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Meet the Woman Behind Harlem's Fashion Renaissance

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It's easy to think of Fashion Week as a strictly downtown/Lincoln Center affair. But Harlem's Fashion Row, a NYFW staple that's been putting attendees in an uptown state of mind since 2007 with runway presentations, pop-up shops, a talk series at the NYPL Schomburg Center, and model studded blogger breakfasts, is aiming to change that.

FIT alum and former fashion buyer Brandice Henderson, HFR's CEO and founder, celebrated its sixth year by sending hand-selected independent designers of color down the runway at what has to be the hotbed of Harlem culture and creative life: the Apollo Theater.

We snuck in a little face time before the show's start to talk about how Harlem's history of nurturing the arts inspired Brandice to turn her normally competitive world into a nurturing collective to cocoon emerging talent. We also found out how, despite a few detours downtown to show at Jazz at Lincoln Center, HFR has always maintained its love for its namesake neighborhood.—Cambrey Thomas

Harlem is already so iconic with fashion influenced by jazz and hip-hop. What made you take the neighborhood contemporary?

I went to a fashion show in Brooklyn with a friend of mine. It was just a fashion show in a restaurant, and I remember there really wasn't place for us to sit. We were standing and could barely see the runway because there were so many people. I was standing there and literally the idea hit and I was like, "Why don't we do this in Harlem, why haven't I seen this in Harlem?" And let me just say this, they have definitely done this in Harlem before, I just hadn't seen it while I was living here.

And so I left the runway and went and sat down and I was just getting so excited. And so my friend was like "What are you doing?" Thank God my friend is also a dreamer–it's good to have friends that are dreamers. I started talking to her about it and she started helping me talk through the fashion show as if it already existed. "This is who's going to be in the show, and this is where we're going to do the show."

An idea grows in Brooklyn! How did you bring it to life?

From that idea, within three months a show was happening. I just asked everybody I knew to help me. I asked people to volunteer for everything, as that's the only way the show could have happened. And it was incredible. From there, I think I kind of found my purpose the second year. I knew the first year that it was bigger than a fashion show. That was so clear to me. I even had in my journal all these things I was thinking about in terms of the show. It was this whole new thing–I was like, this is big.

Where there any reservations about moving so boldly?

I had never been so passionate about anything in my life, so I knew that there was something to it. I just couldn't figure it out because all the pieces weren't fitting together because my background—it's in buying and apparel production—so I didn't know how a fashion show fit into that.

How did you distill the essence of a neighborhood into your mission?

At the time, it was all about me living in Harlem, but I think Harlem is so much bigger than a neighborhood. People are influenced by Harlem all over the world. You can't think about people of color without thinking of Harlem. And especially when you think about doing something new, fresh, and something that hopefully makes a huge change. You think about the Harlem Renaissance and there's a huge tie there. I think that Harlem is a place that actually inspires ideas.

What were your steps to introduce HFR to the larger fashion community?

We moved to the Lincoln Center in 2011, but last year we rolled out several other projects I had been wanting to do, like our pop-up shop and our bloggers breakfast. It was one thing to have a runway show, and another to have an opportunity for people to actually buy pieces. That was what the pop-up shop was for us.

Could Harlem become a fashion and retail destination the way, for example, Soho is?

I think [Harlem retail] growing. I think we have yet to see what it's going to become. I'm looking forward to opening an office in Harlem, hopefully by the end of this year or early next year, because everything that's going on in Harlem right now is super exciting.

Where do you shop uptown?

Right now I'm into B. Oyama, but not for myself, for my fiancé. I definitely love B. Oyama, he's one of my favorite designers. Swing Boutique is beautiful as well. Bebenoir is also a really great boutique.

What's next on the agenda for HFR?

We're going to do an HFR label very soon because the challenge right now is designers having the ability to produce their collections, and that's my background. So our next thing is producing a collection that will fund our designers.

Above all, what do you want to share with Racked readers?

I want to ask them to support designers of color.
· Neighborhood Guides: Eight of the Best Places to Shop in Harlem [Racked NY]
· All Harlem Coverage [Racked NY]
· Harlem's Fashion Row [Official Site]