Indianapolis stylists Sarah Hairston and Kandis Yeakey, founders of Fashion Forward, recently put on a showcase of iconic looks that dated back to the 1920s. They had an idea to do something special in recognition of Black History Month, for their first event of the year, which materialized into Way Black When: A journey through African American Fashion. Their impeccable styling of clothes, many of which were provided by Indianapolis retailers and designers, came together for an event that ended the month on a fashionably high note.
Their audience went on a historical fashion journey, and each era visualized the “culture we (African Americans) brought to fashion,” shares Sarah. Layers of artistry, highlighting African American culture, were woven into the show. The audience was brought into the 1920s with an opening jazz performance by 14 year old saxophonist, Nicholas Wright. The segment for the roaring 20s included a roaring jazz dance performed by two of the fashion show models. They caught the audience by surprise and brought everyone to the edge of their seats. The contagious energy was created through the intentional blend of music and dance, along with the visual impact of each style. It was impossible for anyone to take their eyes off the dancing couple. His shiny black tux was pristine, reflecting bold beams of light with each movement. Her bright red flapper dress stretched and twirled with every step, extending her zeal to the crowd. Kandis’ experience as a dancer enabled her to take creative control of the music and dance selections. She also understood how the first scene would set the tone for the entire show.
Each segment told a style story about its respective era, with help from the models. Thoughtful touches helped create the mood behind each scene, be it the twirl of a girl or the tip of a hat. The show was “about feelings and connections,” says Kandis, and it all had to resonate with the audience so “each model had to be a character.” Unlike many traditional fashion shows, there were undeniable interactions that gave life to the stories behind the styles. Models for the roaring 20s looked as if they stepped out of a Harlem Renaissance time capsule. The women were elegant and the men “dressed to the nines.” Hits of the 30s and 40s played throughout the following segment. The scenarios depicted progression. Models carried bags and cases, which Sarah says symbolized how “most African Americans wanted to follow their dreams.” Models were dressed in predominately black and leather for the 50s and 60s to poignantly express the pride, purpose, and power of the African American plight. James Brown’s iconic musical tribute, I’m Black and I’m Proud played as models walked with fists in the air to visually express black pride. Striking. Spoken word was an artistic element used to incorporate history. Although the event was meant to be light, fanciful and fun, “we didn’t want to ignore the civil rights movement,” explains Sarah, and “spoken word is the way we express ourselves.” Their journey to the 50s and 60s began and ended with moving poetic presentations.
The color scheme for the 70s had many muted neutrals, which was a striking contrast to the bold black used in the prior segment, and the bright playful colors of the following segments. The 80s and 90s had plenty of patterns, and plenty more colors. The emergence of hip hop music translated into the style presentation. The energy rose to an even higher level as the song Poison, by 90s hip-hop group Bel Biv Devoe, played on. Kandis transferred her “vision of a guy seeing fly, glamorous girls” to the runway. She did so as any dancer would: with the male model bouncing to the beat of the song with every little step, and “fly girls” strutting confidently by. The transcending styles, dating back to the 20s, continue to emerge in present day fashion, as was depicted in the 2000s segment.
The show’s capstone was an unexpected segment titled Modern African Garb, which Kandis refers to as “Afro Punk” because of the “edgy African styling.” African prints and textured patterns were incorporated with modern fashion to showcase how the African roots of black culture can relate to present day style. Sarah emphasized the inclusion of Kente Cloth; and the black and white textured snake-skin pieces were made by design student Asha Bryant (Fashions by Fasha).
“We always want to create new opportunities for people who love fashion,” said Sarah. Fashion Forward began in 2013 and is evolving into an organization that gives back to the Indianapolis fashion community. “Fashion with a purpose,” sums up the mission. Way Black When was free, but donations were accepted to go toward their scholarship fund to support a local art or design student. Sarah and Kandis want to “bridge the gap between different Indy artists” and introduce more people to fashion. Sarah went on to say: “We want people to know art isn’t just visual art; fashion is part of it. There are many talented people in Indianapolis and we want to highlight them.” Kandis stresses that a Fashion Forward event “has to be fun and family-oriented; from kids to grandparents, we want everyone there – all ages and races.” These budding fashion philanthropists certainly achieved this with their recent journey through African American fashion history.