Wed. May 29th, 2024

As the fashion and entertainment industry buzz online about “The Garden in Time” dress code for the First Monday in May, also better known as the MET Gala, celebrating the opening of the exhibit entitled “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, it seemed very synchronous that I got to report on the ‘BLK Beauty in the Garden’ Fashion Show for this installment of EXPRESS YO’SELF RVA.

This fashion show was a 2-day weekend presentation that occurred at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), right before the start of RVAFW which occurred April 22nd to the 28th. While the fashion show was not officially a part of RVAFW, this show was the brainchild of LA Ricks who founded and Co-directs BLK Runway, a creative collective of Black artists, fashion professionals, and students from VCU who have all come together with the singular goal of highlighting Black beauty and fashion talent in Richmond since July of 2023.

When I asked Ricks about the theme for this year’s second annual show, she invited me to visualize a rose: she explained that for a rose to blossom, it must start from a seed in soil. Through time, that unsuspecting seed of abundant beauty pulls nutrients from the soil to support its growth into the flower we are so familiar with. She compares this proverbial rose to the myriad of ways Black people in America have managed to continually find ways to become roses even in environments that aren’t particularly nurturing of their highest potential. 

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The “BLK Beauty in the Garden” Fashion Show showed twelve Black designer’s interpretations of Black Beauty. (Photo courtesy of Christian Chambers)

Ricks, who is a Photography and Film student at VCU, is very interested in creating media that reminds Black people of their power. The ‘BLK Beauty in the Garden’ Fashion Show was a physical manifestation of that reminder. While Ricks is not a student of fashion, let alone fashion show production, she understood how fashion shows are one way to communicate large ideas. With the support of her BLK Runway team, she and her Co-Director/best friend, Parys Pannell, selected twelve local Black designers to highlight various visual manifestations of Black stories highlighting how each designer interpreted Black beauty.

VCU Painter and Printmaker, Rose Cumisky, tested her own artistic expansion by designing a fashion collection she entitled,  “Dogwood Couture” (Photo courtesy of Christian Chambers

An interesting fact about most of the designers is that, for most of them, it was their first venture into fashion design. In my fashion there appears to be more contemporary artists exploring the intersectionality of design as it can be applied to fashion, especially as we seek to be more environmentally-conscious. It emphasizes how artists of today are taking more labeless, and thus more limitless approaches to how they express themselves creatively, not being defined by one medium as artists once strove to be. Rose Cumisky was one of these designers trying their hand at a new medium even though she is a Painter and Printmaking major at VCU. With her collection entitled, “Dogwood Couture ”, she explains that it was difficult for her to pull designs cleanly into three dimensional space. “While I put a lot of emphasis on the textural and pictorial elements of the collection, the silhouettes are my best attempt at achieving a comprehensive elegance,” stated Cumisky, all of which was clearly visible in the collection she presented. In my fashion, her contemplation on a “comprehensive elegance” was most curious and shows the elevated level of design conceptualization characteristic of celebrated and monumental designers of the fashion industry. 

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The exhibition book, HUSSEIN CHALAYAN (2005), explores features and key themes of the designer’s eponymous brand from the years 1993 to 2005. Above is a synopsis of his SS04 collection, ‘Temporal Meditations’. Take note of the print in the teacup and the below photos from his collection. 

For instance, the designer that came to my mind when viewing her collection walk the runway was Turkish Designer, Hussein Chalyan, and how he approached his SS04 collection entitled “Temporal Meditation”. While the silhouettes created within the collection were classically beautiful and overtly explored feminine silhouettes of elegance by use of body-con tailoring and ruffle design details, the print explored the historical battle between the Ottomans and Venetians against the backdrop of a contemporary landscape of Turkish seafront architectures, an homage and poignant reminder of the political strife the Turkish region endured amidst its present day displays of commercial luxury.

Looks from Hussein Chalayan SS04 Temporal Meditations Collection. Upon closer look of the prints one can see the underlying messages of identity as it relates to Greek and Turkish Cypriots as described in the book. (Photos courtesy of Researchgate.net)

Details of Rose Cumisky’s collection  “Dogwood Couture”. Cumisky’s thoughtfulness towards fabric usage and the elegance of the masculine silhouette through the lens of African Art and nature shows an industry level understanding of creating clothes bathed in integrity and cultural relevance. (Photo courtesy of Christian Chambers

Cumisky explored a blend of traditional African Art, haute couture historical costume, and nature to  create her own code of fabric usage by manipulating intricately detailed or patterned upholstery  to mimic the complex design languages of banknotes. While the silhouettes she created are more masculine in feel, the mix of flowy yet substantial fabrics helped to support a version of masculinity that can be worn by all genders in a way that indicates luxury by the sheer thoughtfulness in alternative design materials. This complex and cohesive mix of inspiration creates this delectable and indelible impression on our psyche that conjures a deep resonance that surpasses the base function of clothes as purely physical protection, transcending into an emotional connection that inspires creative loyalty on a personal level. 

All of the looks from Shea Anderson’s collection entitled “Deer” (Anderson is pictured in middle of bottom right photo – Photos courtesy of Savannah Bartlett

While watching Shea Anderson’s collection, entitled ‘Deer’ (above), it was a seminal moment for me as a man, and especially as a Black man, to feel connected to the very specific feeling of being a son to a father who built things. “Painting with my dad, we often had to deconstruct walls and rooms in order to repaint them…Similarly to how Black people in America managed to reconstruct our own stories and futures after being taken and stripped away from our homes and deconstructed into being looked at as lesser, we fought back and reconstructed ourselves and kept building off of the beautiful culture we created.”

I saw Anderson’s collection before I knew anything about him, and I got chills down my spine when I asked him about the origins of his collection that I described to him as ‘Painter-chic’. Whilst both of us identify more as artists than handymen like our fathers,  He described a memory that was a large part of my childhood as well through his collection. As we reflected on this experience, we can now look back with gratitude and nostalgia even though one can imagine our aversion to helping our dads with these “less entertaining” tasks of manual labor. Seeing his collection on the runway conjured those memories to the forefront of my mind, but they resurfaced as memories of deep pride for my lived experience of being able to have quality time with my father, an experience many children, and especially Black boys don’t have considering systemic racism, and unsupportive social services programs that do not address the sort of healing that is begging to be addressed because of these disparities. 

My younger self assisting my father build the front deck of our rental home. 

As I thought about it later, it made me think of a generation of Black boys who might have this same experience (or worse, may not have had this experience). Anderson’s fashion show helped to affirm an aspect of my personal experience in life as one I can be fortunate to own. It helped me connect more to myself, and to my father, as I find myself extending more empathy towards him as I reframe my childish perceptions of restriction into newly minted memories with connotations of father-son bonding and specialized training. It also stands to reason that because of this experience we actually know how to paint walls with quality, and physically construct walls if we ever need to. As much as I don’t see myself doing as much manual labor as my father did to provide for our family, it makes me grateful that even though I may not have the same interest in skills as my dad, wearing clothes that retain the symbolism Anderson injected into his collection exhibits the power of fashion to help others feel closer to themselves and how they have come to be, especially for us as Black men.

Donovan Green’s collection “Why Here, Why Now” is a collection that seeks to comment on how Black people have to dig through the ugliness of the effects of Black racial trauma and oppression to reveal  our birthright to liberation  (Photos courtesy of Savannah Bartlett

While I would love to expound upon the beautifully thoughtful symbolism behind each collection, all of the designers of the “BLK Beauty in the Garden” Fashion Show underscored the beauty of hearing stories told from the lens of diverse walks of life within the Black community. Hopefully the below clips of each designer’s finale walk help to paint that picture more visually. When I think about the power of fashion, the latter stories are perfect examples of how penetrative, and deep, sartorial intentionality can support others’ understanding of themselves.  From Ricks’ point of view, BLK Runway is a way to respond to the fashion industry inequities at every stage of the creation process. It was important for her to allow Black creatives who don’t have access to career development opportunities in the fashion space where they can exercise their talents and create beauty that is rooted in black perspectives of beauty, perspectives that are often trumped in mainstream media that often perpetuate a dominant cultural standard of white beauty. 

Ricks’ efforts to push herself artistically, coupled with her drive to exalt Blackness, makes me think of my upbringing as a youth and the hunger I once had (and still possess) as I sought out experience to become a professional creative and continue to redefine even to this very day. Because of systemic racism, Black students and youth often do not have the same accessibility to obtain the experience necessary to compete in more artistic careers against White people who have access to higher education and people of influence (who are also often White). While I do not regret any aspect of my developmental journey as the artist I have become, the ineludible thought of my access to establishments like the ICA being a part of my progression dotes on my mind frequently. Ricks credits Dr. Chioke I’Anson, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Director of VPM and ICA Community Media Center, for being a huge part of the success of “BLK Beauty in the Garden”. With his and Special Events Manager, Rachel Christie, helping the BLK Runway team navigate planning this event with a guest list of four hundred! 

This active support from educators such as I’Anson, was a huge take away from me regarding what it looks like for young artists of color to feel supported and guided to success, just as countless successful white people often receive to seed their future success. There are barriers for the Black community that are more insidious and less recognizable to those who aren’t Black, so the attention to this disparity is critical when supporting these artists’ effective evolution into becoming self-sustaining artists. The more gatekeepers of opportunity to recognize this, the more opportunity there will be for the stories of diverse nature to receive the opportunity to resonate with anyone who may be impacted by a message spoken from a different lens. 

Ricks, her BLK Runway team, and their designers came with a statement to make to fashion professionals, industry luminaries and the public-at-large about the importance of recognizing opportunities to share not just unique and diverse stories, but stories that unite, educate, and help us to recognize humanity and the myriad of ways people experience it. The overall effect I walked away with was how healed I felt as a Black person after such a show. The stories of Black people are heavy, complex, and also sumptuous—sumptuous in the sense that our harrowing stories of survival under oppressive systems reveal the hallmark of Black being—resiliency! 

Ricks and I would like to invite you to follow @Oakwoodarts to stay plugged in on updates regarding our upcoming Fashion Photography Summer Break Camp for teens in June. We are excited to channel our skills, learned lessons, and determined passion towards uplifting young POCs’ understanding of how they too can be a part of the conversation around fashion, style, and expression.

Main photo: Designer, Rose Ramsey, stands at the head of the BLK Runway, “BLK Beauty in the Garden” Fashion Show Runway with her models wearing her collection entitled, “Les Fleurs ” (Photos courtesy of Savannah Bartlett)

Designer Floor Walks

Shea Anderson

Ramsey Busky

Rose Cumisky

Donovan Green 

Makai Gillis

Paige Perkins

Chloe Allen

Fithugh Godwin

Shyenne Farrell

Antoine Scott

Danasia Griner

Isa Clay


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