Fashion is often romanticized for its ability to tell a story. Unfortunately, the industry still seems capable of telling only one kind of story — a white one.
In recent times there has finally begun to be some (long overdue) conversations about the whiteness of this industry, from runway model castings to who wins industry awards to the contents of fashion museum collections. As for that last point, a new exhibition in Harlem, New York has something important to say.
'Showing Out: Fashion in Harlem' is a new multimedia exhibition presented by the Schomburg Center in honor of the 55th anniversary of the Harlem Institute of Fashion. HIF was founded by trailblazer Lois K. Alexander-Lane and is known for providing education accessible to Black designers and creatives. Souleo Wright, who curated the exhibit, says that his aim was to help bring greater attention to an "underrepresented piece of fashion history" that was important in helping to preserve, document, and support Black creatives in fashion.
The exhibit features every medium from archival images to videos of collections by Cynthia Harmon, Tuesday P. Brooks and many more. There's also a commissioned new media work by Dianne Smith that includes footage by Kerwin DeVonish. The fashion shows on view were produced by Lois herself from 1979 to 1996. These catwalks were held not inside, but outside, on the streets of Harlem and the steps of City Hall. "They were outside bringing fashion directly to the community and helping to democratize the industry," says Souleo.
Cedric Jose Washington, consultant on the exhibition, who has been with HIF since its beginnings, explains that showing out is not something anybody can do. "It comes from a reference point that gives us an opportunity to reach into ourselves and go a little bit deeper," he says. "It is a soulful statement."
Awo Attipoe, a 21 year-old student and writer from Maryland, visited the exhibit in its opening week. "It was very intimate. I really felt like I was being dipped into the recent past," she says. "I felt close to the history that was being presented, almost as if I were a part of it. There were celebrations of fashion and of Black people being presented and, through the exhibit, I was celebrating too."
The exhibition comes at a pivotal time. Last week, Vogue held their ever-decadent Met Gala event, attended by a supposedly curated list of celebrities and the otherwise elite. Though this year's theme, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion was intended to highlight the diverse fabric of American fashion, there were very few designers of color worn on the red carpet, and even fewer Black designers.
"For there to be so few Black American designers, given how much they have contributed to American art and fashion and culture, was extremely frustrating," Awo says. Cedric adds: "Its the same old familiar story that we know so well. They will never open the door for you. You gotta knock it down. And that's what HIF was doing."
Indeed, as Showing Out demonstrates, it's through the telling, sharing and embracing of truthful stories that people can begin to re-write the histories that have so often disregarded, misrepresented and erased by mainstream institutions.
Showing Out: Fashion in Harlem is on view now until September 30.
Photos courtesy of the Harlem Institute of Fashion