2013 New York Fashion Week: Harlem's Fashion Row creates fabulous platform for designers of color

Harlem's Fashion Row held its sixth annual Fall/Winter show last night, kicking off 2013 New York Fashion Week at the Apollo Theater with a clothing presentation that was also a call to action.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Harlem’s Fashion Row held its sixth annual Fall/Winter show last night, kicking off 2013 New York Fashion Week at the Apollo Theater with a presentation that was also a call to action. Founded in 2007 by CEO and founder Brandice Henderson, the “HFR Movement” as she has coined it promotes the capsule collections of emerging designers of color selected by her organization.

By giving these up-and-coming style stars a chance to shine during an important market for buyers, HFR provides a complementary experience for African-American fashion journalists, stylists and more to mix and mingle. Standing apart from the official tents of Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, a critical nexus of the mainstream industry where only three African-American designers are showing, HFR  addresses this lack of representation.

This cultural space for connection is a platform of much-needed exposure for blacks in fashion.

“I love it. We don’t, as black designers or designers of color, get opportunities like this — at all,” Terese Sydonna, a New York City-based designer said of Harlem’s Fashion Row. “You have to work very hard as a designer first of all, and then to have something like this that’s so accessible, it’s incredible.”

The designers chosen this season are: Chantell Walters, Deidre Jefferies of her Espion line, Evelyn Lambert, Shauntele, Kimberly Goldson, Sandro Romans, and Kahindo Mateene of her line, Modahnik.

Each designer presented a small sample of looks to an audience of hundreds and a panel of celebrity judges that included fashion industry legend Bethann Hardison and model Tyson Beckford. As an added twist, the audience was invited to vote for their favorite collection on the HFR Facebook page. The votes of audience members will account for 25 percent of each creator’s rank. The top designers will be announced on Friday, February 8.

“I thought the show was really exciting, upbeat” and “very optimistic,” Sydonna said of the looks paraded across the Apollo stage. The head of her eponymous fashion line, Terese Sydonna, was excited by the construction, tailoring, and silhouettes.

“I love a few of the designers and it gave me a few things to think about as a designer myself,” the Jamaican-born Bronx native said.

Sydonna’s mix of cultural influences was reflected in the backgrounds represented in this season’s HFR class. Hailing from Brooklyn, Africa, England and more, their influences were as diverse as their ancestries.

“I’m a Brooklyn Girl who made it as a finalist on Project Runway to now showing a the Apollo Theater,” designer Kimberly Goldson said offstage over a sound system before her mini-show started. “This is epic!” she added.

Her collection of bold, professional pieces was inspired by first lady Michelle Obama.

Kahindo Mateene custom designed the prints featured in each of her supremely cut pieces, which mixed colorful bhatik-influenced textiles with traditional shapes.

London-bred Chantell Walters’ Back to the Future– themed collection was inspired by “Tron, androids and minimalism,” the designer said. Her sparkly, spare looks did not diverge from her description.

Evelyn Lambert, who was born in Zimbabwe, received a whoop of applause when she told audiences, “I’m inspired by a woman who’s not afraid to celebrate every curve of her body.” Inspired by Olivia Pope, her capsule collection of bright, sexy clothes represented provocative costumes for solving political scandals.

But designer Shauntele was not to be outdone. “When encountering the Shauntele woman, you will undoubtedly see strength, femininity and novel elegance,” the native New Yorker said of her creations, thought-provoking ensembles featuring Rorschach prints and unexpected takes on classics such as the camel coat.

Deidre Jefferies distinguished herself with a live harp player accompanying her models, who cavorted in a selection of dresses and separates that were highly constructed, yet womanly.

The only male designer in the bunch, Sandro Romans, styled his mannequins with draping, face-adorning fabric and dark eye makeup, giving each man the appearance of membership in a post-apocalyptic gang. This eerie mood sharply contrasted with the thick, sensual animal skin suits and long coats he sent down the runway. They were impeccably tailored, rich in hue, and looked to be an absolute pleasure to wear.

Each designer clearly possessed a highly-defined aesthetic, ranging from classy-glam to futuristic-sexy. Henderson also noted in her closing statements after the show that a collection’s status as “production ready” — meaning ready to be mass produced — was an important selection criteria.

But in addition to organizing a wonderful evening, Henderson stressed that Harlem’s Fashion Row is a tool for leveling the playing field. Her message through HFR is focused on increasing access to contacts, resources and opportunities, the lack of which may keep blacks out of New York Fashion Week’s official tents.

“We have a responsibility to create opportunities for these designers through educating the media, celebrating their creativity, and ultimately have the media be a driving force,” Henderson stated in the opening essay of the show’s program.

“My hope is that we will all share in this responsibility by exposing them in editorials, purchasing their collections, investing in them, and featuring them in videos, movies and commercials.”

As the glitterati of black fashion, fans and well-wishers alike gleefully filed out of the Apollo into the winter cold to talk shop and gab about the clothes, it was clear that the spark of the HFR Movement had been kindled in many attendants’ minds and hearts.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.