Months after the lights have dimmed on New York City’s famed Fashion Week, more than 300 people from one of Philly’s poorest Zip codes, just north of Strawberry Mansion, take seats in the hot sun and prepare to watch as local clothing and hair designers display their works in front of Ernie Harrod’s 25th and Lehigh shop.
“I’m going to be showing off this fresh hairstyle,” says Joel Richardson, gesturing to his intricately fashioned scalp. “I’m also going to be modeling.” Richardson and his friends have sculpted lines and spirals circumnavigating their heads, colored shades of blue, red, purple and yellow. They are crowded backstage, waiting to hit the catwalk at the Ernie’s Upp-A-Cuts Unisex Salon 3rd Annual Outdoor Hair & Fashion Show.
Block party meets urban couture.
While mainstream fashion is more diverse than ever, it’s still overwhelmingly white. So today, inner-city designers and models get to strut their urban stuff. It’s a growing trend in the world of African-American hair shows orchestrated by salons and barbershops in neighborhoods throughout the country.
The platform and runway are built by hand and face out to the street, while the shop interior is transformed into a backstage dressing room. After a rapper, R&B and reggaeton singers have tried to placate the crowd, sweltering to distraction, Usher’s “OMG” roars from the sound system. The first set of dozens take the stage in outlandish locally designed clothing: silver Jetson-age bikini and dress frame combinations, flower-bedazzled bras, polka dots, tulle and taffeta, bustiers, rainbow-colored hair carved into starbursts or concentric circles, and braids embroidered with small mirror fragments.
The svelte young boys in tight pants sashay and twirl and young women show off long legs stalking out from the most diminutive miniskirts. The long-suffering crowd is on its feet.
Backstage, a young woman named Dominique is putting the final touches on her outfit. “I have a tutu, which is made out of tulle. And I have a ripped shirt with scissors on it, because our theme is Edward Scissorhands. So I got a zipper: really cutting edge,” she says, pointing up, “My neck brace,” and then to her hair. “Cut. Chopped. Scissors. A little pink at the top, black at the bottom. Do you like it?”
Overseeing the controlled mayhem are local designers like Happy, the owner of a North Philly boutique called Happy Couture which has designed much of the day’s clothing. She is not on stage today, but she is set on spectacle.
“This is some of my punk rock stuff. It’s a little Gaga,” says Happy, describing her zipper, metal and chain-laden clothing. “Everyone calls me the Mother of Gaga, because I’ve been doing it since I was a little girl. I eat this stuff, I sleep it. I was created to create. I came out of my mom bedazzling my pampers.”
Happy is one of four designers participating in today’s show, along with two barbershops and salons. She, Harrod and a team of young, male fashionistas have overseen months of rigorous training for the catwalk, mostly young men and women from North Philly. Footwork. Hips. Turns. Pouting. Posture. Dead sexy stares. Highly choreographed dance numbers and skits.
Many nights models practiced dance moves at the shop until two in the morning. “I’m pretty tough on them,” admits Happy, who says that she’d also like to design costumes for the Walnut Street Theater. “But the world’s pretty tough. So if they can’t handle me, they’re not going to be able to handle out there.”
“That’s how we get the best performers,” says Harrod, who takes a fatherly interest in his performers. Teens, twentysomethings. Gay and straight. “You see Beyoncé, right? She didn’t get that overnight. She works hard. And that’s what I tell the girls. You gotta work hard.”
“It’s just crunch time,” says Chelsea Holmes, as a neighbor curled her hair. “Time to get on the runway and strut our stuff.”
Upp-A-Cuts barber Franky Fingaz did all the hair for his scene, in which he—painted grey head to toe—plays a statue that discovers that he is actually an amazing hair stylist. This is the Abbotsford Homes native’s first skit with his new group, Team Fingaz.
“Usually when I do a hair show, I do straight runway, which is just walking and showing off haircuts,” says Fingaz, who hopes to perform at the Bronner Brothers show in Atlanta, the nation’s biggest African-American hair event. “But I finally got a team together.”
It’s a community endeavor, one that Harrod says helps the community “feel better about ourselves.” Between scenes, the crowd did the Cupid Shuffle and the Electric Slide, devoured hamburgers, chicken wings, water ice and ribs. Aside from the neighbors, there are also a hundred-odd recovering drug addicts taking in the show and doing a yeoman’s service behind the grill. Everything Must Change, a Christian drug and alcohol recovery program, has halfway houses throughout the area. And a not-for-profit soul food restaurant. Indeed, it was fifteen years ago when Harrod came to the neighborhood struggling to kick a crack and heroin addiction. He feels a debt to the place that welcomed him, where he built a business. “To be perfectly honest, I see a great sense of depression in the community,” he says. “When you go to a barber shop, salon, or nail salon, it’s usually to help you feel better somewhere, somehow. To make you feel a little better than when you came in.”
This is almost no one’s day job, but many of the models have been doing hair shows around the African-American community for years. Nineteen-year-old Sierra does housekeeping work at a nursing home. Today, she is wearing a multicolored all-hair costume that makes her look like a fantastically George Clintonized Cousin It.
“I’m going for the lion look, because I’m a fantasy model,” she beams.
Twenty-two year old Rakeem wistfully agrees.
“It’s like a fantasy. A fantasy,” he says. “I still get nervous ... But once you’re on stage and you hear that music, it always go away. It just feels so good. It feels so comfortable.”