Photo Credit: Yvonne Jewnell
Meet The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind Harlem Fashion Week
From age seven, as a student taking multiple art classes at Harlem School of the Arts, Yvonne Jewnell knew fashion design was her future. She followed her intuition to The High School of Fashion Industries, a specialized high school for aspiring designers and fashionistas, all the way to the famed Parsons School of Design where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and fashion design.
Jewnell’s passion has taken her to fashion shows around the world. One of her proudest moments was capturing the emerging designer award at Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica, her family’s native land. In 2010, together with her mother Tandra Birkett, an educator and youth developer, Jewnell started producing charity shows in their Harlem community.
This partnership would lay the groundwork for Harlem Fashion Week, a celebration of culture and community that provides a platform for rising stars in the fashion design industry.
After a Covid-fueled hiatus in 2020, the event is making a comeback for season 9 featuring a Black Lives Matter fashion exhibition, a business of fashion symposium, femme forward awards ceremony and of course a highly anticipated fashion show, complete with a virtual broadcast.
Travel Noire spoke to Jewnell, founder of fashion design company Yvonne Jewnell New York LLC, about the importance of Harlem as a backdrop, diversity in the fashion industry, and what it’s really like working with mom.
Travel Noire: Why was it so important to you to bring Fashion Week to Harlem?
Yvonne Jewnell: Harlem is the mecca for just Black Americans if you think about the plight of African Americans in the 1920s, and how the Harlem Renaissance has always been the hub that everyone kind of traveled to for a source of inspiration. So it’s only right not only for it to be our hometown, but also a place where we have a resurgence of this kind of Harlem Renaissance. It’s bringing it back and reminding people of what they once enjoyed. So for us, it’s very much the 21st century Harlem Renaissance and no better place to do it.
TN: What’s it like working with your mom? How does that dynamic change in a business setting?
YJ: Amazing, actually. We’ve had our ups and downs, like any mother and daughter do, but our goal is so much more important than any of that. There’s been times when we have an argument, and we have a meeting at three, and we’ll both be at the meeting (laughs). We may not talk about anything family related, however, the business is the business. And I think that’s the most amazing thing. But I really want to inspire other family to kind of do that. You can work with your family members. And I know that’s something that sometimes people are nervous about, but it is possible.
TN: Diversity is very important to you. How does it factor into Harlem Fashion Week? You have global support and it seems very multicultural.
YJ: Starting out in the fashion industry, I experienced a lot of marginalization between people of color, and I’d say Asians and Europeans — it was very much divided. And our goal for Harlem Fashion Week, as a designer myself experiencing the division, is to find a place of unity, find a place of celebrating diversity, celebrating multiple cultures, and finding a way to bring us all together and experience art and fashion in a new way on our platform. So that was the goal for us — to go against what was already the norm, you have to either be in the in crowd or you have to kind of be down with these people. We wanted to make sure that wasn’t Harlem Fashion Week.
We’ve traveled and every time we travel, we make a big deal of networking. We went to London, we’ve worked with a few notable PR and brand strategists as well as when we were in West Africa for Dakar Fashion Week. Other countries actually gained interest for our shows, due to a Vogue Italia article. That was amazing. The article was not only shared in New York, but it was shared in all the other countries which are subscribed to them.
TN: What can we look forward to at this year’s event?
YJ: Every year we bring a new flavor, we bring a new vibe. But really what to expect I’d say is for having the Black Lives Matter exhibition, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that really took us by storm during the COVID-19 pandemic, where we witnessed just a really terrible murder. We wanted our designers to have an opportunity to speak not just in words, but in art, and art is healing. And right now in our country and our world we’re desperately in need of healing.
The celebration runs from September 3rd to the 5th. For more information and tickets visit the site.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.