Inside Pearl Studios in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District, Yvonne Jewnell sat beside her mother, Tandra Birkett, as Amatula Jacobs unpacked her trunkload of pieces. Jacobs had flown all the way from California for the casting call. She explained the symbolism behind every ethnically inspired item of clothing she and her husband, a leather craftsman, had created: The Mudd Cloth she used and the ancient Asante tribe symbols she featured were both derived from West African culture.
Many casting calls might not have cared much for that history and storytelling. But Harlem Fashion Week, started in 2016 by Birkett, the executive producer, and Jewnell, the creative director, is far from ordinary. In an industry notorious for its elitism and high barriers to entry, the mother-daughter duo selects emerging designers from across the world to show their work at starting packages of just $700, compared to mainstream shows in New York Fashion Week that generally average between $80,000 and $100,000. But Harlem Fashion Week — with notable participants like the daughters of Malcolm X — is not the only brand building buzz around the historical New York neighborhood’s influence in the global fashion sphere.
Increasingly, prominent collections from around the world are being shown in Harlem, attracting celebrities and building Harlem’s reputation as a modern epicenter of design, and Black women are leading it. When Brandice Daniel launched Harlem’s Fashion Row more than a decade ago, the entrepreneur was an outlier in her efforts to increase diversity in fashion by providing a runway for multicultural designers to sell and present their work to industry leaders. She could barely find any designers of color.
Not any more.
We provide fashion with a message.
Tandra Birkett, Harlem Fashion Week
In September 2018, Nike released its newest sneaker (created by three Black women designers and a global Nike designer) at Harlem’s Fashion Row’s black-tie gala. In January 2017, Stella McCartney chose to show her pre-fall collection at the Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub and restaurant known for spotlighting well-known Black entertainers. And at Harlem Fashion Week, 95 to 98 percent of participants are designers of color, according to Birkett.
“We provide fashion with a message,” Birkett says.
Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, identifies four phases key to arts and cultural flourishing in Harlem that have led to this moment. The Harlem Renaissance unfolded in the 1920s. Then, the spotlight of white society shifted away from the neighborhood, but the Harlem Renaissance didn’t end, he says. “The Renaissance continued in Harlem, even after the money was gone,” says Morris. Later came the Black Arts movement of the early 1960s and 1970s, which had a prominent fashion component and was influenced by African fabrics and styles. “Harlem has always been a cultural mecca of Black fashion,” Birkett says.
But despite that reputation as a go-to place for pop culture in the Black community, Birkett and Jewnell wrestled with how to bring it to the forefront. Birkett describes Harlem Fashion Week as a “downtown fashion hub with an uptown vibe.” Since New York Fashion Week has shifted from Bryant Park to other locations, nontraditional shows in alternative locations are cropping up on the radar. There’s a developing societal convergence between Black and White culture, Morris says. While the Black arts movement ushered in Black culture and design for Black people, Morris notes that White culture is now adopting different design elements to keep up with trends. Jewnell also describes a cultural shift that she’s sensed since the 1990s: Around the world, people increasingly take pride in their nationalities and backgrounds. Harlem’s design surge, too, is all about celebrating its culture.
The Harlem Fashion Week community on Facebook has grown to nearly 200,000 followers, and its network of sponsors now include reputable brands like Sephora Columbus Circle in New York City, featuring Kevyn Aucoin Makeup. Celebrities like Jay Manuel, former creative director of America’s Next Top Model, presented the Emerging Designer Award at Harlem Fashion Week. Jewnell was shocked to see her name featured in a Vogue Italia article, written halfway across the world, considering that the business is just two years old. This traction is an accomplishment, she says, but also “a testament to the fact that there’s a need here in our community, and people are responding positively to us filling that void.”
These Harlem-based brands remain embedded in their community, collaborating with local shops. Harlem Fashion Week events — like the opening-night charity gala, designer meet and greet, runway, after-party and business symposium — draw people into the neighborhood, says Birkett. Through collaboration with the community organization Harlem Park to Park, people can show proof of Harlem Fashion Week tickets to get discounts from local participating businesses. Inextricable from this design boom is the development of the neighborhood itself, from its flourishing restaurant scene to an influx of new companies. The number of businesses in East Harlem grew by 34 percent between 2006 and 2016 — nearly twice the citywide growth rate — according to the New York State Comptroller. With everything from Afrobeat clubs to Ethiopian restaurants, Harlem’s vibrant expansion reflects the diversity of those driving it. There’s “a new reflowering of arts, culture and design in Harlem,” says Morris.
But this rapid development is also breeding gentrification that could eventually displace residents and creative professionals, he cautions — though he adds it isn’t happening yet and may not for a while. Morris compared the situation to the 1970s, when artists used to live in lofts in neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca. As galleries moved downtown, rents climbed. The state comptroller’s December 2017 report showed that public housing accounts for more than a third of Harlem’s rental apartments. But Central Harlem lost 500 affordable and rent-stabilized units between 2015 and 2016 and could lose another 1,000 with the expiration of low-income housing tax credit in upcoming years, according to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. What’s more, a quarter of Central Harlem renters in 2016 already spent over half of their household income on rent.
Still, as Harlem Fashion Feek builds a sustainable pipeline to grow local talent, Harlem’s longevity as a creative hub also grows stronger. Harlem Fashion Week’s latest “Business of Fashion” conference in September taught emerging designers how to build buzz around their brand, and Birkett and Jewnell also conduct one-on-one consultations with participants. Their next goal? Creating an after-school fashion education program for middle and high schools in Harlem.
The resurgence of attention on Harlem’s cultural riches encourages people from diverse backgrounds to remember who they were and feel good about it, Jewnell says. “Like, hey, we were already cool, this is why people are coming here. So let’s continue to be cool and remind them why they want to hang out with us,” Jewnell says, laughing. For the moment, this fashion spotlight shows no signs of fading. But if history has shown one thing, it’s that Harlem’s innovative spirit will stay alive regardless of whether the world’s attention on it waxes or wanes.