The Soulhaus
Category: Art & Design


Torrential rain set the mood for the outpouring of love on the sacred grounds of General Grant National Memorial in Harlem last week. Opening NYFW on September 6th, Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) 15th Anniversary Show & Style Awards certainly made a historic entry for the show’s grandeur and scope. Presented by LVMH North America, HFR unveiled its theme of “Future’s Past” over a blissfully long evening of homage, platforming, and jubilant celebration. 

The Soulhaus team caught the backstage action and sat down with the evening’s featured BIPOC designers: Clarence Ruth (Cotte D’Armes, menswear), Johnathon Hayden (womenswear), and Nicole Benefield (sustainable womenswear). Amid the hustle before their HFR debut, we asked the three designers to contemplate the evening’s theme, their design process and references, and the power of HFR.

Harlem’s Fashion Row gathers the diaspora during NYFW 2022 to celebrate the palpable shift in luxury fashion. This year, with world leader in luxury, LVMH, as its history-making sponsor. 

“I am the future’s past.” – Nicole Benefield

HFR is clear that there is no advancing today’s designers without acknowledging the rich and complicated history of Black designers in the fashion industry. “HFR would not exist without the work of Black designers like Lois Alexander Lane, who created the Harlem Institute of Fashion and the Black Fashion Museum,” said Brandice Daniel, CEO & founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row. “We also would not exist without the work of other sartorial pioneers like Ann Lowe, Elizabeth Keckley, and Eunice Johnson. We are moving into the future by reaching back to understand, honor, and pull strength from our past.”

For Nicole Benefield, creator of eponymous label Nicole Benefield Portfolio, the past and future converge in her. “I’ve been in the industry for so long and after 30 years, I’m just launching my own line,” she said. “…So in a way, I’m kind of like the future, looking at my past, my legacy, and what I’ve done in fashion. And now I’m leading my next brand, my new future,who I’m going to be, and finding who I am as a designer.”

Whereas user-experience design lover Johnathan Hayden appreciates “future’s past” through the prism of notable design eras and historic moments. “​​I really like certain eras of design and art, specifically early 19th century art nouveau and some arts and crafts movements,” Hayden said. “I also would say the 60s and the big moments around women’s empowerment, voting, and civil rights.” 

Clarence Ruth, creator of menswear label Cotte D’Armes shared, “Anytime that I’m designing a collection, I like to take the past —or elements inspired by the past — and move it to where it would be in the future. How would we look at this 10 years from now? 20 years from now?”

“A lot of time, I’m exploring: ‘how can we manipulate a rectangle to do different shapes?’” – Johnathan Hayden

The past is omnipresent in the lives and work of BIPOC designers. Personal history, culture and industry moments add to a diverse catalog of reference material and inspirations for their work. Hayden shared how his Japanese identity and culture inform how he sees structure and shapes. Repeating a rectangle motif across capes, skirts, and sleeves, yet twisting, cutting, and embroidering the fabric differently to create unique behaviors. “Kenzō just died,” he explained. “Issey Miyake and then Hanae Mori as well. So three Japanese designers recently passed. And I think, if you look at my collection, some of their influences will be really apparent.Continuing with the HFR theme, Benefield revealed how her past informs her design process. “I always look at the previous collection,” she said. “How do I take that and evolve it? It’s a continuous conversation for me. You know, there are no real start [and] stops, I call them [each new collection] phases.” And similar to Hayden, Benefield also finds herself drawn to shapes. “If you look close enough, there’s this underlying shape that is a curve. It just peppers and spreads all the way through the collection…it riffs off the shape off a chair. A lot of my tear sheets and inspiration sheets come from crafted chairs.”

Inspired by how Virgil Abloh shaped the industry through his take on streetwear and luxury, Ruth is on a quest to merge worlds via design. “I take two different kinds of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily see play together [and] merge them for a fresh perspective that inspires positive change in the industry,” he said.

“HFR is not just important — it’s crucial, it’s needed.” – Clarence Ruth

Ruth sees the mixing of communities and cultures as an opportunity to expand clientele. And in many ways, HFR serves as the ultimate nexus point, bringing different parts of the industry together to support BIPOC designers. “Without a platform like HFR being that middle presence and representing Black and Brown talent, where would we find it?,” said Ruth. 

Likening her HFR experience to a beloved fairy tale, Benefield concurred, “Most Black designers probably don’t come from a place of means … Having HFR literally roll out the red carpet, I feel like Cinderella, ya know? And the pumpkins are going to come at some point, but right now, I just feel like a princess. Having access — and not just any access, but the gold standard of access — that has been my experience. HFR is not something that’s just thrown together. Everything has gone out with such attention to detail, plus the care and the support that they’re giving the designers. Where else could you get that level of mentorship, that level of personalization, that level of care?”

And from the audience’s perspective, the intentionality and investment was palpable. HFR created an invaluable experience for every stakeholder it served, but perhaps none more so than the featured designers. Ruth, Hayden, and Benefield presented their carefully considered and designed wears at the best platform carrying forward the “future’s past” of Black fashion.

Attendees waiting in anticipation of the evening’s presentations by designers Nicole Benefield, Johnathan Hayden, and Clarence Ruth

For more behind-the-scenes coverage of Harlem’s Fashion Row 15th Anniversary Show & Style Awards, visit @thisisthesoulhaus Instagram channel for video footage produced by resident contributor, Raven Irabor.