Sunday, May 24, 2020

Why Hanifa's Virtual Catwalk Is More Than Just a Show

The Hanifa digital fashion show is a testament to the necessity of Black women designers in the industry, and the innovation that African talent can bring. From size inclusivity to 3D technology and Pink Label Congo's community focus, designer Anifa Mvuemba is setting a new standard. 

I first learned of Hanifa in August 2019. Teen Vogue had just announced their Generation Next mentorship initiative, selecting five budding brands to bring to New York Fashion Week and gradually make the industry more accessible. Two Black women were selected: British-Nigerian designer Tia Adeola of "Slashed by Tia" and Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba of "Hanifa," based in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, Mvuemba's brand had just surpassed 100k followers on Instagram and now, @hanifaofficial has surpassed double its follower count. Hanifa is a contemporary luxury brand unabashedly "designed with the Black woman in mind," and I was enthralled by the bold colors, prints, ruffles, and textures I saw on its page. The mermaid silhouettes sprinkled throughout the feed were somewhat reminiscent of traditional Nigerian formalwear, but seemed fresher, more chic, and less restricting.

The Generation Next designers were able to make waves at NYFW, but little did we know that it would be the last major in-person fashion show in the United States for a while. Coronavirus became a growing concern during Milan and Paris Fashion Week as shows were cancelled left and right, leaving many wondering, in retrospect, if they should've gone forward with any at all. Hindsight might be 20/20, but no designer or label could've foreseen the countless furloughs, layoffs, and bankruptcies that COVID-19 has yielded. The future of the fashion industry appears to be hanging on by a thread and from here on out, it's safe to say that fashion weeks across the globe will look very different. As the British Fashion Council intends to pull off their first-ever digital and gender neutral London Fashion Week in June, the question is how. 

Two nights ago, 29-year-old self-taught designer Mvuemba just debuted Hanifa's Pink Label Congo collection via Instagram Live, incorporating 3D models of different shapes and sizes. As a 6' Nigerian-American woman, my initial reaction was complete awe. It was both exhilarating and surreal to be able to envision myself inhabiting those clothes without seeing another human physically walk down the runway in them. Showcasing ruched fabric, various cuts and hems, and incredible craftsmanship, this collection spans from sizes XS to 2XL, staying true to Hanifa's mission for the limitless woman. Though the Western world rarely associates anything African with modernization or cutting-edge tech, in the age of COVID-19, a Black African woman is trailblazing a path for fashion's future and effortlessly raising the bar.

image credit: Teen Vogue

Already rightfully nicknamed the "mother of virtual fashion shows," Mvuemba is shifting the narrative. According to Teen Vogue, she had already planned to execute a digital show long before stay-at-home orders went into effect. Using CLO3D technology, Mvuemba was given the autonomy to decide the models' measurements and she drew inspiration from the bodies of real, everyday Black women "to emulate our beautiful skin tones, curves, and walking patterns." In a tweet, she even said, "This labor of love took 7 months [and] hours to create." Though worried that launching this new collection amidst current events would be insensitive, Mvuemba came at the most opportune time. People are yearning for freshness, excitement, and inspiration during what might be one of the bleakest eras in not just fashion history, but international history. Apart from that, intentionality seeped through every aspect of the Pink Label Congo launch.

Understanding that not everyone will have the opportunity to sit front row at a fashion show, Mvuemba wanted the Hanifa show to be accessible on a platform where the brand's audience shows up daily: Instagram. Despite initial difficulties on @hanifaofficial, virtual attendees moved to @hanifabridal to watch the digital show — and it was a huge success. With screen recordings going viral across Twitter, there are over 70,000 views and counting on the show's IGTV recap. Additionally, Mvuemba wanted to use the collection to shed light on the abrasive coltan mining industry in Congo, where 60-70% of the world's source is from. She sees service as imperative and purposefully sought to bring attention to the inhumane working conditions that women and child laborers endure back home.

image credit: @hanifaofficial

Hanifa is not about marketing gimmicks, but rather about amplifying and uplifting both the needs and the voice of Black women domestically and abroad. To make the show come to fruition, Mvuemba partnered with all Black woman-owned brands: UrbanSkinRx, Third Crown, Beauty Beez, Hyper Skin, Brooklyn Body Butter, EHONEY, BRWN Beauty, and my personal favorite, Cee Cee's Closet. Mvuemba said, "If you're African, then you know about African seamstresses..." and the importance of detail, color, and print. She made it her mission to deliberately "give tribute to all the African seamstresses out there" through this collection, by creating her own original color palettes and prints, honing in on the stitching and intricacy, and making each piece with Congo in mind. 

"Great things come out of Congo," Mvuemba said. "We're not just this country that is going through it." 

I hope this serves as a reminder to African youth and Black women about what we're capable of, and tells the fashion world to stop devaluing the African continent and the talent that comes from it.