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2020-12-21 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Fashionable Harlem: Building on the Cultural Capital’s Rich Legacy

Fashionable Harlem: Building on the Cultural Capital’s Rich Legacy

New York tastemakers are again heading uptown.

Its been said in Harlem, that a man or woman is called to their time. Resurgent fashion icon Dapper Dan has every reason to believe this to be true.

A Gucci-Dapper Dan billboard looms over the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue like a bird about to take flight, and “Dap” (as his friends call him), much like Harlem itself, is experiencing a renaissance.

The svelte, sharp dresser with a clean-shaved head and spit-shine shoes who began an uncanny collaboration with the iconic Italian luxury brand three years ago, is now among the most quoted voices on the resurgence of his native town.

“Harlem has always been a hotbed for music,” says Dap. “And music — being the flip side of fashion — has long given this community the ability to affect fashion globally.”

Legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan at his atelier on 125th street
Photo by Gabriela Celeste

“What I’ve seen is that plenty of people outside the city want
to come to New York. And plenty of people inside New York want to be in Harlem.”

Dapper Dan

On a recent night in Harlem this was much in evidence, as music and fashion lured a throng of fashionable insiders to the Apollo Theater to catch the TommyxZendaya show. For many of them, this was a maiden voyage, and from talk overheard after the show, it wasn’t likely to be their last.

The air was electric as they moved through the storied building of musical greats, and out the back to an outdoor mise en scène evoking a ’70s Harlem street tableau, complete with fastidiously reinvented brownstone stoops and live music playing out of a blue 1970 Cadillac Deville convertible. Even before the show reached its riotous crescendo some 30 minutes later, with fierce models of varying generations, sizes, and ethnicities, this local shout-out to Harlem had been shared on social media with a global megaphone, broadcasting in real time that the community was having a moment.

Harlem has had a few renaissances, but this one, without question, is the most fashionable. 

“Before we even planned the show in Paris, we were thinking about where it would be staged in New York,” says Law Roach, the juggernaut stylist who collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger and Zendaya. “We decided it had to be at the Apollo.”

With two new theaters planned for the expanding entertainment complex, Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater, is hoping the current trends continue. “Harlem represents cool and cutting edge — and designers are always looking for the most creative way to showcase their clothes,” she says.

One of America’s most historic communities, Harlem is increasingly radiating heat from its vortex with such collaborations as Gucci-Dapper Dan on Lenox Avenue, where the tribute shop has welcomed and dressed luminaries from Tracee Ellis Ross, Salma Hayek, and DJ Khaled to Billie Eilish and Karlie Kloss. Carmelo Anthony recently brought his fashion event down the street from the Apollo, and four-year-old Harlem Fashion Week, with its ingenious bus tour and a model extravaganza debuting this year, is growing. Then there’s the development of such legacy institutions as the Studio Museum and the Apollo; the proliferation of high-rise residential buildings; and the restoration of local parks. Columbia University’s big (and getting bigger) footprint now includes the bustling Lenfest Center for the Arts, which opened in 2017.  

“Harlem has always been the epicenter of Black creators and Black art,” says Roach. “And one of its great gifts is that it has never been able to be smudged by America. That’s one of the incredible things about it,” he says, referring to the community’s lasting cultural sheen. 

“For me, Harlem is, and will always be, a national Black culture Mecca,” says Marcus Samuelsson, founder of the iconic restaurant, Red Rooster. “Because of the history of the people and the institutions, this has always been the place where Black art, culture, and intelligence come together.”

Marcus Samuelsson, chef and founder of the Red Rooster restaurant, named after the famous Harlem speakeasy.
Photo by Matt Dutile

“Because of the history of the people and the institutions, Harlem has always been the place where Black art, culture, and intelligence come together.”

Marcus Samuelsson

While no single art form can capture the romance and power of Harlem, many have famously tried through words. Harlem is both mother and muse for writers, with its boulevards and literary community reminiscent of Paris. Early Harlem poet and author Claude McKay was at home in both cities, and seemingly felt pulled between them, writing: “If a man is not faithful to his own individuality, he cannot be loyal to anything.” Identity is at the heart of his seminal book Home to Harlem, and indeed at the center of the creative output from his fellow Harlem Renaissance writers, among them Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Their achievements laid the foundation for the high culture we are witnessing today, which can be felt well beyond Harlem’s geographic boundaries.

“For me, growing up in Detroit, Harlem was this far off place that made me think of the great cultural icons like Langston Hughes,” says Crystal McCrary, an author, lawyer, and filmmaker. “For those of us working in Harlem, we feel like the Harlem Renaissance is still alive in us,” said Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artistic director. “And it’s something we want to share with everybody, not just the Black community.”

Some are calling the most recent resurgence Harlem’s “Third Renaissance,” after the original fertile bloom of African-American social, artistic, and cultural output during the 1920s. The family of Musa Jackson, the self-styled “Ambassador of Harlem,” arrived in the neighborhood around that time.

“President Clinton and Marcus Samuelsson were game-changers for the second renaissance,” says Jackson, referring to Clinton Foundation’s Harlem-rooted, post-presidential offices, and the arrival of the James Beard Award-winning chef Samuelsson and his acclaimed restaurant a few years later. Since then, Harlem has been on a steady march forward, and the pace is only quickening thanks to thoughtful community planning, substantial real-estate investment, and the retail that comes with it.

“There are so many new restaurants and an influx of new residents,” concurs Procope about the widespread growth she sees in many local realms. “This is the first time the Apollo has expanded in 85 years.” 

Meanwhile, Melba Wilson, who likes to declare she was “buttered and browned in Harlem,” says she felt like an outlier a decade ago when she opened her namesake restaurant and its famed weekend brunch on West 114th Street — the Sunday gospel brunch being a mainstay of many Harlem restaurants. Later this year she will introduce her second Harlem eatery, Melba’s Mussels, on Lenox Avenue and 118th Street and is among those who have started calling Frederick Douglass Boulevard “Restaurant Row.” 

Food aficionados who still stop in at the legendary Sylvia’s and Amy Ruth’s, are these days following Reverence, a place as exclusive as Sylvia’s is accessible. Started by San Francisco chef Russell Jackson, using a California farm-to-table tasting menu, Reverence seats 18 with a price that hovers around $100 per seating. Then there’s Ruby’s Vintage, an eclectic eatery named after the late activist, Oscar nominee, and former Harlem resident Ruby Dee. It’s from owners Nikoa Evans-Hendricks and Brian Washington-Palmer, the visionary behind former Harlem hot spot Native.

“In other areas of New York City, a lot of places are shutting down, whereas in Harlem it’s just the opposite,” adds Samuelsson, whose Harlem EatUp! food festival in May will feature local cuisine for a sixth year in a row. “Growth here in Harlem is not just in the hospitality space,” he adds, “it’s everywhere, and that’s very exciting.” Samuelsson is a busy man, with his PBS show No Passport Required enjoying its second season, and a Miami outpost of Red Rooster slated to open later this year.

Identity and Culture

To many, it makes sense that Uptown — as Harlem is sometimes affectionately known — would be in the spotlight today. Within the Black community, there’s a resurgence of pride, and a tight embrace of the Afrocentric aspects of identity not seen since the ’60s.

Cross-culturally, we’re in an unprecedented age of Afro influence: riveted by Rihanna’s beauty moves and LeBron’s dunks. We follow Meghan Markle assiduously. Black Panther was a cultural and commercial Goliath. Fashion runways and magazines readily feature Black models. Seemingly everyone now wants to know how to tie a turban or wear goddess braids. Beyoncé is omnipresent and Michelle Obama is currently polling as the world’s most admired woman. Any marketers worth their ad spend have had their eyes on Nigerians, both here and abroad, as valued customers much in the same way they put China’s emerging upper and middle class on their radar a decade ago. Five of the world’s fastest growing economies are African countries.

Caribbean immigrants, pivotal to the life and identity of Harlem, gave us icons Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay. Their American-born descendants have woven themselves into the tapestry of Harlem life and culture in the following generations. You can see the growing internationalism on the streets dotted with people wearing colorful kangas, caftans, and djellabas, and from the wide range of restaurants from Senegal, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and other African nations. America 2030, predicted to be a rich, diverse melting pot, is already vividly on display in Harlem. 

“Harlem made me see the beauty of all different people,” says photographer Paul Morejón, who grew up in the neighborhood and co-owns the jewel-box of a restaurant Peque on West 145th Street. Once majority African-American, this demographic (while still representing the largest racial and cultural group) now comprises less than 50 percent of the community. 

Arts, Education, and Culture That Moves Us

The Studio Museum in Harlem has long played doula to African-American and Latinx talents, supporting some of the country’s most exciting contemporary artists, including Mickalene Thomas with her empowering representations of Black women, multimedia photographer Lorna Simpson, and Kehinde Wiley, President Obama’s White House portraitist.

While its programs continue in temporary locations, the museum’s original home is being demolished and replaced by a larger, state-of-the-art edifice designed by Sir David Adjaye — the Tanzanian-born, British architect behind the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The new building will allow for a dramatic increase in programing and presentations, with planned exhibitions featuring work by some of America’s foremost artists: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis, among them. 

Raymond J. McGuire, Citigroup’s Vice Chairman, as well as Chairman of the Studio Museum, says the project is expected to be completed by 2023, and sees the museum as a microcosm of Harlem.

“More profoundly than at any other moment in our history,” he says, “there is a clarion call for the Studio Museum not to be satisfied with just inclusion anymore, but to lead in the world.”

McGuire and his wife McCrary have regularly made the ArtNews global list of 200 top collectors for their collection of African and African-American art and for their commitment to artists and art institutions.

A few minutes’ walk from the Studio Museum, New York’s first civil rights museum will rise at 121 West 125th Street. Underwritten in part by New York State funding, the museum complex will also house a new National Urban League headquarters, multi-use event spaces, offices, and residences. Not far from the site stands the 95-year-old Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, with its trove of archival material about Black life alongside exhibits, cultural events, and interactive workshops. It is also home base for the Harlem Writers Guild.

Within Harlem’s writing pantheon, James Baldwin was possibly its most astute observer and gifted translator to the outside world. (In April, Princeton professor and theologian Eddie S. Glaude Jr. will release his new book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates — whose writings have invited comparison to Baldwin’s — was recently made the Apollo’s first Master Artist-in-Residence, staging a series of events here, including one hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Procope points out that it’s this kind of innovative programming that will increase with the Apollo’s expansion in the 26-story “Victoria Complex,” as its being called. It will also include a Renaissance Marriott and incorporate the site of the old Victoria Theater on 125th Street.

Of the several dance companies that call Harlem home, none has a higher grand jeté than the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the world-touring ballet company, founded 51 years ago by dancer Arthur Mitchell after he heard the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. (Channeling grief into creative expression is a human instinct not limited to Harlem, but by all evidence, the community has perfected the art form like no other.) The company performs dances that are the stock of Western classical ballet the world over. But it also, says Johnson, “uses the music of our culture and the language of classical ballet.” For example, “Return,” by resident choreographer Robert Garland, is set to music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Artistic Director Virginia Johnson (far left) with dancers.
Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Jazz 2.0

Storied clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and sister restaurant The Cecil Steakhouse, ensure that Harlem’s jazz scene survives despite prominent venue losses to redevelopment. A bank now stands on the site of the Lenox Lounge where such greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Strayhorn, and Dizzy Gillespie once performed. Other clubs here nurtured American legends Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, and today you’ll still find John Legend frequenting Paris Blues. Or you can join Ginny’s Supper Club at Red Rooster or Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s, where the pianist hosts visitors in the parlor of her home every Sunday. There’s even jazz in neighborhood churches like Greater Calvary Baptist Church. Last summer marked the debut of Harlem Jazz & Music Festival, held during Harlem Week, a multicultural, multi-week celebration of all that is Harlem. The brainchild of Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s Lloyd Williams, the goal it is to make the Festival an annual event, he says. 

Fly Fashion

Harlem-driven fashion and Black fashion designers are gaining altitude, with Dapper Dan in good company alongside Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director of Menswear Virgil Abloh, Balmain’s wunderkind Olivier Rousteing, and the talk of New York Fashion Week, Kirby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss. But weathering good times and bad in Harlem’s fashion world, Dap has watched several waves of capital infusion wash through Harlem without much sticking power.

He wants this time to be different, to focus his own work on building up businesses and promoting Harlem culture. Within a few years of his 1990s heyday, Dap’s original Harlem boutique had been shut down amid accusations that he had been appropriating designer logos. Not that his celebrity customers back then seemed to mind: everyone from Jam Master Jay to LL Cool J, and Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather came to get their gear from Dap.

Eventually, in 2017, so did Gucci. After doing some appropriating of its own, the Italian luxury leviathan made good. Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro Michele decided to deploy Dap as the face of their fall, 2017 men’s campaign and published a limited-edition book on him, Dapper Dan’s Harlem, acknowledged his designing prowess. Eventually Gucci partnering with Dap to re-open his namesake boutique — this time by appointment only. 

“I’m the first generation after the Great Migration,” Dap explains, referring to his parent’s era when six million rural Black Southerners migrated northward and settled in communities such as Harlem. “And I was the last generation before the drug epidemic,” he continues. “In between, we lost something.”

With Dap’s urging, Gucci has committed to providing scholarships, community programs, and diversity and inclusion education.

“But there are still changes that I think need to come about here,” says Dap. “I want people to really recognize — and have us realize — our potential.”

“Dap brings a level of credibility in terms of the talent available in Harlem,” said Shawn Outler, an executive vice president at Macy’s and co-president of the Black Retail Action Group (BRAG) with Nicole Cokley-Dunlap. Both live in Harlem, and BRAG — the national philanthropic organization promoting diversity in retail, fashion and allied businesses — has its offices here. 

Outler recognizes Dap’s story as a rare and powerful one. But fashion in Harlem is both a reality and a state of mind. As an economic driver, local Harlem fashion and the Black design community still struggle. While lacking Dap’s corporate backers, some independents on the scene keep the engine purring: Neighborhood favorites include The Brownstone, Hats by Bunn, Harlem’s Heaven hat shop, and Harlem Haberdashery. The creativity found here attracts both fashionable residents and celebrities from addresses beyond the neighborhood. 

Kevin Harter, who’s lived in Harlem for four years, loves to sit outside local restaurants and watch the passing parade.

“I get a lot of fashion inspiration from Harlem,” he explains. “Everyone has this ‘confidence style.’” His day job as VP of Fashion at Bloomingdale’s means that he’s not entirely off the clock as he tracks such sartorial currents: “You see trends emerge up here,” he adds. “And the whole high/low mix dominates.” 

What also dominates here is a penchant for bolstering the community from within. The pioneering non-profit Custom Collaborative (CC) scored a recent coup attracting American fashion icon and Harlem resident Stephen Burrows as an adviser. This month CC will begin work with sustainability pioneer, designer Mara Hoffman.

The organization emerged three years ago, founded by Harlem resident and lawyer Ngozi Okaro.

“I chose Harlem because this is where I could get good space, and this is where I saw the people who most clearly fit the profile of who we wanted to help,” says Okaro.

CC’s mission is to train low-income women and immigrants for employment with marketable fashion and business skills. Okaro started in Riverside Church and recently expanded into East Harlem, with merchandise sold through pop-up shops and the organization’s e-commerce site. 

Showcasing homegrown talent is also the goal of Tandra Birkett and Yvonne Jewnell, the vibrant women behind Harlem Fashion Week. This year they’ll introduce a model conference, “Strike A Pose,” to add to the fashion workshops and runway shows highlighting local and Pan-African designers.

The pair run a popular Harlem fashion tour by bus, which visits the Midtown garment center as well as Harlem fashion spots, including manufacturer/incubator SoHarlem, The Brownstone boutique, Save-A-Thon fabric and sewing store, and the African market on 116th Street for fabrics and tailors.

“There’s plenty of talent here in Harlem, there just needs to be more support from us — the Black residents of Harlem,” says Veronica Jones, a consultant, former retailer and CC’s Entrepreneurship Coach. “125th Street is typically too expensive for small businesses.” 

Fashion insiders who’s been around for more than a minute give respect to Harlem Haberdashery. With its 5001 Flavors custom brand and styling arm, the company was founded by husband-and wife Guy and Sharene Wood, self-described hip-hop homesteaders. Birkett sees them as a paradigm for business sustainability.

“They changed the model for family businesses in Harlem,” she says, adding that she also admires their generosity to the neighborhood. “They’ve been very strong in working to build up the fashion community in Harlem.” 

It’s exactly this kind of positive momentum that draws big, national businesses to Harlem, improving amenities and services to the area in the process. The harbingers of gentrification abound to both the delight and wariness of locals and newcomers: Whole Foods is now here, as is Target, H&M, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and MAC cosmetics.

“Macy’s Backstage could be an opportunity,” said Outler, while noting that plans aren’t actively in the works. She explains, “The real question for us would be, are we just moving customers from 34th Street, or are we gaining a new customer?”

Just Don’t Call It SoHa 

“You can’t forget the mainstay of Harlem, which is the community’s churches,” notes Studio Museum’s McGuire. These houses of worship include the Abyssinian Baptist, Riverside, A.M.E. Zion Church, The Cathedral Church of Saint John The Divine, and the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. An energetic grassroots push is underway to preserve these sacred spaces and other historically or architecturally meaningful buildings in the area.

The exquisite former St. Thomas Church, dating back to 1900, is now an event space, “Harlem Parish,” with soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows. Public-relations maverick and Harlem resident Nate Hinton recognized the impact of the setting and orchestrated a Spring 2020 showing of basketball star Anthony’s “Melo Made” collection with a multimedia presentation, male and female models in the clothes, and Anthony’s guest “artist in residence,” Nelson Makamo, flown in from South Africa especially for the event.

“More profoundly than at any moment in our history, there is a
clarion call for the Studio Museum not to be satisfied with just inclusion any more, but to lead the world.”

Raymond J. McGuire, Chairman of the studio museum in Harlem

“Hands down, Harlem has some of the best architecture in the city,” says Spencer Means, a real estate broker in Manhattan since 1993 who is currently with Compass and noted for his high-profile clientele. The area has an abundance of brownstones and townhouses — some woefully derelict, but many more lovingly kept and restored.

“Europeans have always been attracted to Harlem,” he says. “What’s new is the diversity of people moving in, lured by its new status. I had a townhouse on Striver’s Row,” adds Means, “with prospective buyers, including a couple from London, a family from Argentina, and a very good-looking Black guy from Sweden.” 

“Striver’s Row” is the Saint Nicholas Historic District, and it remains Harlem’s premium residential real estate with its Stanford White-designed townhouses.

Quiet money African-Americans have called the area home for decades, as have White social and entertainment legends (Bob Dylan lived there), who are now being joined by such newer celebrities as Tamron Hall, Maurice Dubois, and Neil Patrick Harris. Among real estate agents there was a move to give it a snazzy new name: SoHa. The moniker didn’t catch on, but then, it didn’t need to. People are choosing Harlem, and it’s no longer because of the value pricing.

“There’s a very slight difference in price,” explains Means. Rather, he says, it’s because “Harlem is the new chosen neighborhood. It’s chic to say you live in Harlem.” 

Aside from residential and commercial growth, public spaces are also getting a makeover here: Marcus Garvey Park was revamped last fall and the Harlem Meer, a lake at the northern tip of Central Park, is up next. Harlem will get five new hotels, including the aforementioned Renaissance Marriott in the next two years, according to Williams of the Chamber of Commerce.

In a few years, scores of mid-tier and high-end apartments are expected to come on line. Residents at 145 Central Park North will have views of the lake. The Vidro at 313 West 121st Street will include such amenities as a roof terrace and smart wiring throughout. A development at 2600 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard fills the entire block and will be a mix of luxury and relatively affordable apartments. The New York Council for Housing Development Fund Companies (NYC HFDC) makes sustained efforts to keep affordable housing throughout the community, an important balancing act since these residents are among those who created the original sense of community and the cultural engine now driving current excitement.


For more than a century the measure of Harlem has been constantly registered by cultural barometers and early adapters. In the 70s, Seventh Avenue manufacturers sent employees up to Harlem to see what people were wearing and then translated it into the next season’s collection. It wasn’t long before department stores and boutiques nationwide were stocking variations on the neighborhood’s street style.

A decade later, Tommy Hilfiger saw a cultural and commercial shift happening and traced it to Harlem.

“I remember back in the late ’80s when all the hip-hop kids started wearing my clothes,” he says. “I went up to Harlem with my brother Andy to the shops and to see this guy Dapper Dan to find out what was going on.” 

What he found was Dap and other stores on 125th Street, where Adidas, Nike, and his own brand were blowing out.

“All the inspiration was coming from Harlem, before it was even called streetwear. From there it just spread out. There’s nothing richer in our culture than what the Apollo represents in America,” says the designer of his decision to stage his last fashion show there. 

Retail titan Ken Downing, creative director for the developer behind American Dream, chimes in: “Tommy and Zendaya coming to the Apollo brought a lot of fashion people and influencers to Harlem who had never been here before. It was a celebration of the culture, the neighborhood and the style.” Adds Law Roach, who years ago lived around the corner from the Apollo, “Harlem automatically triggers feelings of pride, joy, and love.” 

“What I’ve seen is that plenty of people outside the city want to come to New York. And plenty of people inside New York want to be in Harlem,” muses Dapper Dan. By all evidence, it also seems that plenty of people want a claim on what it means to be from, and to represent, Harlem. While the community is undoubtedly undergoing dramatic shifts in identity, veteran observers of the scene insist that its soul remains unchanged. 

It’s an idea that the Studio Museum’s McGuire captures tellingly, “Harlem,” he says, “is still a beautiful Black and Brown sanctuary, and a place we call home.” 

Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, standing with architect Sir David Adjaye, lead designer of the institution’s new home
Photo by Scott Rudd
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