Samantha Black's collection
Samantha Black's collection (Photos: Nana Eku Brew-Hammond)

In a Project Runway-inspired world, designer competition shows are becoming more and more in vogue. At New York Fashion Week, for instance, they are almost as important to watch as those of more established and iconic ateliers.

In the first two days of NYFW alone, Harlem’s Fashion Row and Elle Fashion Next showed collections by rising designers that would be judged in consideration of respective offered prizes and others forms of support. But they’re not just entertainment for fashion fans or convenient promotional tools for celebrities or corporate entities looking to extend their brands.

Black creatives benefit from design trend

For designers without deep pockets, competitions like these and others like the Supima Design Competition, not to mention the televised likes of Project Runway, the recently cancelled Fashion Star, and the upcoming Styled to Rock — which Rihanna is executive producing — offer a chance to secure the funding crucial to paying the high cost of creating and distributing fashion.

Many African-American designers have been able to take advantage of this trend.

“I think it’s necessary just as far as getting noticed so someone can back you,” Project Runway alum Stanley Hudson told theGrio at fellow Season 11 cast mate Samantha Black’s show on Friday. Referring to participation in designer contests, he elaborated, “I mean, that’s what happened to me. I got noticed and now I have one investor. I don’t think I would have gotten to that point that fast, if I hadn’t got on the show.”

For Hudson who is currently working on his own line, the exposure a designer can get from a reality competition like Runway is all about the potential it offers to reach backers. “I’m getting funding so I can produce, mass produce, get in stores. It’s a lot of work. I just don’t wanna do fashion shows for the sake of a fashion show. I wanna be able to go, ‘this is produced, and you can buy it.’”

Contests bring in-kind contributions

Deidre Jefferies’ participation in Harlem’s Fashion Row competition in February 2013 earned her a spot in this season’s show held at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “That’s an $80,000 value,” Jefferies says of the average cost to show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. “You never make it in [to Lincoln Center as a fashion designer] without investors.”

Her HFR presence also gave her visibility to Coke and Essence Magazine, which selected her to show her ESPION label at the 2013 Essence Fest—a coveted launch pad that boasted almost 600,000 attendees.

Jefferies explained the magnitude of these opportunities via phone, a few short weeks before her Lincoln Center debut. “As an emerging designer…” she told theGrio, “every dollar we make, we put into making samples and they are super-expensive. I can tell you right now I have about $90,000 hanging on my garment rack.”

Breaking through still takes talent

Just as Jefferies was premiering her Spring/Summer 2014 collection at Harlem’s Fashion Row, students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were competing for $25,000 cash prizes offered by Elle Magazine and cosmetics giant Maybelline at the Elle Fashion Next show, also at Lincoln Center, but this contest was in the main tents.

But not all believe it’s impossible to break through without submitting to invasive on camera testimonials or entering a contest.

Elle Creative Director Joe Zee told theGrio that while competitions are definitely helpful to emerging designers, talent and hard work are still most important. “Look, it’s tough,” he admitted, “but the cream always rises to the top.”

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.