Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Courtesy of Hanifa
On a recent warmer-than-normal fall day, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, is decked out in pink light, chairs with “Hanifa” engraved on the back, and a colored rug. Pale pink makes the runway and a live orchestra is performing songs like “Laugh Now Cry Later” by Drake. Anifa Mvuemba, the 31-year-old founder behind Hanifa, is having her first fashion show. Mvuemba never planned to hold a runway show. In fact, she built her brand by not following fashion industry standards. But earlier this year, as she was thinking about how to celebrate a decade of her brand, she started making plans.
The big day has finally come. Hundreds of industry professionals, fellow designers and brand aficionados – including several Potomac housewives – gathered to see her designs debut on the runway. The black models wore a variety of hairstyles – voluminous hairdos, natural curls and finger waves – and of varying sizes, featured colored pants, over-buttoned pants and royal blue patent leather jacket.
Mvuemba has earned a lot of buzz for her designs, which are tight and designed specifically for curvy bodies and curves. In fact, they’re the reason she’s branded direct-to-consumer sales through Instagram and on her website. She relies solely on a community of women who follow her and buy her designs. “Even if we don’t get a lot of support from the industry, our customers and communities know we see them, and that makes a huge difference,” she said.
A design by Hanifa.
Photo: Shannon Finney / Getty Images
Her latest fashion show reflected these women. The plus-size models, often brought down the runway in safety gear that looked like the long black dresses at other shows, were instead dressed in gorgeous jumpsuits, tight dresses close to the body and bold prints. The crowd cheered and gave Mvuemba a standing ovation.
The ethos of the franchise may have begun a decade ago, but casting began just a week before the show. Mvuemba wants to hire local models instead of flying to big names from places like New York and Paris. “There is a lot of talent in DC,” Mvuemba said. She collaborated with the casting director Kat Mateo, who is known for challenging conventional industry standards and has curated brands like Pyer Moss. Mvuemba tells Mateo to “just get it.” Together, they managed to make reservations for women who looked like her clients. “The female body is a big story for the brand and it’s important to show that,” she said. The woman she was talking to, she said, was “probably a size 2, but she’s also a size 12 and 16.”
Models line up for the Hanifa show in Washington, DC
Photo: Courtesy of Hanifa
More than 130 women lined up with pictures of their heads to try shooting in the shoulder. One model said: “Whether I understand it or not, I will support you and watch the show.
In the hotel lobby of the casting, Mateo explained that she believes the lack of community is what keeps many designers back in the industry from being interested in mingling. “If our consumers are everyday people, why should we let them look at a bogus standard?” Mateo asked. “The runway reflects the times, and the days of a blonde girl walking are over. We should represent what we see on the street every day. “
Including dimensions beyond the runway for Mvuemba. Each of her collections amounts to at least 2XL. She knows that changing the industry’s scale standard isn’t easy, especially as a young Black designer with fewer resources than larger homes, but for her, that’s not an excuse. “Maybe it’s not comfortable for everyone, but I also feel like they don’t want to,” she said. Instead, she says, “they get a plus-size fit model for plus-size products and a smaller-fit model for the other sizes.”
In the casting world, Mateo says excuses aren’t far off, but she believes brands like Hanifa are paving the way for others. She also believes that not seeing diversity on the runway, whether it’s body, hair, or race, has a lot to do with people getting stuck in their way.
“It was an effort. It is not so difficult. Look around you,” she said. “It’s all over, and if you choose not to see that, it’s because you’re stuck in your bubble, and that’s the problem. But if you want to be stuck in your bubble, I don’t think you should report to the world, tell it what it’s like.” Mateo adds that getting rid of a whole bunch of people is not your job as the casting director.
casting director Kat Mateo, left, and Anifa Mvuemba, the 31-year-old founder behind Hanifa.
Photo: Courtesy of Hanifa
What makes casting for a Hanifa show different is that besides looks, casting directors look for women with personality and confidence. They did this by creating a fun environment where the models could just be themselves instead of focusing on what they thought the judges wanted to see. When asked about her height, one model said, “I’m four years old, but my attitude is six meters.” They included her in the show.
“With fashion, there are all these criteria you have to meet to be that perfect person. Here, it’s different – it could be your personality or what you think of yourself,” Mateo said. “That’s the message that Hanifa sends: Everyone can be great and everyone can look good.”
In addition to the community, the show is also a tribute to what the brand has accomplished over the past decade. Mvuemba wanted to present his works in a transformative way, arranging successive patches of color on the runway. “A lot of times we’re taught not to accept change, but I’m celebrating it,” she said.
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