Travel and Shopping—Silver Winner: Harlem Couture

by Janet Forman

There’s an intoxicating energy along the broad boulevards of Harlem these days. In the heart of black America, a wellspring for generations of eloquent literature and incendiary music – and a community that has seen more than its share of hard times – fashion and design boutiques are opening amid the convivial crunch of bodegas and hair dressing parlors. Their beguiling wares range from hats that transform from church social to late night funk with the flip of a brim, stylishly shrunken t-shirts with an audacious logo that takes a lighthearted swipe at “Gone With the Wind,” and hand woven African textiles whose traditional geometric motifs inspired artists like Matisse and Klee. To Gabon born banker turned designer Bernard Oyama, who surrounds his luminous silk ties and meticulously tailored tweeds with portraits of style icons like Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, “Harlem is my inspiration. People used to DRESS around here,” he attests. “They had a vision of quality.”

A wave of Bob Marley sweeps from the entryway of Hats by Bunn, where this inventive milliner stokes fashion fires from the head down. In an atelier beyond his showroom filled with dapper fedoras and graceful mushroom shaped chenille caps, the lanky Bunn is hunched intently over his vintage curve-necked sewing machine transforming a detail he caught on the walk to work – the flap of a teenager’s shirttail perhaps, or a grandmother’s hastily tied headscarf – into a graceful chapeau. “I’m an ‘island boy,'” admits Bunn in a melodic West Indian lilt, “but for me New York IS fashion. I create things from looking at people – going to the movies, in the subway – the whole city is a fashion show,” he declares planting a grosgrain and leather ‘Yankee’s cap’ square on my head. “I made this because I got tired of seeing attractive women going around in their husband’s or son’s baseball hats,” he laughs approvingly at the style upgrade to my work boots and jeans. “I first came to Harlem for the low prices,” he admits, “but this is where you have access to trends, and my work is always evolving. For me,” Bunn avows, “hats are an art form.”

Those rock bottom rents are fast disappearing along Harlem’s gracious brownstone lined streets. Still, retail space is reasonably priced by Manhattan standards, which allows emerging entrepreneurs to create handmade ‘Harlem Couture’ for a fraction of the downtown ticket.

Pioneering designer Montgomery Harris brought her evocative one of a kind collection to this budding strip of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard from hipster packed Nolita in 2003: pieces like a Swing-era ‘Dorothy Dandridge’ cocktail dress whose slender waist billows into twelve yards of skirt, and gemlike decoupage ‘wallets’ that take more than six weeks to build from origami paper and crystal. This Alabama-born, Harlem-raised stylist’s ingeniously layered, curve hugging silhouettes are favored by trendsetters like Iman, Sting and Diana Ross: gossamer sweaters that twist cunningly into scarves, vintage fabrics recast as supple skirts, and an irresistible denim vest lined with faux fur topped by its own backpack, that looks sleek even when slung atop my sweater, jeans jacket and scarf. And how many designers have the confidence to create a logo whose bandana and hoop earrings recall the Old South? A blithe “kiss and a wink to black Americana,” Montgomery affirms; and an idiosyncratic ‘attitude alert’ that attracts a clientele of “worldly, self possessed women that don’t take themselves too seriously.”

Yet beyond exceptional values and singular style, the most remarkable quality of Harlem boutiques may be their openhearted welcome – the earnest hospitality of a community used to extending a neighborly hand – where even a stranger crossing the portal is drawn into the banter.

“Is school out already?” Montgomery demands of two teenage girls engrossed in deconstructing her ‘fabric sculpture’ of pillowy sweater, combed cotton shirt and stretchy tee.

“Classes are over for the day,” they instinctively ‘jump to’ at Montgomery’s maternal, slightly bossy tone. “We go to City College,” they nod toward the stately 19th century buildings on the ridge atop St. Nicholas Park.

“Okay,” Montgomery seems mollified. “I’m not the truant officer,” she softens, slipping a sumptuous hand painted coat across my shoulders. “You look young, so I’m checking.”

Harlem is a tightly knit village whose artisans play a vital role in community affairs. Bunn runs a fashion show each Christmas to gather toys for homeless kids, and a heap of richly colored fliers for benefit concerts, bake sales and theater performances are piled at the entryway of most shops. It’s a neighborhood built on expansive kinship networks where there always seems to be a party going on: poke your head in with a friendly smile and you’re usually invited to join. If you pass The Brownstone – a historic manse filled with local designs like satchels by Heidi made from a mosaic of denim, leather and feathers – around 9 PM New Year’s Eve, you may be invited to sip champagne with owner Princess Jenkins and her crowd. Or swing by the Saturday afternoon cocktail party at Harlem Vintage, an up-market wine shop which goes beyond trendy pinots to source new boutique labels from Winemakers of Color: black made wines from the U.S., Europe, and South Africa that range from costly Brunellos created by Tuscany’s Il Palazzone, co owned by AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, to Burgundy style Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Vision Cellars, made by Mac MacDonald, son of a Texas moonshiner.

“Harlem is more than a community,” observes graphic designer Murphy Heyliger, who opened Harlemade with two partners on a historic stretch of Malcolm X Boulevard to showcase local artists. “Harlem is the mark black people have made throughout history,” he smiles with pleasure as we read Langston Hughes aloud from a reproduction of the 1926 Harlem Renaissance magazine, “Fire.” Like many neighborhood stores, Harlemade embraces highbrow along with pop: “Superfly” sits next to Paul Robeson’s “Emperor Jones,” and rich African Shea butter, which can be scooped from a street vender’s gourd for less then $5 a jar, is elegantly packaged here for $7.50. “Everyone has contributed,” Heyliger muses on the cultural ricochet between Africa and the West, North and South, Ivy League and the ‘University of the Streets.’ “So in some sense we’re all ‘Harlemade.'”

Even the erudite Studio Museum gift shop offers a lively array of wares that range from scholarly to folk: art volumes such as Malick Sidibe’s searing photos of fast changing Mali share space with earrings made from clusters of Coke bottle caps. Pick up a Harlem Renaissance walking tour map here to find homes of historic writers and musicians, the seminal photo studio of James Van Der Zee which documented those times, and the original locale of legendary nightspots, some still thriving like the Apollo, others, like Small’s Paradise, long gone.

Perhaps the most joyful display of Harlem’s artistry, hardships and triumphs, as well as its welcoming spirit, can be found along the enticing aisles of Djema Imports, where the towering bolts of West African raw cotton, regional artifacts and jewelry are akin to a pan-African cultural museum. As I stand agape before dramatic lengths of Malian mudcloth slashed with brawny strokes of earth-based dyes, a friendly face appears at my side to query, “Would you like to see how that’s made?” Owner Moctar Yara, once a cattle herder from Mali who came to New York thirteen years ago with $40 and a few pieces of hometown cloth, unfurls an enormous canvass with those powerful abstracts still caked in mud. “It’s not for sale,” he quickly advises as my eyes take on a covetous gleam. “I just like to show people how it’s made,” he beams with the energy that propelled him from street vendor to small businessman to proprietor of this expansive domain. Yara is also a canny merchant who offers ethereal wares at decidedly down to earth prices: handmade shawls fringed with mud beads for $15 – $20; nearly extinct Nigerian Asho-oke fabric at $60 a bolt; patchwork Kente cloth, which sumptuary laws once restricted to Ghanaian royalty, $500 for a couch size length; and traditionally embroidered Kuba raffia cloth from Congo, $600 for a museum quality swath.

Yara has seen enormous changes in Harlem since he’s arrived. “Ten years ago, tourists were not so comfortable here,” Yara recalls. “They would stay inside the bus.” Today, while no one wants gentrification to push long time residents away, locals are pleased to see architectural gems restored, and greet their new neighbors with grace. “People feel more welcome now,” Yara affirms hospitably. “We make them feel welcome.”

Moctar Yara’s smile, warm enough to dissolve any cultural chasm, stays with me as I hike up the hill to my home a few blocks away. “Hi sis!” the African incense seller greets me as he does every afternoon, even though my fair skin clearly says I’m not a blood relation. Yet as I sway through the corner bodega to the latest Dominican Bachata tune, gathering my daily rations of plantain, queso fresco and Diet Coke, I feel as much part of the community as the Harlem Hospital doc, the sidewalk taco chef, or the street poet selling his slim volume of psalms. As sweet harmonies pour from the regal church at the corner, I am joyful to be home in Harlem

Leave a Reply