Four new faces appeared in the lineup at Fashion Week this year from Harlem, a neighborhood that generally gets little attention in the world of high fashion.
For the first time ever Harlem’s Fashion Row held their annual showcase Friday for new designers of color at the Atrium in Lincoln Center, opening new doors for Harlem designers to make names for themselves in the industry.
“Harlem’s fashion legacy is one of both bucking and setting trends, and its sartorial community sets the precedence for fashion on the global stage,” wrote Brandice Henderson, CEO of HFR, in her letter to the guests in attendance. “From the Harlem Renaissance to the artistic revival for today, Harlem’s style has proven iconic, and its fashion voice continues to resonate.”
For finalists Onyenauchea Nwabuzor, Joseph Bethune, Kellia Rogers, and Jakia Handy, showing at fashion week was a pivotal moment for the up-and-comers.
“They’re just people that I never could have gotten to see my collection otherwise on my own,” Handy said of fashion insiders. “Seeing them actually walk in the looks with the music in the final collection … was flawless.”
This struggle speaks to a larger problem that HFR is hoping to fix: the lack of diversity in the fashion industry.
In a statement about the show, HFR representatives wrote, “Currently there’s an empty seat at the fashion table and Harlem’s Fashion Row is bringing a diverse point of view… People of color had a powerful presence in the fashion world in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but somewhere along the way, our voice was silenced.”
Nyrone Mosely, a close friend of Bethune and Handy, said shows like HFR help close the gap.
“There’s always been a void of black designers in mainstream fashion and this is helping to showcase them in a major way,” Mosely said.
For some, the divide between designers of color and current top designers is more than racial—it’s economic.
“There are lots of designers of color that nobody’s ever heard of. You can be creative and talented but you can’t have a business without finance,” said Audrey Smaltz, founder and CEO of The Ground Crew, a firm that handles backstage operations at fashion shows. “I’m hoping that this will continue, and more people will see that we have talent and we want to do it year in and year out, season in and season out.”
Even designers who didn’t make the cut for the show said they felt the impact of HFR’s mission.
“Fashion is a tough business all around … There is no sympathy in fashion ever,” said Imani Whyte, designer of ImaniLia and semi-finalist at HFR.
Whyte added that she hopes this program will inspire Harlemites to pursue their goals and rethink how they dress and present themselves.
“I am not and was never raised to let location or circumstances hold me back from anything,” Whyte said. “It lets local people designers and non-designers know that everything doesn’t have to be budget or ghetto. We can do better.”