Harlem’s Fashion Row brings black designers to the forefront

theGRIO SLIDESHOW - Harlem's Fashion Row (HFR) was founded six years ago by Brandice Henderson-Daniel to give designers of color a space to showcase their creations...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Style is made of so many delicate things.

The drape of a dress, the perfect trinket dangling from the wrist, makes the difference between being perfectly dressed, and just wearing clothes.

Black people have always been known for exhibiting impeccable style, regardless of their resources.

These minute choices leaning towards perfection permeated the crowd gathered in the vaulted entry of Jazz at Lincoln Center on a recent Friday in New York City.

All were waiting to enter the performance space and enjoy a creative medley of hair, make-up, lighting and clothes presented in the Harlem’s Fashion Row Spring 2014 fashion presentation.

“Harlem’s Fashion Row always does a fantastic job of highlighting all of the underrepresented designers, so I’m really excited to see what’s new tonight,” Leslie Waller of Jersey City, New Jersey told theGrio. “I just come to support the idea of making sure that we have a platform for people of color to show their artistic visions to our community.”

HFR gives designers of color a platform

Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) was founded six years ago by Brandice Henderson-Daniel to give designers of color a space to showcase their creations. It both nurtures underrepresented talent and counters their lack of exposure during mainstream Fashion Week.

Since then, it has become a symbolic bullhorn speaking to the need for greater diversity in fashion at large. This season, after hosting a week of related events, HFR presented collections from four design houses: Espion, Sandro Romans, Modahnik, and Kimberly Goldson. All are headed by African-American designers.

“We’re always here to support, mentor, connect, whatever it is designers need,” Henderson-Daniel told theGrio. “Tonight is a culmination of the entire week. For me, it’s just so exciting for the designers to see their collections on the runway.”

What started as a simple presentation has expanded into a must-have ticket for African-American fashion insiders. Corporate sponsors include Dark & Lovely and Smart Water. Fashion great Audrey Smaltz, actress Elise Neal, lifestyle expert Harriette Cole, and fashion writer Julee Wilson were among the notables in attendance. BET CEO Debra Lee was seated in the front row. Vanessa Williams’ daughters were there. Even reality star Miss Lawrence made an appearance.

Fantastic fashion, superb purpose

“Oh my God, this is really an amazing experience,” make-up artist Kena Marcelle told theGrio backstage as models were prepped for the show. “It’s just the spirit of the people, the spirit of the designs. We’re here as a platform for artists to showcase their talents. So we are in a service industry, and it’s nice to be able to give as a service, for something meaningful.”

Keith Campbell, celebrity hair stylist, worked with Dark & Lovely to create the night’s hair looks. Far from being just a fashion show, for him, HFR is a true statement of unique style.

“The movement is amazing. There are a lot of talented designers that are not showing in the tents. I feel like this is even the better venue because it becomes exclusive,” Campbell said.

“Anytime that we can give black designers and black models a format to express themselves, it’s great to be a part of it and help them do that,” Mezei Jefferson, senior manager of education at SoftSheen-Carson, added. “Harlem’s Fashion Row brings black designers the stage to be able to showcase their work that maybe can’t showcase at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. This gets them more in the public eye, so we love to help them.”

A fabulous medley of fashion

Just like a jazz performance, each designer’s presentation in the HFR group show was like a variation in a larger musical piece that spoke of freedom, beauty and innovation.

Espion opened the show. Designed by Deidre Jeffries, her spirited, urban collection was inspired by the Chinese city of Shanghai. Her fashionable track suit-inspired separates were reminiscent of styles from famed American designer Norma Kamali. Jeffries complemented these tomboy looks with pretty cocktail dresses — both prim and body-conscious — and long dresses with leather accents.

Sandro Romans, who designs under his own name, was the only male designer to show. His Spring looks were almost devilish in their sporty playfulness. Calling his designs, “inspired by Bushwick, Brooklyn,” his furry pajama-inspired separates, rimless, boxy baseball caps, and metallic mesh onsies were not exactly what one would expect to see there. Yet the light, effervescent energy of Romans’ menswear was irresistibly fun.

Modahnik‘s creator Kahindo Mateene announced over the loudspeaker that her presentation was inspired by a dessert in Africa. To the tunes of a live, female guitarist singing as her models walked, Mateene’s line featured beautifully-cut dresses and feminine separates. Partaking of the modern trend of using African prints for European-styled clothing, Modahnik showcased sharp tailoring in the form of detailed pleating, fitted waists, and intricate button holes, all in pretty, colorful patterns, some intercut with pure white.

Kimberly Goldson, an audience favorite who has competed on Project Runway, was also inspired by Brooklyn. Wearing large baseball caps emblazoned with the designer’s initials with bold black and metallic lipstick, her models gave off all the attitude of a Brooklyn girl who loves to be chic. Reams of chiffon flitted down the runway in the form of long, liquid shirts, transparent tops, and dresses. A kelly green suit with an asymmetrical vest for a jacket was one standout look in a collection that was full of dramatic, sassy glam.

Supporting the HFR movement

While HFR does not assist designers with the production of their collections, the organization does underwrite the costs of the runway showcase. It also supports the designers in other ways, including featuring past designers at events such as this year’s pop-up shopping experience. Future goals include working with designers to create revenue streams and empowering them to sell their collections in stores.

In addition to these goals, Henderson-Daniel called on audience members to assist in the mission of HFR to push more designers of color to the forefront of fashion — right away.

“I want to give you an assignment,” she said after the final designer had taken her bow, “and that is to support these designers of color in what ever way that you can. There’s writing about them, there’s buying their collection, if it’s showing up at a red carpet with their outfits on, I am asking every one of you. All of us can make a difference. Designers of color represent less than one percent of designers that are available in the market. We can all do something about that.”

Her emotional call of support was emblematic of the intense level of commitment she and her team have to elevating all designers HFR has the pleasure of aiding.

“Once you are part of the HFR family, you always are,” Henderson-Daniel told theGrio.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on theGrio at @lexisb.