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What Hanifa wants the fashion industry to learn




Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: courtesy of Hanifa

On a recent warmer than usual fall day, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, was decked out in pink lighting, Hanifa-engraved chairs on the back, a pale pink carpet as a runway, and from a live orchestra that was performing songs like Drakes Laugh Now Cry Later. Anifa Mvuemba, the 31-year-old founder behind Hanifa, was doing her first fashion show. Mvuemba never intended to have a parade. In fact, she built her brand by breaking the standards of the fashion industry. But earlier this year, as she pondered how she would celebrate a decade of her brand, she started planning one.

The big day had finally arrived. Hundreds of industry professionals, fellow designers and fans of the brand, including some of the housewives of the Potomac, gathered to watch her designs take to the runway. Black models sporting a variety of sleek hairstyles, natural curls and finger waves and varying sizes wore iconic colorful knits, overly cuffed pants and a royal blue patent leather coat.

Mvuemba has generated a lot of interest in her designs, which are kissable and specially designed for tall bodies and curves. In fact, they’re the reason she built her brand selling direct to consumers on Instagram and on her site. She relies solely on the community of women who follow her and buy her creations. Even when we haven’t had a lot of support from the industry, our customers and our community know we’re seeing them, and that makes a huge difference, she said.

Hanifa design.
Photo: Shannon Finney / Getty Images

Her last fashion show reflected these women. Plus-size models, who are usually sent to the catwalk with confident looks like long black dresses on other shows, instead wore sultry sheer jumpsuits, bodycon dresses and bold prints. The crowd applauded and gave a standing ovation to Mvuemba.

The brand’s philosophy may have started a decade ago, but the casting began just a week before the show. Mvuemba wanted to launch local models instead of flying into big names in places like New York and Paris. There is so much talent in DC, Mvuemba said. She collaborated with the casting director Kat Mateo, known for defying conventional industry standards and has chosen brands like Pyer Moss. Mvuemba says Mateo just understands. Together, they sought to book women who looked like his consumers. Women’s bodies are a big story for the brand, and it’s important to show it, she said. The woman she’s talking to, she said, can wear a size 2, but she also wears a size 12 and 16.

Models lined up to be part of the Hanifa show in Washington, DC
Photo: Courtesy of Hanifa

More than 130 women lined up with their headshots to try their luck at being thrown. Whether I get it or not, I’ll be rooted for you and watch the show, one model said.

In the lobby of the casting hotel, Mateo explained that she thinks the lack of community is what holds many designers in the industry who don’t care about being so inclusive. If our consumers are ordinary people, why would we encourage them to look at a standard that is not real? Mateo asked. The track reflects the times, and the days of a simple blonde girl walking are over. We should represent what we see on the street every day.

Being included in the size goes beyond the trail for Mvuemba. Each of its collections goes up to at least a 2XL. She knows changing the industry’s sizing standards isn’t easy, especially as a young black designer with fewer resources than the big houses, but for her, that’s no excuse. It might be uncomfortable for people, but I also feel like they just don’t want to, she said. Instead, she said, they get a plus size model for making plus size pieces and a smaller fit model for other sizes.

In the casting world, Mateo has said the apologies are not far off, but she believes labels like Hanifa are leading the way for everyone. She also believes that not seeing diversity on the catwalk, whether it’s her body, her hair or her race, has a lot to do with people getting stuck in their ways.

It’s the hold-up. It shouldn’t be that hard. Look around you, she said. It’s over, and if you choose not to see it, 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 them what it should be like. Mateo added that leaving out a whole sector of people is not doing your due diligence as a casting director.

Casting director Kat Mateo, left, and Anifa Mvuemba, the 31-year-old founder behind Hanifa.
Photo: Courtesy of Hanifa

What made casting for a Hanifa show different was that in addition to the look, the casting directors were looking for women with personality and self-confidence. They did this by creating a fun environment for the models to just be themselves instead of focusing on what they thought the judges’ table wanted to see. When asked about her height, one model said, “I’m five-four, but my stance is six feet. They included her in the show.

With fashion, there are all of these criteria that you have to meet to be the perfect person. Here it is different, it could be your personality or what you think of yourself, says Mateo. This is Hanifa’s message: everyone can be fabulous and everyone can be beautiful.

Besides the community, the show was a celebration of what the brand has been up to over the past decade. Mvuemba wanted to display his pieces in a metamorphosis, by organizing a range of colors that followed one another on the track. She said: We have often learned not to accept change, but I celebrate it.




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