It’s a Thursday evening in September and the upscale Pier 59 Studios in Chelsea, New York City, is abuzz with excitement.
Backstage, models spin about, heels clattering, as wardrobe stylists determine the best silhouettes and sartorial choices for specific outfits. Makeup artists layer on the highlighter and hairstylists do last-minute blowouts. Cameras flash and roll as photographers and journalists scramble for quotes and interviews.
The plates of assorted healthy appetizers – chicken salad, baby carrots, and celery with ranch dressing – are disappearing faster than the goody bags with coconut hair products, portable chargers and gym socks.
In many ways, Harlem’s Fashion Row is like any other New York Fashion Week (NYFW) show. In many other ways, it’s absolutely unlike any other.
“I didn’t have to bring my own foundation this time,” says Naqisha Cummings, a Caribbean model from Boston, in a clear reference to the tone of her skin. “I just knew they would have my shade.”
Mariah Mckenzie, an African-American model from Queens, New York, nods in agreement. “It’s usually not this diverse. Not at NYFW. Today’s show is more ethnic. It’s a really good stepping stone for minorities.”
And indeed, it was intended to be. Founded to increase diversity in fashion, Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) has transformed from its modest beginnings in 2007 to emerge one of the most prestigious industry platforms for emerging minority designers and fashion creatives.
In an industry where people of color make up less than one percent of designers in major online and department stores, HFR is significant.
Backstage, its founder Brandice Henderson is doing the rounds – looking into minute logistical details, networking, giving interviews. Earlier that day, NYMag had published a compelling profile calling the entrepreneur a small town native who started out with few connections and “fashion’s best advocate for black designers”. Today, fashion’s force of nature is decked out in a red dress, glittering necklace and rather comfortable-looking brown flats.
“I’m super-excited,” says Henderson. “This is HFR’s eighth year. And I’m about to birth a child. This feels like a new beginning.”
Harlem itself is a cradle of new beginnings. The historically black neighborhood was the seat of the Harlem Renaissance – a socio-cultural and artistic revolution in the black American community. Today, that community includes a prominent and growing African diaspora.
Indeed, in certain neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx today, as in pockets all over America, Kru, Igbo and Yoruba are the most commonly spoken non-English languages. From burgeoning sabar dance classes to the plethora of restaurants selling jollof rice and injera, from the proprietorships in Le Petit Senegal to events like the International African Arts Festival, signs of Africa’s soft power are everywhere in the world’s financial capital.
Africa has woven itself into New York with the gentle intricacy of Maasai beadwork. And today, Africa is the showstopper here in Chelsea.
The Fashion Deli, a globally focused retail platform that first opened in Cape Town, is showcasing four South African designers at HFR.
“African fashion and lifestyle elements are no longer viewed by western audiences and buyers solely as ‘traditional’,” says Thulare Monareng, the Founder-CEO of The Fashion Deli. Attired in black, high heels and tribal-inspired jewelry from her own company, she has a relaxed sophistication about her. She looks very New York and international – the kind of lady who is so well-travelled she carries cities with her.
“Africa is now influencing global mainstream fashion and lifestyle trends,” she says. “Take Balmain’s African inspired resort 2015 collection, Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection inspired by the red Shuka worn by the Kenyan Maasai people, Sergio Rossi’s Zulu-inspired Spring/Summer 2014 footwear collection, and Vivienne Westwood’s Spring/Summer 2015 handbag collection inspired by the West African Bogolan prints.”
Armed with multiple degrees including one in Fashion Buying and Merchandising from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, a wealth of corporate experience in her native, South Africa, and experience with her own eponymous designer label, Monareng, came to realize there was a gap in the international market for African luxury and for ethically produced, sustainable and conscious products.
“There’s a lot more to African fashion than just wax prints,” she says. “I want to present an alternative narrative of African designers.”
And so, under bright lights on a long, ivory runaway, the alternative narrative began to unfold. If the audience was previously unfamiliar with African fashion, or didn’t know what to expect, they were about to have their hearts stolen and minds blown. The thoughtfully-curated array of gorgeous ensembles elicited sighs of wonder, gasps of surprise and frantic iPhone photography from the onlookers.
From veteran designer Marianne Fassler came prints found from and inspired by the cityscapes and citizens of her native Johannesburg. Fassler’s love for her modern, cosmopolitan city, which she described as a place to find one’s “personal gold” truly shone through. Every garment featured a palette that positively burst with vivid colors and prints that came together with a giggling playfulness. Dramatic pleats and paneling prevailed. Flirtatious flowing and sheer fabrics abounded.
Where Fassler’s brand drew from the urban jungle, Katherine-Mary Pichulik’s accessories label PICHULIK, drew from the colors of the South African environment. The pieces were designed and inspired by African tribal ornamentation, making symbolic use of color, beadwork, basketry.
“The sacred nature of making jewelry and its link to ceremony and initiation inspire a powerful way of making ornamentation that serves to not only adorn, but alchemize and empower the wearer,” says Pichulik.
From Celeste Arendse’s SELFI brand, inspired by the subconscious, came the SELF AWAKE collection featuring geometric silhouettes in a palette that was entirely black and white and primary colors. Everything was digitally-printed.
“The collection explores the connection between the self and technology,” explains Arendse. “What we see and what we touch.” Even something like the use of primary colors was inspired by early 90s video games.
The Adriaan Kuiters label featured sophisticated unisex and androgynous garments in neutral colors and sleek silhouettes. The collection exuded timelessness, being both current and classic. The designers Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen experimented with gender lines, using women’s items on men and men’s on women.
If there’s a running theme throughout The Fashion Deli’s collection, it is that of the old and new worlds cocooned in harmony. It’s a universe where nature and cityscapes, humans and technology, the traditional and the contemporary are simpatico.
Contemporary African fashion, it seems, doesn’t seek to conform to global ideals, but rather, seeks to disrupt and improve them.
“South Africans are now looking directly in our backyard for inspiration, because it’s so rich and diverse.” says Arendse. “I feel really lucky to be living in a time where countries can merge so easily. The new generation understands the power of technology and are able to communicate their messages directly without agencies. The youth in South Africa are expressing their own style on social media which is so unique and is certainly being noticed on global platforms. This will only strengthen us as creators.”
Amina Nuwame, a Senegalese model who Monareng met in Harlem, and who found herself debuting at HFR, considers herself lucky. She had to hide her love for fashion and modeling from her family until they found her on Walf Fadjri TV and eventually caved. It’s been a long journey to New York City since then.
“There’s a lot of talent in Africa. But we need more opportunities to get discovered globally,” she says.
“Africa comes from a rich lineage of craft and has a large network of incredible artisans,” says Pichulik.
The possibilities for African designers it seems are endless.