A Fashion Model For the Moment – The New York Times


How to have a fashion show during a pandemic is one of the immediate questions facing designers this week, as what would have been the couture runway season is replaced with three days of digital mini-films. Can video ever replace the runway experience?

A pioneer of the form suggests the answer might not be no.

“Everyone knows her,” said Anifa Mvuemba, the founder of Hanifa, who debuted a clothing collection in May called Pink Label Congo with a digitally rendered model called Imani.

Imani is a graceful and curvaceous avatar, though her form was known at the brand’s recent digital runway show, on May 22, solely by the movements of the clothes. She was a well-clad ghost — a 3-D presence without physical form. The effect was to see garments, with designs based on African sewing techniques and traditions, move beautifully on their own through a digital space.

“We started using her when the pandemic started,” Ms. Mvuemba, 29, said of the digital avatar.

Ms. Mvuemba, a self-taught Congolese designer who is based in Maryland, had initially planned on a traditional runway show during New York Fashion Week in September. “Then Covid-19 happened. Everyone was home, on their phones,” said Ms. Mvuemba. “I thought, ‘We gotta do this now.’ It’s how we were able to keep going.”

The tightly-edited show put Ms. Mvuemba and her size inclusive (XXS to 3X) collection on the fashion map, both aesthetically and in technological terms.

Onscreen, Imani (the avatar is about to be renamed because Ms. Mvuemba wants something “more unique,” rather than a play on the model Iman’s moniker) floated through a black box theater wearing a backless minidress called the Kinshasa (named after the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo): a plissé pleated trapeze number reminiscent of the rainbow confection worn by Diana Ross in the 1975 film “Mahogany.”

But the digital woman wasn’t reminiscent of Lil Miquela, the hyper-realized, “ethnically ambiguous” virtual influencer from the tech start-up Brud, nor did the setting recall Cher Horowitz’s computer-aided dream closet in “Clueless.” Instead what viewers saw was an accessible styling guide for ready-to-wear garments modeled by a charismatic, if inanimate, influencer. (Plus some current events: The show was preceded by a mini-documentary highlighting the exploitation of child laborers in the mineral-rich Congolese mining industry.)

Ms. Mvuemba started Hanifa in 2012 with money she received from a tax return refund, and an intermittent retail job at Nordstrom. “My father gave us all Arabic names,” she said. “Anifa is pronounced Hanifa, which means ‘true believer.’ I wanted my name to be a part of the brand, but I also wanted to disguise it ever so slightly.”

Her first clothing orders — mostly prom gowns and other formal wear — were made via text messages, Instagram direct messages, and word-of-mouth requests. A proper e-commerce site and a more traditional ready-to-wear collection featuring separates and jumpsuits (priced $100 to $300) arrived shortly thereafter, then shuttered in 2015. “At that time, the collection was very costly to produce,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “And I needed to find my brand voice.”

In 2016, after a hiatus, Ms. Mvuemba relaunched Hanifa with an Essentials collection of curve-hugging pants, cozy knits, and easy wrap dresses priced from $300 to $500. Because she didn’t have outside financial backing or funding, “I did a lot of pre-orders,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “I would put an item online, do pre-orders, get the money, pay for materials and manufacturing, then whatever money I had left over, I would put it back into the business to produce more garments.”

Until March 2018, she was “sewing everything myself,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “I even had a friend learn to sew so she could help me.” A fabric supplier introduced Ms. Mvuemba to the owners of a factory based in New York City’s garment district, where the collection is now produced.

A more aspirational, luxe-contemporary Pink Label collection was introduced as a complement to Essentials in June 2019. The clothes are “fit and made to shape curves,” Ms. Mvuemba said.

Although only five looks were featured in her May 2020 show, the digital exercise proved successful for the brand in general. By the end of the 10-minute livestream, orders exceeded the brand’s typical production run, with more than 500 units per garment as opposed to the usual 100 to 200. Top-sellers included a curve-hugging corseted strapless sheath with patch pockets and parachute ruched hem, as well as a miniskirt featuring a print of Congolese rivers.

A headline in Teen Vogue blared: “Hanifa’s 3-D Digital Fashion Show Just Changed the Game.” CNN, Harper’s Bazaar and Essence also celebrated the virtual collection presentation. Then, less than two weeks after that, Forbes excluded Ms. Mvuemba from a related story that claimed a Prada-backed start-up, called Bigthinx, was making “the first live streamed 3-D fashion show.”

For Ms. Mvuemba and her supporters, it was like a slap in the face. An outcry on social media, where the story was seen as another example of the widespread erasure of Black women’s contributions to arts and culture, gave Ms. Mvuemba “so much anxiety” she removed the Twitter app from her mobile phone home screen.

“I see how much genuine support I have from people that have watched this journey from the beginning. But the fashion industry doesn’t consider us,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “Even now I feel like an outsider.”

Following the outcry, Forbes amended and then deleted the article. An editor’s note on the original article read: “Update, June 4, 2020: This post was edited to reflect that Bigthinx was not the first company to host a 3D virtual fashion show. Anifa Mvemba’s Hanifa hosted a 3D fashion show on May 22, 2020, and you can read more about it here.”

Shortly thereafter, Beyoncé added Hanifa to the singer’s “Black Parade” Juneteenth e-commerce directory.

“3-D isn’t anything I created, but the process and presentation is unique,” said Ms. Mvuemba. “Putting the article out — especially at a time like this in the heat of Black Lives Matter — was so tone deaf. For Black people globally, it was a hard week. You wake up, you feel empowered, you see the unity, then you see the news: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, then you’re angry, upset and want to cry.”

In 2004, one of Ms. Mvuemba’s brothers was stabbed to death at age 17 by a younger boy. A family friend invited Ms. Mvuemba, then a high school freshman, and her family to live abroad for a year in Dubai. Over the next decade, “because my dad worked for United Airlines, we traveled to Dubai every year, sometimes twice per year,” said Ms. Mvuemba. “It’s where I sourced the material for the dress that started it all.”

That dress was made for her 21st birthday, in 2011. “I made the dress the night of the party and posted it to Instagram,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “You would’ve been like, ‘OK girl … what are you doing?’ But I knew what I wanted. I visualized it and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.”

Then, “after feedback from the Instagram post, my mom encouraged me to learn how to sew and make custom orders. And I thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose,’” she said.

Now, Ms. Mvuemba plans to launch a line of size-inclusive swimwear, and “shapewear for Black women” that fills the void between the Black-owned hosiery and lingerie brand Nubian Skin, and the Skims brand by Kim Kardashian-West. There are also plans to launch a bridal collection, and relocate the brand’s shop-showroom — which will remain closed for the remainder of 2020 due to Covid-19 — to Washington, D.C. Ms. Mvuemba plans to maintain the original location, in Kensington, Md., as a fulfillment center.

“I don’t want to lose the customer base that got me to this point. I would feel terrible,” said Ms. Mvuemba. “We’re figuring out a way to make it work for most people. I want to hold on to the ladies that got us here.”

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