Last week, American Girl celebrated their 35th year anniversary with Harlem’s Fashion Row by debuting the World by Us doll and book collection to demonstrate modern storylines for the everyday American Girl. The brand tapped fashion force Carly Cushnie for the reimagination of the original American Girl characters (Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly) with a contemporary and fashionable twist. Parallel to the World By Us debut, children’s fashion brand Janie and Jack launched a capsule collection on September 24th with styles inspired by the new World By Us characters.

Brandice Daniel, the founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row and its non-profit organization ICON360, explained to ESSENCE that HFR and American Girl had been in touch since earlier in the year. After learning more about the World By Us doll and book project, Daniel began to imagine what this opportunity could mean for designers of color. Once she learned more about American Girl’s new characters – Makena Williams™, Evette Peeters™, and Maritza Ochoa™ – Daniel was absolutely sold that this was the partnership they’d been waiting on.

“Last year, there were so many brands doing so many different things. We passed up the opportunity to work with several brands because we only wanted to work with brands who are really authentic, really in this for the long haul, and that we felt really valued designers of color,” Daniel admitted to ESSENCE. Following HFR’s first conversation with American Girl, Daniel knew that these two brands would create a dream partnership to impact not only designers of color, but also young women and girls of color. “They’re the brand that we want to want to work with. It gives us a great opportunity to really communicate with children, which is amazing, and show them what’s possible through these designer’s journeys.”

Jamie Cygielman, president of American Girl, knew from the beginning that Harlem’s Fashion Row was the perfect fit to collaborate with her legendary organization. She described the partnership as “a match made in heaven” as they showcased the reimagination of these historical fiction character’s iconic wardrobe. “American Girl was built on a foundation of diverse and inclusive storytelling and different perspectives throughout American history. As we started to tell contemporary stories, we wanted to make sure that it was a reflection of what was happening with the American girls of today,” Cygielman explained. As part of the milestone celebration, American Girl donated $25k to HFR’s ICON360 to raise awareness and funds for the next generation of BIPOC designers and creatives.

Cygielman continued to express the importance of young girls seeing themselves and what’s possible in the future to assist them with their personal growth, confidence, and character as they evolve into young women. “When we heard about the Harlem’s Fashion Row mission and the ability to shine a spotlight on designers of color who often didn’t have the same opportunities or exposure, we thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity to bring this forward,’ because this line was so synonymous with standing up for yourself, conviction, courage, strength of character. That’s what these women all do every day.”

Within the fashion show, designers were tasked with the challenge to take the new cast of World By Us dolls and reimagine their wardrobes in accordance with their own aesthetics. Samantha Black was assigned to biracial environmentalist Evette Peeters, Nichole Lynel was working with a young Black fashion designer who uses her platform to speak out against racial injustice Makena Williams, and Kristian Lorén worked with Hispanic athlete Maritza Ochoa who advocates for immigrant families. The fashion show featured a few opening words from designer Prabal Gurung, who partnered with American Girl on his New York Fashion Week Spring ‘22 show, as well as a virtual performance by That Girl Lay Lay.

Designer and Nichole Lynel The Label founder Nichole Lynel was one of the participating designers in the New York City-based fashion show at the American Girl flagship store. Makena Williams, one of the newest contemporary characters introduced as part of the World By Us cast, was designated as Lynel’s inspiration and she did not disappoint when her little models showcased her work. “This has been a beautiful moment in my life. They’re one of the brands who gets it,” said Lynel of the American Girl brand. Her first glimpse at the American Girl world was Addy Walker, a fictional Black character and doll based within 1864’s era of slavery. “HFR has been a game-changer [and] Brandice has been my fashion fairy godsister. When Brandice asked me if I would be interested in working with American Girl, [it was] life-changing [and a] dream come true. I’ve just been in love with the process.”

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For Philly-bred Afro-Latina designer Kristian Lorén, working on Maritza was fun because she loved to work with bright colors and making her athleisure wear pop with a hint of Lopez flair. When asked about the importance of the partnership between Harlem’s Fashion Row and American Girl from the designer’s perspective, Lorén applauded the demonstration of diversity and inclusion from both brands.

“I’m a firm believer and passionate person about representation. I’m really big on manifestation and let’s not kid ourselves, playing dress-up as a kid is what manifestation, right?,” Lorén posed rhetorically to ESSENCE. “By joining this project and collaboration, I could help a young girl discover who they are, who they want to be, or just point them in the right direction, self-discovery, and learning who they are. I was like, ‘Sign me up ’cause we all need clarity in our life.’ If you could figure that out on a young age, it just makes the path a lot easier.”

In the fashion show starred Kennedy Cruz, daughter of NFL superstar Victor Cruz, as she modeled for Lynel’s reimagination of Makena’s character. The former wide receiver and Super Bowl XLVI winner was in the front row supporting his daughter as she charismatically strutted her stuff down the American Girl runway. As a girl dad himself, he acknowledges the impact that dolls have on a young girl’s upbringing in fashion and beauty. “I know little girls like to become these dolls, be these dolls, and make them come to life. You want them to emulate things that embody them, their character, and what they see in the mirror,” Cruz, 34, said as he continued to express his excitement to see young Kennedy become part of the American Girl legacy.

As a father, Cruz offered up some advice to Kennedy about self-love and self-awareness as a young Black girl in a world of budding representation. “You don’t need any justification to tell you you’re sexy or you’re beautiful from anyone. It’s a feeling for your own self inside. It’s something that you need to wake up and feel every day,” Cruz advised. “You need to wake up and understand that for yourself daily. If there’s anything I’ll do, I’ll empower that motto into her brain as much as possible.”

As a young model herself, Chanel Iman, who attended the show with young daughters Cali and Cassie, wants her daughters to feel as beautiful in their day-to-day lives as they deserve to. “I have two little girls and the way that I’m raising them, I want them to live in an all-inclusive world. It’s important for there to be diversity in dolls so they can see themselves when they play with the dolls,” the young mother explained. “We’re all so different. For them to see themselves in the dolls, they feel connected to who they are.”

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