On Tuesday evening, the Apollo Theater opened its doors for the 16th annual Harlem Fashion Row Style Awards by Brandice Daniels. Award recipients included the skilled editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, actress and all-around star Kelly Rowland, stylists Wayman + Micah, rapper A$AP Rocky, emerging designers, and executives including ESSENCE Ventures CEO Caroline A. Wanga each showed up to uplift and show up for one another. Guided by the theme “The Remix,” the event also marked a celebratory occasion for hip-hop as the genre is commemorating its 50th anniversary. The energy in the historic building was hard to ignore—it was filled with excitement. Upon entering, one could become transfixed by someone’s head-turning outfit, or you might have noticed the face of a designer-of-the-moment like Brandon Blackwood.
HFR’s New York Fashion Week kick-off is an important entity to the larger fashion community—but what was most striking about last night’s festivities were the laughter, smiles, and small talk that took place in the Apollo’s main room. These additions made it immediately feel like a large family gathering. Ahead of recipients such as designer Stella Jean receiving awards, Daniels shared a few words celebrating the journey of HFR. Following this, Janell Stephens, founder and CEO of the natural hair company Camille Rose also notably shared, “We’ve got to show up and show out for one another.” This served as an excellent starting point, as the remainder of the evening was filled with well-deserved and distinct moments.
More specifically, a particularly poignant moment that felt like dreams actualized occurred when Rowland walked on stage for the Fashion Icon award in a stunning Ashi Studio gown. After accepting the award from her husband, Tim Weatherspoon, she immediately dove into the origins of her fashion journey, which started in second-hand shops and swap meets with her mother. She noted how these origins are juxtaposed with what she felt was stylish when she was younger: what she saw in magazines. “I was many people trying to find my style,” Rowland said. She recalls Naomi Campbell and Janet Jackson being sources of inspiration for her years back. Rowland also mentioned how Tina Knowles designed stylish and memorable outfits for her, as well as for her Destiny’s Child groupmates, Beyoncé and Michelle Williams. Fast forward to the present, where she is constantly working with her glam team and skilled stylists, who have pushed her to the forefront of fashion conversations. These details offer context for her confident embrace of expressive style at the age of 42.
Elsewhere Tuesday night, Tonne Goodman sang praises of how Karef-Johnson is “charming,” as well as “inspiring in every situation.” She also shared that she is a rare combination of all things special and wonderful. It was such a fitting introduction to the trailblazer who has forged a path as a colorful and expressive figure in fashion—specifically her Vogue editorials spark joy and also are exquisitely styled, always leaving fashion lovers yearning for more. Next, Karef-Johnson gracefully accepted the Editor of the Year award. She expressed during her speech that she wasn’t always sure of the path she’d chosen and therefore was eternally grateful to HFR for being seen. On what she brings to fashion through her visual work she noted, “Diversity is not just a buzzword but the very essence of beauty and creativity.”
Further in the evening stylist duo Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald mentioned that this year commemorates their tenth anniversary of collaboration. “We started our careers in Harlem on vision boards,” Bannerman said. The Stylists of the Year award meant so much to them, as it symbolized how Black individuals in the fashion industry constantly creating a table for themselves. Their portfolio, featuring talents like singer Coco Jones and actress Tessa Thompson, is not only visually stunning but also a testament to their creative commitment. “Manifestation is real, God is real,” McDonald said as he concluded their acceptance speech.
Harlem’s very own A$AP Rocky and Johnny Nuñez later shared inspiring stories in their own right. The former noted how Virgil Abloh had a relationship with him and his A$AP group mates before they blew up years back—that’s why it was such a full-circle moment that he received an award named after the late designer, DJ, and all-around creative titan. Rocky also shared that he feels to be a trendsetter, that you really have to be brave and believe that you’re expressing yourself fully. “I want to say RIP Virgil and Harlem thank you for making me,” he also shared.
Nuñez who is famously always behind the camera documenting hip-hop culture finally received a beautiful moment where he was front and center. As he stood on stage, he opened up about his journey from poverty to once traveling with Dame Dash and Naomi Campbell to take photos in South Africa for a birthday party years ago for the late Nelson Mandela. His story was heartfelt and he shared that he wanted to use it to inspire anyone in the crowd who was going after their dreams or struggling.
Megan Smith, Aaron Potts, and Nicole Benefield also had their own segment to showcase their latest designs, with each collection distinct to each creator. Smith’s pieces were bold, somewhat ‘70s-inspired, and filled with sleekly tailored pleats and ruffles. In contrast, A. Pott’s looks were notably centered around white and black hues, yet also included stunning color-blocked dresses in magenta and white. Benefield’s responsibly made pieces were minimalistic and centered around lengthy, well-cut pants and tops that can be worn as workwear.
A performance from Doug E. Fresh and Lil Vicous wrapped HFR’s momentous night. The hip hop legend brought the audience through a passionate recollection of multiple eras of New York’s rap history. From The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to countless other tracks that have been a part of the core of the genre, Doug E. Fresh left no stone unturned. Excited attendees including June Ambrose and others hopped up and vibed out for nearly 30 minutes. This ending points to how important and inspiring congregating together can be.