Hanifa founder Anifa Mvuemba embraced her Congolese heritage on her own terms

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Written by Skylar Mitchell, CNNWashington DC

In September, when the New York fashion scene converged for the city’s full return to live catwalks since the Covid-19 pandemic, a much-anticipated brand was conspicuously absent from the runway. Months after receiving a CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund grant for emerging designers, Anifa Mvuemba, founder of women’s clothing brand Hanifa, pulled out of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan with a simple message to her customers: ” stay tuned”.

Mvuemba has made a name for himself as the head of an independent black brand that is committed to presenting mainly black and brown models and offering sizes from 0 to 20. Hanifa, which is mainly based on e-commerce, has been worn by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae.

On November 16, the brand finally held its first in-person exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, in the glass-ceilinged Kogod Yard. The ‘Hanifa Dream’ fall / winter 2021 presentation celebrated the brand’s 10th anniversary and showcased a range of new pieces alongside the classic Hanifa shoes.

Anita Mvuemba celebrated Hanifa’s 10th birthday with her fall-winter 2021 show “Hanifa Dream”. Credit: Shannon Finney / Getty Images for Hanifa

“We were originally supposed to show during Fashion Week, but it just didn’t work out. It didn’t look right,” Mvuemba told CNN after the show. “And I was like, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do it here.’ I started here (in DC) 10 years ago, and that’s where we’re going to do our first show. “

Last year, Mvuemba made the headlines for his Spring / Summer 2020 capsule collection virtual show on Instagram Live. Instead of models, the clothes were modeled in 3D on floating, headless figures, giving the presentation a ghostly feel. The collection itself was a tribute to its Congolese heritage, using its distinctive use of African-influenced colors and silhouettes to pay homage to the country’s women.
“I am so intentional in everything I do with this collection” Mvuemba said at the time on his Instagram page. “If you are African then you know African seamstresses and how the detail is so important, and the color is so important, and the prints are so important. I really wanted to use it in this collection, just to pay homage to African seamstresses. “
Mvuemba has been recognized by the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund and her styles are loved by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae.

Mvuemba has been recognized by the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund and her styles are 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, launching knit dresses, patent leather coats and structured denim dresses. Texture was a theme in the show, as Hanifa fused her asymmetrical, structured clothing into new tactile mediums. One of the first looks was a blue patent leather trench coat, signifying this expansion of technique.

Mvuemba’s brand has a habit of successfully redefining notions of how a fashion brand should reach its audience. Holding casting calls open to women in the DC area is one of the ways the founder has stayed true to this mission throughout the development of its brand.

“The world is changing, things are changing, why do we have to follow what everyone else has done?” said Mvuemba.

Fashion has seen the rise of brands owned and operated by blacks, but fashion historian Shelby Ivie Christie says there is still work to be done.

Fashion has seen the rise of brands owned and operated by blacks, but fashion historian Shelby Ivie Christie says there is still work to be done. Credit: Zara Israel

Sometimes considered a fashion underdog, Mvuemba initially founded her company without external funding and she grew her fan base organically while continuing to operate from her Maryland studio. Much of the brand’s visibility is due to its relationships with historic black publications like Essence magazine and people of color in the fashion, media and entertainment spaces.

Mvuemba, who is Congolese, is heavily influenced by African culture and design, but she says she didn't want to be called an African designer because of the inequalities.

Mvuemba, who is Congolese, is heavily influenced by African culture and design, but she says she didn’t want to be called an African designer because of the inequalities. Credit: Shannon Finney / Getty Images for Hanifa

“When I started out I didn’t want to be labeled as an African designer as they are placed in a separate category,” Mvuemba said. “I always use the African culture in my tailoring, which is so important. You see the seams, you see the structure, you see the beautiful prints. So, I just wanted to keep that and do it my way. ‘s what I have been doing since I started. “



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