On Sunday, to kick off spring ’21 New York Fashion Week, Harlem’s Fashion Row, a platform designed to support and amplify Black creatives in fashion, held its 13th annual Style Awards and Fashion Show. Despite being forced to go digital as a result of the pandemic, the event was as energetic and inspiring as any of the in-person awards that came before it. The event included three collections — presented by designers Richfresh, Kimberly Goldson, and Kristian Lorén — as well as a red carpet pre-show and an award ceremony — honouring Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, publicist Nate Hinton, and British Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful — which were all open to the public through the CFDA virtual runway platform Runway 360.
“We’ve gone global overnight,” Brandice Daniel, Harlem’s Fashion Row’s founder, told Refinery29 over Zoom a few days before the show. “I’m excited that the world will really get to see what I’ve known all along, which is how talented designers of colour are.”
During the event, Daniel announced the theme of this year’s show, "Black is the New Black," a reminder that designers of colour have always been around, designing beautiful pieces that far too often go unnoticed. “We haven't just arrived,” she said. “Designers of colour have stood the test of time, [... and] we are steadfast, unmovable, and here to stay.”
One designer that Daniel reached out to for the event was Rich Henry, or Fresh, an LA-based designer whose brand Richfresh is beloved by celebrities including The Weeknd, Lena Waithe, and Gabrielle Union, and known for its luxury suiting and expert tailoring. Fresh’s first NYFW collection included the label’s signature suits in bright colourways and over-the-top patterns, as well as silk robes, a new genre for the designer. Over Zoom, Fresh, dressed in one of the new robes, said that, for the collection, he explored the concept of Black luxury, and wanted to “just really show an opulent way of living.” Other standouts included silk headscarves in soft citrus colours and a yellow co-ord that combined the brand’s signature formal tailoring with the laid-back preppy aesthetic. Fresh said that it's "surreal" to have shown for the first time at NYFW: “I’m just a kid from Memphis who said, ‘You know what? I have to try this out. I have to give this a shot.’ But I felt like there was something out there for me, and it’s fascinating to see that come to fruition.”
“Designers of colour have stood the test of time, [... and] we are steadfast, unmovable, and here to stay.”
- Brandice Daniel, Founder of Harlem's Fashion Row
Kristian Lorén, a womenswear designer known for ‘70s-inspired (with a hint of ‘90s) dresses and suits who also made her NYFW debut, shared in that sentiment. “I didn’t know that my dream would come to fruition during a pandemic, but it’s all good,” she said. “The dream is still here — it’s coming true. And I’m just happy to be present and be able to pull this off.” Due to the pandemic, Lorén had to change her designs to better fit her customers’ needs. “No matter what race, what creed, what financial situation — [in 2020], we all had to sit still because things were affecting us all,” she said. “For me, that meant I had to ask myself, What are we selling? How is it helping people?” Her response was to start designing masks and create pieces that were made to help women feel beautiful in this new Zoom age, utilising silhouettes and colours that stand out as much virtually as they do in-person.
Kimberly Goldson, a Brooklyn-based designer, rounded out the night’s designer showcase with a collection for “women who dare to be bold and vivacious,” she said during the live show. “But with a little touch of Brooklyn girl magic.” Inspired by the beauty of Black hair, her fall line was meant to be something that other “Black women could be proud of,” tying back to the night’s theme.
“HRF is our lifeline in an industry that didn’t acknowledge us for so long,” Lorén said. “They see us, they hear us, they know us. And it’s a visual reminder that Black designers and creators exist, and we have a lot to offer.” At HFR events, which occur throughout the year and culminate in the Style Awards and Fashion Show, Black creatives in fashion, from stylists and editors to models and designers, are brought together in what Goldson describes as a “Black fashion family reunion.” It’s where those who’ve spent most of their careers feeling like “the only Black girl,” as Lorén puts it, can come together and see others like them thriving in their respective fields. “It was very lonely,” she said. “But HFR gives you a community — a safe space — that will help you succeed. It’s time that the Black community be represented in fashion, to let everyone know that we are well overqualified to do this.”
While challenging — between the pandemic and the current fight for racial justice — Daniel said that 2020 has had its upsides. “At the top of the year, when everyone was writing out their goals for 2020, I was writing my goals for HFR for the decade,” she said. Upon looking back at those goals pre-show, Daniel realised that about half of them have already been achieved, just nine months into the year. “I’ve had to really dream new dreams,” she said. “Right now, designers of colour have access, check. Designers of colour have mentoring, check. They have more visibility, OK great, and they have funding. What else is needed?” she said. After thinking about the latter, she believes the answer is infrastructure — something that would allow Black designers to thrive in a sustainable, long-term way. With her newly launched nonprofit ICON360 — which was designed to help designers of colour with the economic fallout from the pandemic — as well as virtual shows like this one — that allow viewers to discover designers like Fresh, Goldson, and Lorén — Daniel is providing just that, and creating a future landscape for designers of colour that allows them to succeed.
“Think about this,” Fresh said, smiling. “For Harlem's Fashion Row to be opening New York Fashion Week, which, as we know, is not a Black establishment, it shows the moves that are willing to be made [within the fashion industry].” And while the events of 2020 had a hand in that change, after 13 years spent advocating for designers of colour, it’s Daniel and HFR that the industry truly has to thank.