How Young Minority Designers Are Orchestrating NYFW’s Revival

For the past several years, New York Fashion Week has gotten a bad rap. Members of the so-called industry elite have deemed the clothes and shoes insignificant and branded the shows as marketing-heavy events that cater to influencers. Milan and Paris are still referred to as the must-see destinations — both because they’re home to some of the world’s most revered luxury houses and because more actual buying is done in the European fashion capitals.

But anyone who sat out the spring ’20 shows in New York this week missed a defining moment, when fashion’s emerging class set an ambitious agenda that is poised to redefine fashion — both stateside and internationally — in the months and years to come.

“We are now seeing a generation of young designers who, more than ever, are responding to the culture we live in and using fashion to make a statement that goes beyond clothes,” said Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It’s a reflection of our times, and we’re excited to see how this group will define American fashion in the future.”

Before NYFW even kicked off, Kolb and new CFDA chairman Tom Ford made a statement about the group’s own more-inclusive future when they announced four new minority members of the board: designers Maria Cornejo, Carly Cushnie, Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond.

The power of Jean-Raymond at Pyer Moss is undeniable. The Haitian-American designer, who was also just elevated to artistic director of Reebok’s newly created Studies division, has a singular vision for a modern fashion brand during a critical juncture for the industry (and our fractured nation). The designer, who brought the house down at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn on Sunday, is ambitious and determined to build a business with longevity. But he doesn’t care to be an Instagram star and isn’t overly concerned about having the hottest style at the coolest store of the moment.

Instead, his primary mission is to educate more people about the plight of African Americans in this country and the contributions they’ve made that tend to go unrecognized.

Most people have probably never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who Jean-Raymond described as a queer black woman who pioneered the sound that would become rock ‘n’ roll. “I feel like black women are often erased from things. And I wanted to do this specifically for black women,” he told FN senior athletic and outdoor editor Peter Verry at his show “Sister,” the third in a captivating series called “American, Also.”

Model on the catwalkPyer Moss Collection 3, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, New York Fashion Week, USA - 08 Sep 2019
Model on the catwalk at Pyer Moss Collection 3 for spring 2020 at New York Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Masato Onoda/WWD/Shutterstock

Jean-Raymond’s reflective approach is the kind of action that historian Crystal DeGregory believes can foster real change in fashion.

“This industry should be having conversations about its past [in the proper way],” she said. “We need to talk about inclusive histories that reflect the contributions of people of color in the industry. This innovation isn’t new, and if you start from this point forward, you’re always going to be playing catch up and fighting for your validity.”

With that sentiment top of mind, Jean-Raymond is rallying a community of people that look like him. Earlier in the week, the designer was in the audience when another young black Brooklyn talent, CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Christopher John Rogers, made his Fashion Week debut to a standing ovation.

“There are so many kids that come from my background that are equally as talented who are not given the opportunity, who are not able to express themselves on these stages, who are not able to win CFDA awards, who are not able to come here and win Footwear News awards just because they don’t have the right access,” the designer said at the 2018 FNAAs, when he took home the Collaboration of the Year award with Reebok. “They’re not put in the right rooms. And everyone in this room has the ability to reach down — just reach down — and you’ll be surprised what you find. Reebok did it, and you guys can do it.”

Reebok’s move to make Jean-Raymond one of the biggest voices inside the company came at a crucial time for both the brand and its parent company, Adidas, which has been grappling with diversity issues and slow progress.

While diversity and inclusion have become convenient buzzwords within the broader fashion industry, those who are making significant strides are going way beyond the surface.

Rihanna is the rare talent who seems to capture attention — and real business — in any part of the fashion industry she steps into, from athleticwear to high fashion to beauty to lingerie.

On Tuesday night, the songstress effectively dethroned the troubled, increasingly irrelevant Victoria’s Secret brand in the lingerie market by offering a collection for women of all shapes, sizes, colors and genders.

As the ultimate performer, she knows that to make real magic during fashion week, one has to cook up the right recipe. And she seemed to have it all, including the world’s most powerful retail partner to support her endeavors (hello, Amazon) and a cast of attention-grabbing performers to bring the whole thing to life. The enviable cast included Big Sean, A$AP Ferg, Migos, Halsey, DJ Khaled and Fat Joe, with special appearances by Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, Cara Delevingne, Joan Smalls and Laverne Cox.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 10: Rihanna performs onstage during Savage X Fenty Show Presented By Amazon Prime Video - Show Sneak Peak at Barclays Center on September 10, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty Show Presented by Amazon Prime Video )
Savage x Fenty NYFW spring 2020.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Savage x Fenty

Meanwhile, Zendaya, Tommy Hilfiger and Law Roach also know how to put on a great show, and their extravaganza celebrating Harlem culture on Sunday was another highlight of the week.

For Hilfiger, who marks the 30th anniversary of his brand in 2020, fashion is at an important tipping point.

“I am taking it to a new level with size diversity, age diversity. We have trans models, we have boys wearing women’s clothes. We have real life — and I don’t want to pretend we’re only making clothes for a certain elite crowd. I want everyone to wear my clothes,” he told FN’s style director, Shannon Adducci, backstage.

Tommy Hilfiger, Zendaya and Law Roach on the catwalkTommy Hilfiger show, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, New York Fashion Week, USA - 08 Sep 2019
(L-R): Law Roach, Tommy Hilfiger and Zendaya on the catwalk after the Tommy x Zendaya show.
CREDIT: Clint Spaulding/Shutterstock

Right before Tommy and Zendaya took the stage, Prabal Gurung — who has become known for tackling political and social issues on the runway — also made a strong statement about inclusiveness in his “Who Gets To Be an American?” show.

“Born in Singapore, I traveled from Nepal to India, London, Australia and finally arrived in New York City, an immigrant in search of the American dream,” Gurung wrote in his show notes. “To me, this country has always been a beacon of hope where one’s wildest ambitions can come true, a melting pot that is colorful, multicultural and beautiful. In the last few years, incited by the divisive rhetoric of our current administration, I’ve considered the many faces of America and how we should seek to redefine it.”

Gurung’s statement sums up New York Fashion Week’s newfound power: Together, the new American fashion forces have the ability to redefine fashion — and American culture.

Take note, Milan and Paris. This season, New York Fashion Week is a tough act to follow.

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