A CHAMPION FOR DIVERSITY IN FASHION With Harlem’s Fashion Row, Brandice Henderson Daniel, International Trade and Marketing for the Fashion Industries, helps designers of color break into a very white industry
The call went out early this summer for designers of color to apply for the chance to present their fashions gratis during New York Fashion Week in September.
Who could turn that down? By simply applying, designers who likely could not get a Condé Nast editrix or an Italian blogger to return their DM, let alone text them back, got a door opened by Harlem’s Fashion Row.
Brandice Daniel, chief executive and founder of HFR, as it’s known, had assembled an influential cast of six judges to choose four designers to show their frocks at Fashion Week. Imagine. Sort of like The Voice for the fashion set. It’s the kind of bold move that Daniel, a Memphis transplant and former apparel production manager, has used to develop her company into a factor in the industry, making fashion’s often bumpy road a little smoother for her clients. Founded in 2007, HFR is a socially progressive business that aids and promotes multi-cultural designers through a variety of initiatives, including juried runway shows, pop-up shops, and luncheons with fashion editors. The September runway show was HFR’s ninth.
It takes an inordinate amount of resources and savvy—and a smidgen of, let’s face it, dumb luck—to be on the same calendar as Herrera, Lauren, and Klein, and get people to take a look-see. That’s where Daniel and the all-star coterie she assembled enter: Elle.com senior fashion editor Nikki Ogunnaike, Cosmopolitan senior fashion editor Tiffany Reid, stylist and creative director Shiona Turini (who co-styled Queen Bey’s “Formation” video), and start-up investor and author Lauren Maillian ’07. The group is rounded out by Essence exec Julee Wilson and Latina Creative Director Ebby Antigua.
Black, Latino, and Native American designers face racism and exclusion that their white counterparts don’t. “We’re not in the room,” Daniel says. “If you’re not in the room, then how do you ever get considered?”
In addition to the Fashion Week presentations, HFR also helps designers with retailing and marketing. Daniel hit the road in 2014, organizing panel discussions at historically black colleges and the University of Tennessee, where she received a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising before coming to FIT.
Most aspiring designers have no idea what it takes to break into fashion, and Daniel’s band of travelers—comprising editors, stylists, and retailers from Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s—were there to give them the reality check, in a friendly, encouraging way.
Daniel has been adroit at pulling in marketers to support her cause. McDonald’s may seem an unlikely sponsor for the HFR’s chic pop-up shops in Manhattan until you recall that the Golden Arches was one of the first multinational corporate sponsors of Fashion Week over a decade ago. The shops, where black designers recruited by Daniel sell their wares, have been staged three times since 2013.
“Designers are a lot of work,” she adds. “The most difficult challenge is convincing them that old ways don’t work anymore. This is a new day and they have to have direct access to their consumer.” But she offers her consultation services regardless, and sometimes free of cost. She is well aware of the financial strains that can beset even the most talented practitioners. She believes every designer should at least have three streams of revenue.
A pretty woman with a ready laugh and the round face of a baby Janet Jackson, Daniel wants to see more designers of color creating sustainable businesses and rising like the cream atop a McDonald’s Frappé Mocha. Despite the Tracy Reeses and Byron Larses of the fashion world, their numbers are achingly few.
Designers of color represent 1 percent of the designers at major department stores. With her organization, Harlem’s Fashion Row, Brandice Daniel works to change that. HFR produces fashion shows, creates pop-up shops, and arranges events to promote and educate multicultural designers.
But talent abounds—in all shades and cultural backgrounds. Kimberly Goldson ’00 creates modern, sleek sportswear pieces that bare the skin but still look right at a desk. Fe Noel has a deft touch with unexpected prints and classic daytime looks that evoke old Hollywood glamour in wide-leg pants and sexy boy shorts. When Daniels started HFR a decade ago she conducted a broad survey of multicultural designers. She looked at auspicious sources of industry lifeblood like the CFDA Fashion Fund and major department stores. What she found at retail was alarming. Nonwhite designers, she said, represented less than 1 percent of the dozens of brands carried. “Blacks were even less than that.”
It’s hard to see talented designers “come into the market, then leave, then they’re doing something else,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”
But breaking hearts aside, the issue, says long-time fashion journalist and author Teri Agins, is not race but radical change.
“Brandice has been incredibly important in her public relations role because the hardest thing for designers is to get eyeballs,” Agins says. “Her promotional events that give these designers a showcase are very important. But the black thing—it’s not about that. The deck is stacked against the young designer.”
Retail consolidation, fewer media options, and America’s lovefest with casual fashion represent three macro-trends that make it tougher than ever for small design houses, Agins observes. Victoria Beckham recently ditched her towering heels for sneakers. Who would ever have thought this could happen? The designer and former pop princess basically made a lifestyle choice. It’s safe to say she won’t be switching back to heels for daily wear anytime soon. It is, Agins says, one of several “disruptor” events that have changed the game.
Her advice to designers: Work for somebody else or follow the example of Christian Siriano, who’s launched collaborations with companies like Payless and Lane Bryant since establishing his business.
Collaborating is already on Daniel’s radar, though perhaps not in exactly the way Agins would suggest. “I’m at the place now where we have to create our own opportunities,” Daniel says. When she started HFR, it was with a vision for runway shows that would help designers of color stand in the light. She wants to now go further than publicity and start bringing dollars to designers. Her plan is to establish an HFR clothing label by next year, potentially in partnership with a manufacturer or with the backing of an investor. HFR will produce collaborations—there’s that word again—with creators like LaQuan Smith. Smith, a gifted African-American designer with an exciting aesthetic that has attracted support from Macy’s, André Leon Talley, and Serena Williams, is still in need of a solid base of financial and management support.
Meanwhile, this summer, HFR University, as it’s called, introduced a series of master classes taught by fashion professionals that can be taken in person or online. Instruction is aimed at adults who want to transition into fashion careers.
This fall, HFR launches an e-commerce site for multicultural designers.
For the first ten years, “I built the brand,” Daniel says. “Over the next ten years I want to build the business. My ultimate goal is to have an HFR label, work with designers, and have a really fair profit split.”
For the designer evangelist, who quit her production job with no financial cushion four years after starting HFR, these big steps were not as daunting as they seem. “HFR found me,” Daniel says. “I wasn’t looking for it. In life, you have this one idea and you know that out of all your ideas, there’s something special about it. For me it was HFR.” ◆