Backstage at Harlem’s Fashion Row
Photo: Makeda Sandford

Well, well, well ... it’s been real, New York.

This past week, beginning with Harlem Fashion Row’s stunning introduction and ending in a beautifully haunting presentation at Red Hook Labs, entitled “Soft Criminal,” I’ve officially gone through my first ever New York Fashion Week as an aspiring fashion photographer and a relatively new freelance writer. I’ve come out the other side unscathed, ready for multiple drinks and in dire need of my sleep schedule back.

Overwhelming isn’t half of it: Walking into my first backstage at Harlem Fashion Row, surprisingly, felt very comfortable, as I was surrounded by primarily black, young female models, hairstylists and make-up artists. The familiar smell of hairspray filled the room. The music was as if it came right from my own pre-game playlists that get me feeling myself before a Saturday night out. The hairstylist of the hour, Ursula Stephen, held the air of unwavering confidence, which I can only pray to have when I get to my 30s. Even in the midst of the extreme pressure that is presenting a Spring-Summer collection, we were all surrounded by our own kind, and the room’s peacefulness echoed that.

Harlem’s Fashion Row was one for the books. This year’s presentation honored some of the most important names in black talent: Dapper Dan, Bethann Hardison, stylist Jason Rembert and the larger-than-life LeBron James. The fashion presentation featured three unique but aligned shows by black female designers Fe Noel, Undra Duncan and Kimberly Goldson. The collections shared a fierceness, an undeniable femininity and a leisurely edge. The Nike x LeBron collaboration solidified this, and LeBron’s first-ever Nike shoe for women was on display in all its glory. Later, the shoes sold out within minutes.

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This week was the first time in my three months of living in New York City that it all clicked. This is my home. Going back to my Brooklyn apartment after these long nights is no longer going down a winding four-lane highway back to dewey lawns in Asheville, N.C. Now, home looks like a hot Brooklyn stoop where the music and fashion doesn’t stop. And I love it.

Attendee at CurvyCon
Image: Makeda Sandford

I went into last weekend thinking it’d be restful, but Friday came along and I got emails from a couple of people looking for a backup photographer on Saturday. I soon found myself following around a South African designer, photographing his day in the city; and promptly after, photographing street-style photos for Curvy Con for a very trendy magazine.

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By nightfall, I had gigs to shoot for PUBLIC Hotel, a Lower East Side staple where underground culture and trendy celebrities come to play in the basement lounge. They included the Christian Cowan x Bumble and Bumble party and the Richard Bernstein Starmaker book-release party, but my favorite, of course, was shooting for the amazing designer, Telfar Clemons.

I photographed the historical Telfar Global afterparty, alternately meeting and gushing over some of Clemons’ most iconic muses and those of the moment—Alton Mason, Ebonee Davis, Moses Sumney, Selah Marley and Indya Moore. They mingled with already influential icons like the TV goddess Miss Jay Alexander, Christina Paik and Dazed Magazine’s Jefferson Hack.

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Supermodel Ebonee Davis at the Telfar After Party. [originally for PUBLIC Hotel]
Photo: Makeda Sandford

The next evening, I was asked by PUBLIC to slide in and photograph the Tommy Hilfiger SS19 after-party—a whirlwind of celebrity sightings, fashion leaders, and an explosive performance by Travi$ Scott. I spent most of my time there squished by bodyguards, so most of my photos were definitely crap, but seeing Nicki Minaj with a beautifully grumpy face was probably worth it.

Model showing of a popular NYFW season style.
Photo: Makeda Sandford

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Last but not least, I stopped by a Trésemme Master Class to take a peek at the beauty design side of the Fashion Week world. Once again, there was celebrity hairstylist Stephen, doing very descriptive step-by-step looks with bobby pins, and asking the crowd if they used the toothbrush trick for edges. I couldn’t help but chuckle. The fact that black beauty tricks are in style now is incredibly affirming and incredibly ironic; we (black women) went through a moment thinking we weren’t the shit, but we always have been and this NYFW was just another small testament to that.

When I finally found time to attend a NYFW event for pure fun, I chose to go to the “Soft Criminal” opening at Red Hook Labs to see a three-piece collaborative presentation. It mixed together vintage, reworked designs of vaudeville throwbacks and gender-bending looks, with models toting guns, elongated shoes and fake blood. It was an amazing spectacle, and the room was full of black creatives who I’ve long looked up to and are slowly becoming my creative equals. I felt at home in the weirdest, warmest way.

I learned through this intense week of feeling inadequate wearing my trusty Vans, meeting beautiful, affirming black fashion leaders and failing at making deadlines that, wow, this fashion thing is really doable. Tiring? Yes. Do I have a lot to work on? Hell yes. But a lot of the hustle reminded me of what drew me to designing my own “fashion line” in fourth grade, or binge-watching Project Runway through my teens. Seeing your ideas brought to life, being adored and feeling a part of this glossy creative community? It’s all priceless.

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And whew, this fashion thing is in the palms of black people’s hands. We run this.