Harlem has birthed some of fashion’s most influential figures. It is the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that inspired Black creativity through music, fashion, hair, art, and literature. The Harlem Renaissance propelled Black expression, which was personified through luxurious wardrobes that aided in shifting the negative perception of Blacks during the Great Migration. If fashion wears stilettos, Harlem was her stomping ground.
With the arrival of Starz’s vibrant new series Run The World, which centers in the heart of Harlem’s eclectic Brownstone-lined blocks, Harlem is as much a character on the show as our “Sisterhood” issue cover star Bresha Webb.
Pioneers like haberdasher Dapper Dan launched his iconic Dapper Dan Boutique in a Brownstone, in the 80s and 90s, turning high-end designs into custom fits that would shape the hip-hop landscape. Lana Turner never officially worked in fashion, but her Sunday styles have made her a Harlem fashion icon.
We celebrate these Harlem fashion icons for their contributions to the fashion industry as a whole.
Dapper Dan and Harlem go together like the double G logo. In fact, you can’t mention Dapper Dan without mentioning Harlem, without mentioning Gucci. Known as the “king of knock-offs,” Dapper Dan catered to celebrity clientele, through his Harlem workshop in the 80s and 90s, fitting rap acts like Eric B. and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J. and Jay Z.
At the time, the non-existent relationship between Italian brands and the hip-hop community resulted in unfair treatment. He’d often faced rejection because of his race and birthplace; so he created his own lane. His expertise in textile printing allowed him to recreate the logos of brands like Fendi, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton that he transformed into one-of-a-kind lucrative designs. He is credited with introducing hip-hop to high fashion.
One of his most iconic pieces is the jacket he created for Salt-N-Pepa for their 1988 single cover “Push It.” Dan, despite being shunned by the fashion community for years, has more-recently been embraced by the industry that once turned its back on him. In 2018, he collaborated with Gucci on a highly-anticipated collection that brought his journey full circle.
Lana Turner never leaves her apartment without a statement piece. Regarded as a local fashion icon, Turner’s style is legendary. Often seen in flamboyant chapeaus or embellished gloves paired with a lace fan and different handbags, she is “Sunday’s Best” personified. The Harlem icon infused her faith and personal style to continue Harlem’s eccentric fashion legacy.
Turner is known for her vintage collection of 500 hats, according to The New Yorker, that she wears around town. Her style was inspired by her parents, who worked as a chauffeur and chambermaid.
Turner was the muse of Dario Calmese’s “Amongst Friends” exhibit, which explores the intersectionality of faith and fashion. Former Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley wrote in the foreword, “She is reborn every single Sunday through the rituals and universal codes of deportment, carriage, and dress. It becomes as important as words, as the hymns… the rituals of the Black Church on Sunday morning resonate in every intersection of the universe.”
Pat Cleveland is a pioneer in the modeling industry. Cleveland, raised in East Harlem, is one of the first Black models to achieve success on the runway and in print in the 60s.
Cleveland was signed to Wilhelmina Models by the time she was 18 and in 1970, made her first appearance on Vogue after being rejected by many fashion brands due to her race.
The supermodel started her modeling agency in Milan and appeared as a guest on America’s Next Top Model hosted by Tyra Banks. Currently, Cleveland is a mom and runs a family-owned business named House of VRC where she combines fashion and art in her collections.
Photographer Kwame Braithwaite was instrumental in popularizing the phrase “Black is Beautiful” in the 60s during the Civil Rights movement. Though Braithwaite was born in Brooklyn he is most famous for his documentation of Harlem and Africa.
In 1960, his processing technique made Black skin-pop in photographs. He made Black beautiful for those living during that time by experimenting with timing exposures. One of his most famous images is one with a modeling group with natural hairstyles. Braithwaite also hosted pageants and staged the first series of pageants that only feature Black models. His work intentionally challenged oppressive norms while highlighting Black beauty.