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Hanifa’s Washington Debut

The brand known for pioneering virtual fashion finally met its audience in real life, giving a glimpse into designer Anifa Mvuemba’s long term ambitions.
Looks from Hanifa's Autumn/Winter 2021 show. Courtesy.
Looks from Hanifa's Autumn/Winter 2021 show. Courtesy.

WASHINGTON, D.C — On Tuesday night in the nation’s capital, over 400 guests filed into The National Portrait Gallery to see if Hanifa designer Anifa Mvuemba could surprise them again.

Some attendees were introduced to the Maryland-based womenswear brand through its viral digital show last year, others had followed the brand since its launch in 2011. The audience was predominantly Black, a rarity within traditional fashion shows, and many were from D.C. or the surrounding area. Other guests included fellow designers and peers such as Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond, recent CFDA winner Edvin Thompson of Theophilio and Black Fashion Fair founder Antoine Gregory.

In the front row, guests who wore entire looks from the brand — feathered duster jackets, knits and patterned maxi dresses all in her signature bright colours — found their seats under the fuschia lighting. A string orchestra died down and a video played on a projector showing the brand’s previous designs and press clippings in quick succession, with Mvuemba’s voice narrating her brand’s vision and journey to the show to cheers and whoops from the audience.

The collection was her largest to date, featuring over 30 looks including footwear and expanding upon Mvuemba’s previous themes, including coloured knitwear and structured suiting. One attendee told BoF they would be buying several looks from the collection, carefully watching the brand’s website on their phone at the afterparty.

The event served as something of a culmination of the past year for Mvuemba. Following the brand’s viral digital show last May, she’s since received the support and accolades reserved for promising independent designers including a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist award, a profile in The New York Times and placement on a magazine cover shoot featuring Zendaya. Last night confirmed again Mvuemba’s growing presence in the industry, one that on the whole has historically left out both Black designers and those that produce and show outside of fashion capitals.

“You don’t need to be [a] creative in New York City to make it all the time,” said Devine Blacksher, an editor for The Cut that has covered Hanifa. “But you do need to do something that’s going to have everyone talking about it.”

Tuesday’s show gave a glimpse at the brand’s long-term ambitions, signalling a large increase in production from her previous capsule collections and a big step towards scaling the brand independently. The question now is how it can translate its current momentum into longer-term financial growth that relies less on viral social media moments and more on a business model that can scale.

A Measured Path

Like many other bootstrapped small businesses, Hanifa struggled when the pandemic first hit. Part of the brand’s staff was laid off, while the rest, Mvuemba included, took significant pay cuts.

In an attempt to sustain the business, in May, Mvuemba debuted her Pink Label Congo collection, an ode to her family’s home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in her first-ever fashion show.

But instead of staging a satellite collection or doing a filmed show, Mvuemba used 3-D animation and a video production team to render her pieces digitally. The models were shapeless digital avatars whose forms were only visible through the clothes themselves, revealing a cast of ruched fabrics and cut-outs in the absence of a mould.

With that show, Mvuemba did what has since proved to be difficult, even for top designers: putting on a virtual fashion show that actually delivers a compelling experience for viewers. The ten-minute livestream of the show went viral, which led to a surge in orders and press attention for Hanifa.

“I know it’s probably not realistic, but I always think about that [show]. Just like ‘Oh my god, how are we going to top this thing? Like, can we top this thing ever?’” said Mvuemba. “It’s one of those things that you can’t replicate.”

Hanifa hired The Hinton Group to handle its public relations last year, which helped maintain press coverage and land several celebrity moments. So far in 2021, Bella Hadid, Tracee Ellie Ross and Padma Lakshmi have all worn Hanifa, as well as actress Natasha Rothwell on-screen in HBO’s hit show “Insecure.”

“I think the brand resonates with consumers and stylists because it feels considered — you can tell that Hanifa has prioritised the shape and the needs of a woman with curves,” said stylist Shiona Turini, who styled Ellis Ross and Rothwell in Hanifa.

Building Long Term

Following the virtual show’s initial success, Mvuemba has tread carefully, avoiding a path to rapid product expansion and wholesale distribution that’s plagued many other emerging designers.

Instead, Mvuemba has released a series of small capsule and resort collections — which often only consist of five or six pieces — as well as a new line of shoes. Demand has been consistent. The last capsule collection of six pieces brought in $100,000 in sales on its first day. And over the past year, she was also able to slowly build back her team, which now consists of 10 full-time employees.

She has maintained control over the business, with fulfilment and most of the production done in-house. The brand is still solely direct-to-consumer, though Mvuemba said that could change with the right partner and deal.

Even amid growth, Mvuemba remains wary of taking on unnecessary costs for the business she bootstrapped. Her tax refund served as Hanifa’s seed funding; prior to the $50,000 grant she received from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in April of this year, the business had received no outside funding.

She continues to work in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where the creative spaces are cheaper and living costs are lower. The brand currently has no physical stores or pop-ups and relies on low-cost marketing methods, like Mvuemba’s own social media channels and email campaigns, to spread awareness.

“She’s on a path that is defined by choices she’s making, not choices that are dictated to her by industry standards,” said Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA.

The brand was originally set to show during New York Fashion Week this year, but Mvuemba ultimately opted out: the costs were too high, the schedule too hectic, the team wasn’t ready.

She’s making clothes that are going to hang in women’s closets for a very long time.

She decided instead that her brand’s ten year anniversary should be held in her hometown. Her assistant recommended The National Portrait Gallery as a venue, and a visit to the space left her “speechless.”

The show cost over $150,000, approximately $25,000 of which was the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize money. It was a major investment for the brand: her previous virtual show featured six looks and cost under $6,000 to produce.

“It’s one thing to sell a small collection with a limited number of pieces. Now the question is how to scale to margins, more countries, many more products and how to go bigger,” said Audrey Depraeter-Montacel, director of beauty, fashion and luxury at Accenture, adding that each step of scaling a brand will require significant investments “to sustain the brand visibility.”

The challenge for Hanifa going forward is to find that balance. Unlike her last show, only a few pieces from this collection will be ready for immediate purchase. Mvuemba instead used live online reactions to the show to gauge demand, with manufacturers on standby to begin production on certain looks.

“[It’s] the permanence of what she does,” said Kolb. “She’s making clothes that are going to hang in women’s closets for a very long time.”

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