In the span of three years, the mother-daughter duo successfully developed Harlem Fashion Week into the major cultural force — and officially sanctioned New York Fashion Week event — it is today.
Birkett credited her alma mater — she attended NYU from 1989 to 1993 — for giving her the solid educational foundation she needed, as well as exposure to a wealth of diversity. Although she was a political science major in CAS, her love of fashion drove her to participate in a fashion club during her undergraduate experience.
She pinpointed the genesis of her skills as a fashion show producer at that time, during which she helped coordinate a multitude of shows by reaching out to brands and casting models.
“That definitely began my understanding of the business side of working with fashion, working with department stores,” Birkett said. “We did stuff with Macy’s and did stuff with Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger.”
Even back then, her desire to bring designers of color to the forefront was apparent.
“We did an international fashion show, and I lobbied for a component, a segment on Africa,” Birkett said. “So I went to different stores in Brooklyn and Harlem and got designers and models. And then I had created the whole African segment to the international fashion show that we were having.”
However, after graduation, fashion went on the backburner as Birkett established a career as a history teacher and motivational speaker. Years later, her daughter, Jewnell, was the one who reeled her back into the industry by pursuing a career in fashion design.
In an effort to support Jewnell, Birkett dug up her previous experience and skills to help create a platform in Harlem for her daughter and other up-and-coming designers from communities of color. Because the duo was attempting to establish a NYFW show from scratch with little capital backing their pursuit, they faced immense difficulty.
“It literally was, you know, built on a teacher’s salary, to be honest with you,” Birkett said. “There was no money involved. We didn’t have any backers at all. Just had drive and determination to make something happen.”
Birkett also believes that setting up shop in Harlem instead of Lower Manhattan was integral to their success. She emphasized the revolutionary nature of Harlem Fashion Week as one of the first established fashion institutions in that area, building on its rich cultural history.
“In SoHo, for example, there’s tons of fashion, you know, organizations and stores,” Birkett said. “It’s a hub for fashion, so it’s pretty saturated, while Harlem wasn’t saturated. It was a good opportunity in terms of developing something that, you know, that wasn’t there, and trying to galvanize some of the fashion that’s already present.”
Beyond helping designers showcase their creations, Birkett used her background in education and political science to develop a fashion education program. Burgeoning designers who wish to develop their brand and build their business can attend the workshop to learn skills beyond the runway. Designers can also attend a symposium to learn about sustainable business tactics from a multitude of panelists already established in the fashion industry.
For NYU students looking to break into any industry, fashion or otherwise, Birkett had a few wise words to share. She stressed the importance of innovation and creativity, but above all, she underscored the need to be bold.
“I would encourage students to knock on that door that they think won’t open anyway,” Birkett said. “That email that you don’t think will get answered, send it anyway. Go to that office that you think they’re not going to listen to you and do it anyway, because you may be surprised. They may actually open that email, open that door, and they may give you a shot.”
A version of the article appears in the Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, print edition. Email Carol Lee at [email protected]