By Cherokee Black
With Harlem Fashion Week Red Carpet ready, founders Yvonne Jewnell and Tandra Yvonne Birkett share with us their vision, extraordinary style along their mission to empower African-American designers globally.
Cherokee Black: Yvonne you are young and very gifted, an award-winning innovator, designer, visionary, creative director as well co-owner of Harlem Fashion Week with your mother Tandra Yvonne Birkett. At what age did you feel fashion in your soul and was your mother your inspiration?
Yvonne: At the age of 7 years old I found my true love of creative arts and fashion. Once my mother noticed my interest in fashion she began enrolling me in classes and workshops that furthered my skills in the arts.
CB: Tandra, as an education advocate /activist/motivational speaker Yvonne was raised with her cultural identity intact, through awareness, music, and pride. When did you notice Yvonne’s interest in researching and creating designs to celebrate our ethnicity in a way to educate and dress us to beconﬁdent and empowered in our own identity?
Tandra: I noticed her interest in cultural design when she used cowrie shells as the focus of her collection in her ﬁrst fashion show at 16 years old. Where other designers may use sequins, and or other embellishments, Yvonne used shells from her heritage.
CB: The theme was “Concrete Jungle” you Yvonne was 16 in 2008, tell us how your ﬁrst show’s success felt in High School and the response from your peers. Inspiration for young readers?
Yvonne: Surreal was the immediate feeling that came over me after my ﬁnale walk and bows on stage at Rutgers University. It was my very ﬁrst show. I was 16 years old and surrounded by so many adults who complimented my collection and respected me as a peer. It was at this moment that I knew I had my purpose and was exactly where I belonged. Amongst my peers, I soon would become an example and the proof that you can accomplish your dreams and do what you love.
CB: Tandra, most young girls turning 18 want a party, how exciting was it in 2010 to plan a real live fashion Show introducing your daughter to the world?
Tandra: As a parent I was extremely excited to help launch her career through a fashion show. I feel it showed her potential and willingness to develop her brand at a young age.
CB: Yvonne, now you have a Lifestyle Fashion Brand that celebrates all cultures while enhancing the cultural identity of women of color globally. How does it feel to inspire a new generation?
Yvonne: It is the ultimate goal of Yvonne Jewnell New York to inspire young developing youth to celebrate their culture and follow their dreams. As a young woman of color from a single-parent household with Jamaican heritage, I want the youth of our community to know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, just DON’T QUIT.
CB: Tandra, we know you are working on the upcoming Harlem Fashion Week 2021 in September. Can you give our readers the details so they can attend the event and/or access it virtually?
Tandra: Harlem Fashion Week: The Runway Shows will present Season 9 LIVE to share the exciting fashion show with national and international fashion fans. The show will present in three tiers:
3:00 PM Show
- Maison Zelani
- House of Q
- House of Vaughn
- Karma DePrince
- Scarf Dressing
- Naids FashionYves Luc
4:30 PM | Emerging Designer Show
- Rize Of RIZRC
- Jackson Long Island
- Void Asylum
- Hiari Strong
6:00 PM Showifly Universe
- Lips Couture by Sharon
- Nothing to Wear
- Koko Mystique
- Styles of Imagination
- Yvonne Wingﬁeld
- United Icons
- Bombazo Wear (r).
CB: Yvonne, moving into the 21st Century Harlem Fashion Week is a welcomed link between the tight-knit Downtown Fashion Scene and Uptown. What inspired you to take on the task of creating a space for our own emerging designers?
Yvonne: When we ﬁrst started Harlem Fashion Week, I was a recent college graduate from Parsons: School of Fashion and a young emerging designer eager to break into the fashion industry. I would get invited to some many shows but most of the high-end industry shows, we couldn’t aﬀord. I remember it like it was yesterday, receiving a welcome letter to join a fashion week production with a participation fee of $10,000.00 for only 10Looks. This was the moment that I began to imagine how many other black designers were in my predicament and were losing out on opportunities because of a lack of funding, not creativity. This is why Harlem Fashion Week was born, to provide a platform for Emerging Designers to present their collection to the fashion community on a main stage during NYFW.
CB: Tandra, Harlem Fashion Week is now recognized and covered by the press and over 100 publications worldwide and you are recognized, respected and loved in 38 countries. How does it feel to be a mother and daughter team from Harlem to go beyond your dreams and expectations?
Tandra: It is amazing to begin to see that you have worked hard on and put time and energy into turning your vision into a marketable brand. When Harlem Fashion Week was founded I was a single mother of a 20 something-year-old daughter with no ﬁnances but a vision to create a platform for emerging designers just like my daughter Yvonne. In our experience, we realized how diﬃcult it wasﬁnancially for new designers to be given an opportunity. It is exciting and amazing to see this vision manifest into one of the most respected independent fashion show productions.
CB: Yvonne, your demographic is women 18 to 45 plus and multi-cultured. Your designs are inspired by the symbolism of current local and world events, history, our Afro, Native, Latin roots and are colorful, bold, and vibrant. What else inspires you and can you share any surprises? We love exclusives.
Yvonne: The goal behind the brand is to celebrate culture throughout the African Diaspora. I am inspired most by saturated colors and bold prints. I am currently working with Nigerian tailors overseas and Henry Tailor in Harlem to produce a menswear collection that will be debuted in 2022.
CB: Tandra, there may be a mother and daughter or son and father reading this article. What advice would you give them if they want to follow in both your pumps?
Tandra: Number one, identify your vision. And I mean clearly identify your vision. Number two plan the strategy to make that vision a reality. Number 3 do your research and network network network. Never be afraid to go to new places and meet new people in order to build your brand. Just go for it! Build relationships! I remember going to an event Constance White was hosting, and my goal was to make sure I left with her contact. I did not leave that event until I was able to speak with her manager or publicist. We began to network with people in the fashion industry to have them be a part of our brand. Number 4 Be authentic. Create an identity of your brand that is yours, don’t try to be like anyone else. Number 5 don’t be afraid to take a chance. One thing is to strive to create the best professional image of your brand. We would have not accomplished anything if we did not try to take risks, take a leap of faith, we had to believe in ourselves ﬁrst if we wanted anyone else to believe in us. We wanted to come from being an underground fashion show to being a mainstream show while keeping our authenticity.
CB: Yvonne and Tandra, COVID and BLM (Black Lives Matter) have been the two words of the last 1-2 years that are a familiar part of our lexicon today. How has either of these two words aﬀected your life? And how do you think it will aﬀect fashion (if it will)?
Yvonne and Tandra: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the fashion industry beyond measure. We watched large corporations come to an end and designer brick and mortars close their doors. Out of all this turmoil, it is quintessential for designers to arise from the underground platform; to reclaim their creativity as a beacon of inspiration for a new fashion world.
If you have any questions or need more information do not hesitate to contact us to writer Cherokee Black.
Check out other Interviews on HWM.
Photo credit: Tone Rapp Fleming shot during rehearsal for the 2021 upcoming show.