Brooklyn’s Fashion Melting Pot: Who are the African, Caribbean, Asian and Latino Fashion Designers in Brooklyn?
by Bonnie Sandy Sterling, May 2006
In an industry where a shooting star could take years to rise, Brooklyn’s independent designers stand out for the uniqueness of their designs. Many foreign design students who come to attend New York’s design schools opt to settle closer to relatives, which often means living in Brooklyn. For designers who are immigrants, or children of immigrants. Brooklyn Style is steeped in traditions passed from generation to generation, alive with ethnic pride and global design references and fueled by the energy and daring of the borough’s diverse “masses yearning to breathe free.”
Trying to identify a designer’s heritage from her designs may not always be as easy as spotting a sari or kimono. In a multicultural atmosphere, today’s Brooklyn designer is marketing to an urban, more modern version of her grandmother! Asian: mention an Asian aesthetic and closely fitted sheathes with asymmetrical necklines in exotic silks come to mind. Or traditional kimonos with large obi, maybe even a traditional sari.
More and more designers influenced by Asian culture are making a name for themselves in Brooklyn. Yvonne Chu was selected last year as one of Brooklyn’s Best. Her collection of silk shantung dresses and separates, inspired by her Asian heritage, is a wearable line designed for today’s professional woman with a sense of personal style. Her fabric of choice: silk shantung. Her clothing reflects the clean lines of the Asian aesthetic, and her color palette is both austere and daring.
Like many of these designers, she practices social responsibility and a sort of community solidarity by mentoring and including other designers in the creative process.
Kimera’s West of East, a label created by Kristine Burkhardt a Brooklyn resident from the Midwest, reflects her decision to blend her love of Asian costume with a Midwestern aesthetic. Kimera’s dresses are often identifiable by the large contrasting borders. Like many of these designers, she brings with her the responsibility to community and soon mentor or include other designers. Her work can be found at http://www.kimeradesign.com.
Luisa Giugliano’s line Umkarna, named for and inspired by her husband Rishi’s Kashmiri grandmother, strives to honor the elder in its ethical foundation. Luisa and her husband opted to engage in fair trade protocol, providing employment for families whose traditional life and cultural art form were being threatened by India’s growing affinity for Western culture and clothing.
Their women’s and children’s garments in Kadi silks, hand block-printed cottons and intricately hand-embroidered kantha, borrow from the extravagant prints, bold colors and intense details of traditional Indian culture. The line is nevertheless designed for an urban, modern woman. Louisa borrows from the simpler silhouettes of long tops/tunics over pants /skirts, sometimes incorporating the rich fabrics of her Italian heritage to create distinctive designs. Her work can be found at the shop by the same name at 69 Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, or online at http://www.umkarna.com (SITE IS NO LONGER UP).
Brooklyn is home to one of the largest indigenous ethnic groupings of independent designers. Normally classified simply as African-American designers, on further examination this grouping subdivides into African, African-American and Caribbean designers. To the untrained eye, it is easy to miss the subtle design influences within this grouping: the soft couture draping suggesting French influences; the multitude of variations in embroidery and embellishment, both in terms of technique, pattern, color and material.
Using rigid lines influenced by the English bespoke tailoring tradition (a tailor who makes your clothes individually, to your specific personal requirements, is called “bespoke”) they force and mold their garments into avant-garde shapes. Patchwork, growing out of the economic necessity of slaves’ domestic economy, has now evolved and is a prevalent feature in African-American design. Even tie–dye, emerging as a significant trend in Brooklyn, varies in style and technique across these cultural groups. These designers run the gamut from traditional clothiers, to hip urban, to contemporary and even avant garde.
For the most part, Brooklyn’s African designers keep close to their traditional lines, even when offering contemporary designs. In keeping with traditional cultural practice, the older, more established designers support and nurture the relative newcomers. Elijah Fashions on Myrtle Avenue emerged from Raif Atelier, while veterans Moshood and Nigerian Fashion and Fabrics (no longer open) often present newcomers at their boutiques. Among them, another winner from last year’s Best of Brooklyn design show, German-educated Nigerian Gureje Babatunde Olujimi has set up his Village @ Gureje as a platform for evolving design aesthetics and artistry.
On the other end, Liberian H’wowane L Johnnie’s HLJ Designs could easily fit into any Soho lounge. Emerging African-American Designers, including Harriet’s Alter Ego, Pamela Jackson from Distinctive Darlings by PJ, Nakimulu Design and Bohemian Soul all voice their creativity through cleverly designed young urban lines that are as contemporary, creative, youthful and energetic as the designers themselves All are finding creative ways of reaching their audience, designer Takiyah Jerome manages to blend this creativity, producing a commercially thriving line that is sought by boutiques across the country.
Designers from the Caribbean, on the other hand, tend to emphasize workmanship, veering toward custom or bespoke tailoring, catering to individual clientele rather than a retail audience: check out Gold Teeth from Guyana; Bashy, Courtney Washington, Osun Designs and Soft-Line from Jamaica. Three West Indian designers were chosen among last years Best of Brooklyn: Haiti’s Mryjan Bridal, and Trinidad’s Carla Selby and Bonnie and Clyde 2 Ya.
In Brooklyn, cultures meet and inspire, adopt and feed off one another – This is emerging as a distinctive trend, human migratory patterns creating a unique Brooklyn Style. These are but a handful of creative Brooklynites making a mark and helping to center Brooklyn as much more than a footnote in New York City’s design history. The vastness of Brooklyn’s urban expanse has led to another development that might puzzle those looking to spot the epicenter of this budding fashion movement: many designers’ workshops are not in downtown commercial spaces, but in homes and apartments throughout the borough. And this phenomenon begs the question: how can Brooklyn’s talented designers access quality workspace and showrooms at affordable rates in the downtown area?
As we go to press, many of these designers are hard at work preparing for the hectic summer season with shows, sales and vending opportunities coming soon to a location near you. Just take a look at http://www.brooklynfashiongallery.com for details on these and other Brooklyn designers.
Bonnie Sandy Sterling is an avid fan of Brooklyn, New York as a shopping destination. Last year, she was selected as one of Booklyn Borough President’s fashion designers for Brooklyn’s Best Show. She explores the boroughs and communities to find the best selections of designers, locally created fashion, clothing and accessories. She runs the A-liners, a project that documents Brooklyn’s fashion designers and launched www.BROOKLYNFASHIONGALLERY.com and http://www.demarketplace.com online portals to support creative independent enterprises.