Black Fashionistas Find Fashion Week Alternative

  • A display at the Zuvaa Pop Up Shop (Photos by Roxanne L. Scott for Voices of NY)

Tiffany Woodson, tall, slender and brown-skinned, stood near the corner of Delancey and Allen streets on the Lower East Side wearing a short African print dress swarming with vibrant yellows, blues and pinks. An older Asian man walked by. “Beautiful dress,” he says. “Can I take a picture?” As he snaps from his phone he says, “I’m going to show my wife this dress and post this photo on Facebook.”

Woodson, 29, was one of the models for Zuvaa Pop Up, a shopping event attended mostly by women who came to buy African-inspired fashion from dresses, shirts, shoes and jewelry. The one-day event, where 10 designers showcased their work, was held in a long narrow space. Kaleidoscopic prints gleamed from the shelves.

“Our target market is women who are really excited about the continent and its beautiful prints,” says Kelechi Anyadiegwu, 25, who created the event, which was Saturday, Sept. 12, a few days after New York Fashion Week began.

Zuvaa, a Shona word from Zimbabwe that means sunshine, also lets women buy these vibrant prints online. The digital marketplace shines a spotlight on African fashion while building a community intrigued by the designs. The pop-up shop was a way for this community to interact at a live event. “I’m an online girl,” she says. “But I also wanted to meet the women excited about these items.”

Angela Barimah, 30, sees the value in building this community. “New York is the home of fashion,” Barimah says, “yet there is no home for us.” She believes Black fashionistas are not seen as brand worthy and are ignored during fashion week. Commenting on Zuvaa’s community building efforts, she says: “I think this is very important. Zuvaa is connecting women and bringing them to the table.”

And it’s hard to ignore these women. The small space was packed with mostly women of color combing through the racks trying to get their hands on the one-of-a-kind prints.

Judith Ojo, 31, was excited to find clothes that fit her body type. She spent $100 at the event and says of the clothes, “They fit me just right; like it was made for me.” Ojo doesn’t always feel comfortable in mainstream shops. She recalls a time she went to Forever 21 and wanted to purchase an item. She was glibly told they didn’t have anything like that in her size. Her friend Sabrina Rose spent $253 at the event. Not only does she love the designs but also sees her purchases as a way of supporting Black businesses.

The question of cultural appropriation of ethnic designs further complicates the relationship between buyers and designers of these prints and the mainstream fashion world. High-end brands become inspired by prints from the African continent, but many believe these companies don’t credit the source of inspiration and use the prints to target a broader market while excluding the creators.

An online debate about the question of appropriation has even been growing about whether Black Americans are engaging in cultural appropriation by wearing these prints. An article titled “Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks,” asks whether Blacks in America are wearing the traditional prints simply to be trendy. The widely shared story elicited a range of reactions.

Anyadiegwu says one of the reasons she started Zuvaa was to bridge cultures. She doesn’t believe African Americans are appropriating the designs but rather wear them as a way to show pride in their origins, even if they can’t trace exactly where on the African continent their forebears came from. She does believe that researching and learning about the prints is important. Barimah also agrees with the sentiment of African Americans expressing their culture through these fashions. Barimah, who is half-Ghanaian, likens it to the concept of Sankofa, a word from the Akan language in Ghana, which means “go back and get it.” She sees African Americans reaching back to their history when they wear these designs.

In Lower Manhattan, the pop-up shop attracted crowds throughout the day. Folks from all backgrounds stopped by to see what the buzz was about, and were immediately captivated by the radiant colors and designs. Tiffany Woodson says this is what she loves about African culture. “Here there’s no judgment,” she says. “Asians, Italians, anyone can walk through the door. It doesn’t matter; you’ll feel embraced.”

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