Harlem, N.Y., is no stranger to a movement -- and Harlem's Fashion Row is as significant (and stylish) as they come, thanks to its passionate founder/CEO, Brandice Henderson.
Henderson is a force. Her vision -- to provide a platform for minority fashion designers so they can build successful and long-lasting careers -- is urgent and necessary. What started in 2007 as a one-off fashion show to showcase both semi-established and unknown black designers has quickly turned into an organization that is paving the way for fashion's diverse future.
I've known Henderson for a few years now (I serve on HFR's advisory board), and her story gets deeper, richer and more inspirational each time I hear it. So during our recent brunch together at Chocolat in Harlem, it was no different. Between moments of joyful tears and declarations of resolute purpose, it's clear that HFR is making something special happen.
The Memphis native laughingly remembers walking from 34th street to 110th street the day she realized the true potential of HFR beyond simply putting on fashion shows -- and what her role would be in the process.
"I visualize everything. It all takes shape in my mind," says Henderson. "And that is exactly what happened during that long walk."
That epic trek from Midtown to Harlem yielded an idea for a string of programs, initiatives and big-picture goals for the organization. The reason African-American designers are not in stores has nothing to do with their level of talent. The talent is there, but the resources and connections are not -- which is where HFR comes into play.
Henderson's frustrations are understandable when you look at the hard numbers. Through extensive research, Henderson found that the number of African-American designers represented today in the marketplace is significantly lower then it was in the '70s, '80s or '90s. In addition, she discovered that minorities alone spend nearly $22 billion a year on clothing and accessories, but represent less than 1 percent of the designers available for purchase.
"It's shocking. Something needed to be done," said Henderson.
And if anyone is qualified to take on such an ambitious task, it's Henderson.
After earning her B.S. in fashion merchandising at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Henderson worked as a buyer for Charming Shops. She then switched gears and accepted a job as production manager at International Intimates, overseeing the Victoria's Secret account (she recently left this position to focus all her energy and time on HFR). Those two very different but extremely relevant career experiences have positioned her as an invaluable mentor to these emerging designers.
"It clicked for me. I had to work as a buyer, because I had to understand how a buyer thinks. I had to do production, because not many people understand what it takes to produce a collection. And through those positions, I have developed influential factory connections in China and Indonesia. So I knew that I could serve as a strong resource to this community and ultimately help increase the number of African-Americans designers in stores," Henderson explained.
This year, HFR has rolled out many of the programs that Henderson envisioned during that fateful walk a few years back. The HFR Conversations series brings fashion icons and tastemakers to a setting similar to Bravo's "Inside The Actor's Studio." At each event, Henderson interviews one person, who discusses their personal experience in the industry with an audience of young designers, students, peers and admirers. Legendary designer Stephen Burrows kicked off the series; he was followed by Harriette Cole, a media company president and former creative director of Ebony magazine.
The HFR Incubator program has also been a huge success. It serves as an opportunity for designers to come together and use each other as resources, in conjunction with the help of select experts. The first Incubator workshop was Designer/Buyer Relations 101, moderated by Quiana Smith, co-founder of NDZ*N Consultancy.
None of these initiatives are cheap or easy to implement without capital and a strong support system.
Thankfully, powerhouse companies like Target have started to take notice. The mass-market store helped fund HFR's 2010 fashion presentation, which took place at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In spite of this assistance, Henderson is still footing nearly 100 percent of the cost, with support from her HFR dream team -- Omar Campbell (fashion director), Randal Jacobs (creative director) and a host of friends and family. But she hopes that this will change as HFR gains more and more recognition.
Henderson's passion and confidence is infectious, which is probably why she has amassed a considerable amount of support. Her list of supporters reads like a Who's Who of black fashion and media royalty: Audrey Smaltz (Henderson's mentor and founder of The Ground Crew), Stephen Burrows (legendary and pioneering designer), Michaela Angela Davis (writer, editor, critic and activist extraordinaire), Beverly Smith (lifestyle expert and host of the renowned "Dinner With Bevy" series), J.J. Thomas (founding member of BRAG, the Black Retail Action Group) -- and the list goes on and on.
Henderson is in the last few weeks of planning in advance of HFR's annual fashion show presentation. This year's highly publicized competition was launched to select and showcase three talented designers' collections during New York Fashion Week. The show will be held on September 16th at Jazz At Lincoln Center.
Jakia Handy, Onyenauchea Nwabuzor and Kellia Rodgers are this year's winners, and just a few of the names that Henderson hopes will fill the pages of the top fashion magazines (and our closets).
Never before has Henderson's vision been so crystal clear, from a not-for-profit to fund scholarships for aspiring designers to developing a trade show to expose collections to buyers, editors and media outlets. In addition, she would like to secure a partnership with a store that will commit each year to selling the designs of participants in HFR's fashion show.
“The day is coming very soon where I will be able to see a designer's vision through conception, securing investors, sourcing the product domestically or overseas, and seeing their clothes hanging in a store," says Henderson. "I can't wait!”
To help support visit the Harlem's Fashion Row website.