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Hanifa founder Anifa Mvuemba embraced Congolese heritage in her own way


Written by Skylar Mitchell, CNNWashington DC

In September, as the New York fashion scene converged on the city’s full return to live shows since the Covid-19 pandemic, a much-anticipated brand was absent from the catwalk. Months after receiving a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Foundation grant for emerging designers, Anifa Mvuemba, founder of women’s clothing label Hanifa, opted out of the Manhattan bustle with a simple message to his patrons: “watch out.”

Mvuemba has made a name for itself as leading an independent Black brand, committed to introducing predominantly Black and Brown models, and offering sizes ranging from 0 to 20. Hanifa, based primarily on e-commerce, has been worn by celebrities including Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae.

On November 16, the brand finally held its first live show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC in the glass-ceilinged Kogod courtyard. The Fall Winter 2021 “Hanifa Dream” showcase celebrates the brand’s 10th anniversary and introduces a range of new products alongside classic Hanifa shoes.

Anita Mvuemba celebrates 10 years of Hanifa with a program for autumn-winter 2021 "Hanifa Dream."

Anita Mvuemba celebrated the 10th anniversary of Hanifa’s establishment with the “Hanifa Dream” program autumn-winter 2021. Credit: Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Hanifa

“We were originally supposed to do the show during fashion week, but it didn’t work out. It didn’t feel right,” Mvuemba told CNN after the show. “And I just said, ‘You know what? We’ll do it here.’ I started here (in DC) 10 years ago, and this is where we’re going to do our first show.”

Last year, Mvuemba made headlines for the virtual show of the Spring-Summer 2020 capsule collection held on Instagram Live. Instead of models, clothes are 3D modeled on floating, headless numbers, giving the presentation a spooky feel. The collection itself is a tribute to her Congolese heritage, using distinctive African-influenced colors and silhouettes to pay tribute to the country’s women.
“I’m very intentional about everything I do with this collection,” Mvuemba said at the time on her Instagram page. “If you’re African then you know about African tailors and how important detail is, color is important and print is important too. I really just wanted to use that in my work. this collection, just to pay tribute to African tailors.”
Mvuemba has been recognized by the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Foundation and her style is loved by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae.

Mvuemba has been recognized by the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Foundation and her style is loved by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae. Credit: Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images

In “Hanifa Dream”, Mvuemba ventured into new textiles, debuting knitted dresses, patent leather jackets and structured denim blouses. Texture is a theme on the show, as Hanifa incorporates its signature asymmetrical, structured garments into new tactile mediums. One of the first glimpses is a blue patent leather groove, signifying an extension of this technique.

The Mvuemba label has a history of successfully redefining the concepts of how a fashion brand should reach its audience. Organizing open selection calls for women in the DC area is one of the ways the founder has stay true to this mission throughout its brand development.

“The world is changing, everything is changing, why should we do what everyone else has been doing?” Mvuemba said.

Fashion has seen a proliferation of Black-owned and operated brands, but fashion historian Shelby Ivie Christie says more work remains to be done.

Fashion has seen a proliferation of Black-owned and operated brands, but fashion historian Shelby Ivie Christie says more work remains to be done. Credit: Zara Israel

Sometimes considered a fashion outsider, Mvuemba originally founded her company without outside funding, and she’s grown her own fan base while continuing to work from the studio. Her Maryland. A lot of the brand’s visibility has dwindled due to its relationships with historic Black publications like Essence magazine, and people of color in the fashion, media, and entertainment spaces.

Mvuemba, a Congolese, is heavily influenced by African culture and design, but she says she doesn't want to be labeled an African designer because it's unfair.

Mvuemba, a Congolese, is heavily influenced by African culture and design, but she says she doesn’t want to be labeled an African designer because it’s unfair. Credit: Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Hanifa

“When I started, I didn’t want to be labeled an African designer because they were in a separate category,” says Mvuemba. “I always use African culture in my tailoring, which is very important. You see the seams, you see the structure, you see the fine prints. So I just wanted to stay there. that and do it my own way. And that’s why I’ve been doing it since I started.”

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