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On Tuesday evening, Harlem's Fashion Row opened New York Fashion Week with its 15th anniversary Fashion Show and Style Awards, featuring a stacked guest list — Veronica Webb, Misa Hylton, April Walker, Bergdorf Goodman's Linda Fargo and Dapper Dan were all in attendance, among many others — and a very big new sponsor.

To commemorate the big 15-year milestone, the theme for Harlem's Fashion Row this season was "Future's Past," reflecting the group's mission of championing diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. "African Americans have a rich history in fashion, although much of their contributions have been buried or unrecognized in history," Brandice Daniel, CEO and founder of Harlem's Fashion Row, says. "HFR would not exist without the work of Black designers like Lois Alexander Lane, who created the Harlem Institute of Fashion and the Black Fashion Museum. We also wouldn't exist without the work of other sartorial pioneers, like Ann Lowe, Elizabeth Keckley and Eunice Johnson. We're moving into the future by reaching back to understand, honor and pull strength from our past."

The event kicked off with an awards ceremony honoring Issa Rae with the inaugural Virgil Abloh Award — part of the new partnership between LVMH and Harlem's Fashion Row — presented by the late designer's wife, Shannon Abloh. (Naturally, Rae wore Off-White for the occasion.) Designer of the Year went to Sergio Hudson. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan won Editor of the Year, while celebrity stylist Ade Samuel took home Stylist of the Year. Actor, singer, songwriter, author, businessperson and philanthropist Janet Jackson was honored with the Icon of the Year Award.

Harlem's Fashion Row's Brandice Daniel with Icon of the Year award winner Janet Jackson.

Harlem's Fashion Row's Brandice Daniel with Icon of the Year award winner Janet Jackson.

The fashion show followed, with Johnathan Hayden, Clarence Ruth of Cotte D'Armes and Nicole Benefield of Nicole Benefield Portfolio featuring their latest collections.

"After you've been through it once, you know what you're in for, so the only thing that's up to you is how ambitious you want to be," Hayden tells Fashionista of how his design process differed from last season. 

Hayden's namesake luxury ready-to-wear label (shown at the top) takes a technological approach to creating clothing that's functional, sustainable, and in a word, beautiful. For this year's collection, he thought bigger (and more ambitiously): He designed his own textiles, drawing inspiration from his annual trip to visit family in Albuquerque, where he goes to the city's International Balloon Fiesta. 

"I get up at 3:00 AM, I go to the dark fields at the foothills of the mountains, and you start seeing all the hot air balloons fill with air. It's really magical because it's still dark outside and thousands of balloons are released as the sun is rising," he says. "The fields are enveloped in color and print and pattern and all these yards of fabric. That's where it all started for this collection, this idea of ascending from the deepest depths of the ocean."

Clarence Ruth of Cotte D'Armes — the winner of the 2020 Harlem's Fashion Row x Tommy Hilfiger New Legacy Challenge design contest — is a streetwear and ready-to-wear designer who works with denim in dynamic ways. For this collection, his goal is to offer a different perspective that can further modernize denim as a medium.

"This time, I felt very close to the cause and the subject matter we're highlighting, which is Black and brown talent and creating more opportunities for Black and brown talent in the industry," he says. "That really touched home for me because I've had experiences where I was overlooked because of my skin color, so I knew right away that I wanted to do something that could bring two different worlds together that don't necessarily go together to create something special, because I think that's where the problem lies. They don't think we get their clientele or get them, and we kind of feel the same way."

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A model walks the runway during the Cotte D'Armes section of the Harlem's Fashion Row show.

A model walks the runway during the Cotte D'Armes section of the Harlem's Fashion Row show.

Nicole Benefield Portfolio is a slow fashion brand driven by emotion more so than trends. As a fashion design professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Nicole Benefield found herself employing the same techniques she teaches about to create her first-ever collection for New York Fashion Week. (Prior to creating her own label, she designed for Ann Taylor, Gap and Banana Republic, to name a few.)

"I never thought I would have my own line — that wasn't on my agenda," Benefield says, noting how a friend suggested she apply to a design contest for Black designers who wanted to work with a sustainable fashion manufacturer. "I was legit just sewing garments and hustling for my portfolio for interviews — that's why it’s called Portfolio, because I was thinking, 'I have the summers off, I can get a job.'" After winning said contest, Benefield formed her company, created a website and got started on building her line, with a goal to evoke an emotional connection to pieces that inspire the wearer to rework and re-wear them, for the consumer to feel sartorially relevant regardless of the trend cycle. 

In addition to backing the Virgil Abloh prize, LVMH supported this season's Harlem Fashion Row in a few different ways, through many different brands in its portfolio. Sephora provided hair products from Black-owned brands that are part of the retailer's commitment to Aurora James' Fifteen Percent Pledge. Dior Beauty sponsored the skincare, makeup and artistry teams. Tiffany & Co. presented gifts to Style Award Honorees and designers. Moët Hennessy USA provided drinks for cocktail hour and the afterparty.

Corey Smith, head of diversity and inclusion at LVMH, attended the Harlem's Fashion Row show last year for the first time, and "was completely blown away" by what he saw: "The boldness and the audacity of them to take over an entire Harlem block to do a fashion show," he says, "also the richness and the purpose of why they do what they do to really highlight and amplify designers of color — I knew it was something LVMH needed to be a part of."

Issa Rae received the first-ever Virgil Abloh Award, which is part of Harlem's Fashion Row's new partnership with LVMH.

Issa Rae received the first-ever Virgil Abloh Award, which is part of Harlem's Fashion Row's new partnership with LVMH.

Following the show, guests attended an afterparty at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Amazon Music sponsored a surprise performance by rapper Cam'ron. Icon of the Year Jackson made an appearance and formally accepted the honor, wearing Off-White and Dinosaur Designs jewelry.

The evening proved to be one of many firsts, even for an organization that's been around for 15 years. But season after season, Harlem's Fashion Row continues to elevate its efforts and bring the way it offers tangible support to creatives of color to a whole new level.

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