There are two specific weeks of each year when a certain phenomenon takes over the already overcrowded streets of New York City. Avenues are shut down, traffic becomes even more congested with sleek, black, and ominous-looking vehicles, and city-dwellers turn 5th Avenue into their own personal catwalks. Oh, the many, many joys of New York Fashion Week.
It almost seems strange to highlight specific weeks of the year to celebrate fashion, when New Yorkers are already some of the most fashion-forward human beings on the planet. Fashion Week, however, is a notable distinction from the usual hustle and bustle of city-style trends. All of the top designers in the world funnel into the Big Apple in order to present upcoming collections of their brands. More often than not, their entire year of hard work culminates in a lavish runway show. If a designer is really popular, that show is heavily attended by celebrities, social media influencers, and notable members of the press.
Thanks to advances in photography and social media however, you no longer need a special invite to get a front-row seat to New York Fashion Week. It’s all right at our fingertips. By simply plugging in the hashtag #nyfw, you are given immediate access to the glamorous worlds of Donatella Versace, The Blonds, and Tommy Hilfiger, just to name a few.These famous designers and the companies they own are to be expected from any Fashion Week, but there was something special about the show’s in New York this year that made them stand out—a vast array of beautiful, black models.
If I haven’t made it obvious from many of the other articles I have written for I AM & CO, I stan black women. I love to see all of the advances we have made in the worlds of technology, sports, music, Hollywood, and yes, even fashion. In the past few years alone, there have been radical changes in these industries and I for one, feel so lucky to be living in a time of such incredible and intentional diversity. While iconic black models like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and Kimora Lee Simmons are still active in the public eye, a new wave of superstar black models making a name for themselves.
Jasmine Tookes, for example, is an absolute stunner who has graced the covers of “Elle Magazine” and “Vogue.” In 2015, she became a Victoria’s Secret Angel and only a year later, had the elite honor of walking the runway wearing the three million dollar “Fantasy Bra.” At the time, she was only the third black model in history to do so.
Another model making history is 25-year-old Winnie Harlow. She first burst onto the public scene on Tyra Banks’ popular reality series “America’s Next Top Model,” but has truly made a name for herself. Winnie was bullied as a child for the discoloration in her skin (a result of vitiligo), but this unique look has helped launch her into supermodel stardom and empowered her to become an advocate for self-love.
Duckie Thot, was also once bullied for her appearance--specifically, the dark complexion of her skin. Now, that beautiful, rich and flawless skin is the reason she is one of the most booked and in-demand models in the game. Just goes to show that sometimes your biggest insecurity, can actually be your superpower.
Slick Woods, knows this. Her bald head and gapped teeth were initially labeled too “unconventional” to walk catwalks or grace editorial covers. But, that same bold look and unapologetic attitude are what snagged her two campaigns with Rihanna--Fenty Beauty and Fenty x Savage.
Make no mistake, as phenomenal as these women are, we have much more to accomplish when it comes to equal representation and parity for all kinds of women, but celebrating the black artists who dominated NYFW feels like a great place to start.
It actually makes a lot of sense that inclusion efforts have become a priority for mainstream fashion brands. When you think about it, style is constantly evolving. This makes designers uniquely situated to push popular culture forward; they are literal vanguards of change. By including a more diverse array of models in their shows, they are reminding the world that there is an infinite number of ways to be beautiful.
I was thrilled to see so many black models with bodies of all sizes, shapes, and shades owning these runways and so much black culture embedded into the fabric of this Fall’s fashion shows.
Kerby Jean-Raymond’s Pyer Moss show, for example, was held in the historic Kings Theatre in Brooklyn—many miles away from the glitzy streets of Manhattan. The already ornate theatre was transformed into a full-on production house and one of the main features was a huge, majority African-American gospel choir (the Tabernacle Drip Choir) which performed powerful selections of songs from artists like Anita Baker all the way to Cardi B.
According to The Fashionista, “the designer [Jean-Raymond] took inspiration from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black female artist. Her music became the foundation of rock 'n' roll—the true origin of the genre, really—and paved the way for Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Tina Turner, and many more.” The result was a radical and unapologetic celebration of black culture.
“What I aim to do is to make disenfranchised people, black people, with this series and minorities and women, know and understand how important they are to this thing called America right now.” -Kerby Jean-Raymond
Another designer who made the most out of New York Fashion Week, and the huge platform it affords, is Prabal Gurung. As one of the industry’s top names, Gurung is no stranger to the attention and buzz of Fashion Week. But, Gurung actually went a step further this year and used his art to make a statement.
The collection featured the expected array of gorgeous fabrics, silhouettes, and cuts, but Gurung also had his models, many of whom were black models and brown models, close the show with sashes all dotting the same question, “Who gets to be an American?” It was a question directly pointed at those who oppose immigration law reform or sympathy for immigrant communities living in America.
“For me, being an activist is a part of my identity...We all have to make a decision to be on the right side of history. I did this because it was the right thing to do for me.” -Prabal Gurung
Gurung is a true advocate for the marginalized members of society and has been pushing social movements forward by way of fashion for the entirety of his career. It is no surprise then that his show included so many models of color—the kaleidoscope of skin colors could only be matched by the kaleidoscope of colors in his clothes.
The truest sense of diversity and inclusion this New York Fashion Week, however, came from none other than my favorite lady in the land, Rihanna. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie line had its second NYFW runway premiere in a show that blew everyone out of the water. The Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn was completely transformed into a chic, geometric stage with several levels for models, dancers, and performers to strut across.
Savage x Fenty, like so many of Rihanna’s businesses, has truly blown up over the past year. One of the most important facets of the brand is its unapologetic devotion to showcasing all kinds of women and making them feel sexy as all hell.
“I think the first time we were just trying to create this groundbreaking space where people felt safe to be whoever they are. No matter what shape, size, religion, race, I just wanted women to feel confident and to feel expressive.” -Rihanna
And, boy, did she accomplish this goal. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch the show right now and see these glorious ladies for yourself.
“This year we had a bigger platform and I just wanted to take that even further. I wanted to expand on the women that we have highlighted before—women who aren’t usually highlighted in the space of fashion, whether it’s trans women or, this year, even paraplegic women [Lauren Wasser] who even have prosthetic legs. We wanted to feel like we were giving women a chance to feel sexy where they usually don’t feel sexy.” -Rihanna
Rihanna is not the only celebrity designer that made a mark on New York Fashion Week. “Euphoria” actress Zendaya unveiled her newest collection in collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger and sports superstar Serena Williams debuted her S by Serena line.
There is a chance that you are still asking, “why is any of this important?” Well, it actually goes way deeper than simply satisfying demands for more representation—including models, designers, and industry stylists from marginalized backgrounds has the power to completely tear down traditional notions of beauty altogether. There is no reason for any of us to remain tethered to traditional notions of beauty that exclude big bodies, broad noses, curlier hair—all of which are innate to a good majority of black women. There is no reason to believe that beauty is the only currency women have period, especially when this value is so easily “diminished” by uncontrollable factors like aging or disability.
By including as varied an array of female models as possible, we completely do away with these preconceived standards. We need black models, brown models, and models of all colors, all shapes, hair types, and heights. We need models with vitiligo and albinism and alopecia. We need models who are physically challenged and models in wheelchairs. We need models who are trans or queer. In a season when the beauty industry finally seems ready to embrace this change, it feels like a very good time to fall back in love with fashion.