On Wednesday evening (Feb. 6), Harlem’s Fashion Row hosted a prelude to New York Fashion Week by honoring Black pioneers in fashion. Stylist Misa Hylton and designers Dapper Dan and April Walker were among those celebrated at Sony Music Hall, where rappers, singers and dancers performed original works to recognize their longstanding careers as leaders in Black fashion.
"Fashion Week happens every year during Black History Month, but often Black History Month is never mentioned during New York Fashion Week," says Brandice Daniel, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row. "I wanted to remind people to celebrate the impact that African Americans have made in this industry. So this event is about not just sharing our history, but celebrating us."
As a social platform for multicultural designers, Harlem's Fashion Row is known for highlighting the talents and achievements of people of color in the fashion industry. The night's honorees rose to prominence in the '80s and '90s, a time when a strong sense of community amongst Black creatives in music, art and fashion created an aesthetic movement. Nowadays, though, Dapper Dan feels that has changed.
"I'm very concerned right now about unity in fashion amongst people of color because we don't have the proper elements of unity right now, so we don't have a voice in fashion. Everybody is speaking right now for us, but us," Dap, as he is affectionately known, tells Fashionista.
Dapper Dan, an originator of the signature style of '80s rap, is most famously known for creating one-of-a-kind, logo-heavy counterfeit designer looks from his Harlem atelier that were so luxurious, his customer base was made up almost exclusively of rappers, gangsters and athletes. He married the luxury of raw designers goods with an aesthetic that was ignored by mainstream labels. They were so iconic, in fact, that when Gucci appeared to have knocked off a Dapper Dan original in its 2018 Cruise collection, it sent "Black Twitter" into a frenzy — and ultimately led to a Dapper Dan x Gucci collaboration and a more established relationship between both parties.
"The most important thing right now is that we have an opportunity to be global, and I hope everybody's paying attention so that we can take advantage of that," says Dap. "Everybody's profiting off of our culture except for us, globally."
Ironically, fashion designer and lifestyle entrepreneur April Walker was inspired to create Walker Wear, the urbanwear label worn by everyone from Aaliyah to Snoop Dogg, after visiting Dapper Dan's atelier in Harlem in the '80s. She operated her clothing store, Fashion In Full Effect, out of her home before opening her first shop in Brooklyn in 1988, going on to dress some of the most influential names in the early oughts of urban fashion.
"I believe lateral cooperation creates vertical movement," Walker tells Fashionista, expressing gratitude to Harlem’s Fashion Row for creating a space for Black fashion creatives to celebrate.
Misa Hylton, the third honoree of the night, is the stylist who gave '90s R&B its edge. She and then-boyfriend Sean "Diddy" Combs convinced Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, to dress the R&B group Jodeci in the hip-hop aesthetic, as opposed to the suits and hard-bottom shoes their contemporaries were wearing at the time. That made Hylton the go-to stylist for '90s icons like Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot. (She's responsible for the fashion in Lil' Kim's "The Wiz"-inspired "Crush on You" music video and her infamous seashell nipple pasty look for the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards.)
Most recently, Hylton signed on with luxury leather goods company MCM as a global creative partner, creating pieces seen on Missy Elliot, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé, to name a few. Her main focus these days is the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy, where she teaches young fashion creatives how to monetize and manage their fashion businesses.
With Harlem's Fashion Row, Daniel continues to do the work of telling Black fashion stories like those of Dapper Dan, Walker and Hylton out of a true desire to inform and foster unity. "A lot of times when you're looking at fashion history and reading through it, our contributions are erased from it. We have to go dig up our contributions," she says.
Harlem's Fashion Row is hosting its annual Fashion Summit on Feb. 14 at the Google offices in New York City; the theme: Leaps and Bounds, Nowhere to Go But Up. This day-long event, sponsored by Gap, will feature panel discussions to connect creatives with industry insiders like Steven Kolb of the CFDA, designer Carly Cushnie, and Allure's Rajni Jacques, to name a few.
When it comes to building the sense of the community that pushed Black fashion forward back in the day, Daniel believes that it begins with celebrations like this one: "Once we realize how powerful we are, and start celebrating each other, then other people will start celebrating us. We celebrated each other long before anyone else. We didn't wait for anyone else to come along and tell us we're dope."