henderson said. “At every fashion show, I’m hoping that there is some buyer or investor that will connect with the designers.”
The company grooms its designers, who were selected by a panel of judges in June. This year, Ms. Mallis, Ms. Wilson, the stylist Memsor Kamarake and Shawn Outler, vice president for fashion forecasting and operations at Macy’s, scored hopefuls based on a five-minute pitch. Applicants were asked to show pieces from past collections, explain their business strategy, present their spring 2013 sketches and explain why they want to be a part of Harlem’s Fashion Row. Scores were tallied and the five highest-ranked designers were selected.
Once chosen, designers are given the opportunity to consult with leaders in the business. Ms. Mallis met with them throughout the selection process, and the designer Stephen Burrows critiqued each piece of the designers’ collections, giving them feedback on fabric and construction, Ms. Henderson said.
Although successful, the show has not been without obstacles. In the beginning, Ms. Henderson had difficulty convincing people H.F.R. could have an enduring impact on diversity in the fashion industry. “So many African-American fashion veterans didn’t believe that we would be able to do much to increase designers of color in the market,” she said. “I can remember having tough conversations that would end in, ‘We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.’ ”
Now that the organization has found its footing, the challenges have changed. The objective now is “keeping up with our growth,” Ms. Henderson said. “People are now expecting more from us, and we see so many opportunities that could assist in pushing forward people of color in fashion.” Financed by corporate partners, Harlem’s Fashion Row covers all costs associated with the production of the show and requires no fee from participating designers. “We hope to provide funding for designers in the future,” Ms. Henderson said.
Ms. Henderson lit up when asked about the future of Harlem’s Fashion Row. “We are planning to launch an H.F.R. label in 2014 with a small capsule collection of products available on our Web site,” she said. “Some of the designers we show have a challenge in the areas of marketing and production. My background is apparel production, so I want to use this experience to take H.F.R. to the next phase. We are hoping that we can not only show the designers’ collections, but also produce and market it for them. When this happens, everything changes. The playing field is level and the door is wide open for the next generation of young designers.”
Editor’s note: The event does not take place in Harlem?
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