Harlem's Fashion Row Celebrates Fashion's Enduring Connection to Hip Hop

On Tuesday evening, Harlem's Fashion Row kicked off New York Fashion Week early with its 16th annual Fashion Show and Style Awards at the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem. This year's festivities celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip hop, highlighting the enduring, symbiotic relationship between the genre and fashion.

"Hip hop has left an indelible mark on me personally and on every facet of our culture, especially fashion," Brandice Daniel, CEO and founder of Harlem's Fashion Row, says. "As we navigate the complexities of recent times, one thing's clear: Waiting for change isn't an option. We're embracing the hip-hop vibe, rewriting our path and carving a fresh narrative. We're trailblazers scripting our own future."

The evening began with a cocktail hour, featuring the work of several HBCU students from the Dream in Black: Rising Future Makers program, in partnership with AT&T, such as Jaivien Kendrick of Bowie University, Jakarie Whitaker of Clark Atlanta University, Jewel Moser, U'lia Hargrove of North Carolina A&T State University and Tukii Tucker of North Carolina Central University.

"We value HFR's commitment to nurturing the next generation of diverse designers through our Rising Future Makers Showcase," says Michelle Jordan, chief diversity officer at AT&T. "We believe that vital platforms like this are essential to providing emerging leaders with the golden opportunity to make their dreams a reality."

Then came the awards ceremony, honoring Kelly Rowland with the Fashion Icon Award, A$AP Rocky with the Virgil Abloh Award presented by LVMH, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson with the Editor of the Year Award, duo Wayman and Micah with the Stylist of the Year Award and Stella Jean with the Designer of the Year Award. Famed photographer Johnny Nunez received a brand-new distinction, the Hip Hop Trailblazer Award.

Kelly Rowland<p>Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row</p>
Kelly Rowland

Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row

Afterwards, HFR staged a runway show featuring the collections of Nicole Benefield of Nicole Benefield Portfolio, Aaron Potts of APotts and Megan Smith of Megan Renee, with a nostalgic ode to hip hop from the Illharmonic Orchestra.

"I was born during the era of hip hop, and they weren't embraced right away. Same with Black designers," says Benefield, who specializes in seasonless styles meant to be reworn, regardless of trends. (Prior to starting her own brand, she worked for Ann Taylor, Gap and Banana Republic, to name a few.) "I think they kind of laid the foundation of what it takes to be authentically creative, and let the world catch up to what you're doing, rather than to fit the mold."

Nicole Benefield<p>Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row</p>
Nicole Benefield

Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row

As another member of the hip-hop generation and lover of fashion, Potts — a Parsons alum who designed for Emanuel Ungaro, Anne Klein, Victoria's Secret, Escada Badgley Mischka, Ellen Tracy, Kaufmanfranco and Tamara Mellon, before launching Apotts — saw how the relationship between the two evolved over time. "The one that stood out the most to me was TLC, Kris Kross… Then when we moved into the artsy Black kids era. That was my spirit, and you can see that come through in my collection."

Potts always aims to center Black and brown people in his inspirations, but also wants to show them in ways that we haven't seen before: "A lot of what we see is oftentimes stereotypical, and I always sat outside of those stereotypes. I want to embrace those people, who represent the breadth of Blackness."

Aaron Potts of APotts<p>Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row</p>
Aaron Potts of APotts

Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row

Smith (who you might recognize from Prime Video's "Making the Cut") won the New Legacy Challenge, a design competition sponsored by HFR and Tommy Hilfiger, tapping into the brand's iconography in hip-hop fashion. As a designer who highlights the many facets of womanhood, she often draws inspiration from female rappers.

"Female rappers specifically embody strength and femininity, and I think it comes out in the way they dress," she says. "It heavily influences my brand because I like to think that I dress women who are both feminine and strong."

Megan Smith of Megan Renee<p>Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row</p>
Megan Smith of Megan Renee

Photo: Shutterstock/Courtesy of Harlem's Fashion Row

The fashion show concluded with a performance from hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh, who kept the party going, ushering in the post-cocktail hour sponsored by The Walt Disney Company. Afterwards, Ty Alexander performed a DJ set as guests viewed a showcase of works by Taofeek Abijako, Coline Creuzot, Clarence Ruth, Chandricka Carr, Kimminski Adams and Daziah Green as part of Disney's Create 100 initiative, a global celebration of creativity that marks 100 years of Disney storytelling. (The pieces will be auctioned off to benefit Make-A-Wish.)

In true hip-hop fashion, HFR continues to outdo itself with every innovation and collaboration, continuing to build on its mission to support up-and-coming Black and Latinx creatives.

Never miss the latest fashion industry news. Sign up for the Fashionista daily newsletter.