Harlem’s Fashion Row Celebrates Style Awards and Plans for the Future

·8 min read

Hours of rain didn’t dampen the mood Tuesday night at Harlem’s Fashion Row Fashion Show and Style Awards at the General Grant National Memorial.

Guests simply carried on at the LVMH-sponsored event, mingling beneath oversize white tents over Chandon-spiked cocktails, listening attentively during the awards and catching a fashion show. Shannon Abloh, Bevy Smith, Dapper Dan, Ty Hunter, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo and Julie Gilhart were among the 400 attendees. The fashion show featured collections by Johnathan Hayden, Cotte D’Armes’ Clarence Ruth and Nicole Benefield.

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Issa Rae received the LVMH-presented Virgil Abloh Award, Sergio Hudson earned the Designer of the Year award, Ade Samuel picked up the Stylist of the Year award and Robin Givhan received the Editor of the Year award. Janet Jackson picked up the Icon of the Year award at the after party at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In an industry where success can be contingent on self-promotion, HFR’s annual awards were all about the collective. Thankful recipients acknowledged the people who helped to get them there, whether that be parents, forefathers, employers or industry supporters. More poignant, was the recurring message of aspiring to live a life without labels — or limits — and to clear the path for those who may follow. True to that, Ruth took his final turn with a youngster who was wearing a black, single-breasted suit similar to the one worn by a male model in the show.

From the start of the ”Future’s Past” milestone, Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel addressed the significance of staging the event near the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, who had been eulogized by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass “for being a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest and too great to be small at any given point. President Grant fought to protect the rights of African Americans more than any other 19th-century president. So tonight we are here at Grant’s Tomb.”

Attendees were reminded by Daniel how in 2020, “we all had to face the truth. We were not doing enough. We all had to step up to the plate, didn’t we. However, now business is tough. we are dealing with a pandemic, a pending recession, climate change and a caustic environment. Now we have to decide if the lives of Black people matter. I believe they do.”

Honorees reinforced the degree to which designers, companies, executives, the media and all people can personify that in their actions, rather than their words and intentions. The prospect of opportunity was celebrated as much as the award winners’ achievements. In line with that, HFR & Co., ”the ultimate shopping directory featuring Black and Latinx brands,” will debut this fall, as noted on the evening’s program and confirmed by a HFR spokeswoman.

“Being a girl from the Bronx,” Samuel said, “I never saw this life.” Her parents, who were seated in the front row with her sister, had come from Nigeria and created “a dynamic family” with inspirational dreams. Acknowledging their sacrifices and encouragement, she added, “And thank you for not pushing me to be a doctor or a lawyer.”

At work on a book about Virgil Abloh entitled “Make It Ours,” Givhan praised Daniel for “championing designers whose work was going unnoticed or sometimes misunderstood, acting as advocates, confidantes, true leaders and therapists for a community of designers, who don’t want anything special. They just want to be able to compete. In other words, they have been in the trenches doing this for a long time….”

Having had the privilege of watching all of that hard work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Givhan said that has been changing “the way that she is able to unspool a narrative, tell a few truths, uplift the powerful and shine a bit of light in overlooked spaces. That has been the joy of my job and I get paid to do what I love. This award is truly a bonus, an embarrassment of blessings. I’m honored and I’m deeply grateful.”

Harlem’s Fashion Row
Harlem’s Fashion Row

Thanking her editors at The Washington Post, Givhan, senior critic at large, said, “They are a legacy mainstream media at their finest, aiming to connect a multitude of diverse and special interests in one thoughtful, fact-based, open-hearted conversation.” Grateful that her editors treat fashion as they would any other industry, Givhan advised anyone who wants to write about the industry, “Don’t be a fashion journalist. There’s no need to qualify it. Simply, be a journalist. Give the industry that respect because they deserve it.”

Before presenting the inaugural Virgil Abloh award, Abloh said Rae has exemplified many of the attributes that she admired most about her late husband — “creativity, integrity, fortitude and a deep commitment in using one’s platform in the service of others.” Her accolades didn’t just reference Rae’s book and podcast “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” leading role in “Insecure” and founding Hoorae Media, but also Rae’s commitments to giving back to her community in South Los Angeles, California, via nonprofit programs and entrepreneurial pursuits.

Although Rae never knew Abloh, she was an admirer of his from afar for his “pure ingenuity, the bold breaking of barriers, a path-defining confidence, and I most appreciate him as a high-fashion doorman, because of all the doors he opened for others intentionally and through his visibility. Because he existed, because he believed in himself and he looked after others, so many others, who looked like him, who looked like us, will be,” she said.

Noting how validating and encouraging it is be the first recipient, Rae said, “It means that you guys see me and you see all that I’m trying to do. And that means that more of us will try. We believe in equity.”

Accepting the Designer of the Year award, Hudson said, “When I started out, I didn’t always think that I was going to be a Black fashion designer. When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a designer. But that got shot in the arm when I went to my first store and the buyer told me, ‘Your clothes should be more urban.’ That’s when I realized that a designer who looked like me isn’t supposed to design the clothes that I design,” Hudson said.

Harlem’s Fashion Row
Harlem’s Fashion Row

From that day on, Hudson said he made it “a mission to make us a regular face in the ready-to-wear space, in American sportswear, because we are not a monolithic people. We don’t do one thing — we do everything. We’re human beings. We’re not just Black,” to the crowd’s applause.

Hudson added, “I don’t run away from being a Black man. I am a Black man, who just happens to be a designer. I’m a designer, who just happens to be a Black man.”

Veronica Webb and Sergio Hudson
Veronica Webb and Sergio Hudson.

Earlier this year, LVMH North America announced a partnership with HFR. Aside from being the lead and only sponsor of Tuesday’s anniversary event, many Louis Vuitton executives turned up — and not just top brass like LVMH North America chief executive officer Anish Melwani, zone president and CEO of the Americas Lanessa Elrod, vice president of D&I Corey Smith and chief human resources officer Gena Smith. A few dozen staffers caught the fashion show; their attendance was made known by a show of hands at Daniel’s request.

Elrod spoke of how the company had hosted 75 designers as part of HFR’s Designer Retreat this year. Meant to be a networking opportunity with company executives who were prepared to share ideas with designers about how they might grow their businesses, the event took another turn. Elrod explained, “We really learned — and much of my team is here today and will attest to this — we learned more from them. They had so many questions, hard-hitting questions. They challenged us. They asked us to look outside of ourselves. It was the most inspiring day not just for them, but for us as well. What I saw that day was passion, curiosity and tenacity. These are the values that we value the most at Louis Vuitton.”

Harlem’s Fashion Row
Harlem’s Fashion Row

As part of its commitment, Louis Vuitton has given Harlem’s Fashion Row Icon 360 grants to each of the three designers who showed their runway collections.

In closing, Daniel referenced a Virgil Abloh quote that life is collaboration. She said, “Tonight is about the village — the village that is needed to create Black design directors, creative directors and lifestyle brands, the village that will rewrite the systematic history in fashion for Black designers, the village that will use its resources and connections to open more doors for opportunities for designers of color.”

Leading the crowd in two refrains of “I am the village,” Daniel then asked each person to look at the person next to them one last time to repeat that. “We are the village,” she affirmed, before attendees ventured back into the stormy conditions.

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