There is that iconic streetwear photo of Kanye West and Virgil Abloh outside of the Comme des Garçons show at 2009’s Paris Fashion Week. Shot by street photographer Tommy Ton, the photo includes West in his preppy sport coat, plaid trench and jeans holding a Goyard briefcase, Abloh in a bright blue Moncler puffer vest, bowtie and sneakers. At the time, the entourage’s mash-up of styles was mocked because of its symbolism: street clothes, hip-hop and Black men at the apex of luxury fashion. 

However, as Abloh and West predicted, the photo’s popularity was a sign that fashion —and pop culture —craved something new. Over the next 12 years, the Chicago fashion trailblazers created a language that rattled a stagnating industry by melding together art, music and fashion in ways that established the city as the hub for entrepreneurial Black, multi-hyphenate creatives. Additionally, they carved out space for Black fashion designers in an overwhelmingly white fashion industry.

Although Abloh passed away in 2021, and West lost endorsement deals with Adidas and Gap after a series of anti-semitic remarks, their impact on Chicago designers is still felt today. As 2023 New York Fashion Week takes place Sept. 7-13, some Chicago fashion designers and entrepreneurs are focusing less on industry approval, and instead expressing their creativity and storytelling through multiple disciplines.

When Dionne Williams, a self-described fashion “industry outsider,” launched her first Emerge! Fashion Runway Show during 2011’s New York Fashion Week, her mission was to provide a quality showcase for emerging and independent designers, while also honoring fashion icons with Emerge!’s Fashion Innovator Award. In Chicago, she was already known as a PR maven through her company D. Williams Public Relations & Event Management Group. 

Twelve years later, Emerge!’s reputation in the industry precedes itself as an excellent platform for designers because it allows them to showcase their designs in an elevated runway production (akin to larger and more established designers), with professional lighting, photography, models and make-up artists, and an audience of NYC fashion heavyweights. Prominent Chicago creatives Sheila Rashid, Barbara Bates, and Stevie Edwards have all been featured in Emerge!’s shows and past awardees include the late Vogue editor André Leon Talley, celebrity stylist Law Roach and fashion designer Karl Kani. 

Next week, she is hosting the Emerge! Fashion Runway Show on Sept. 12 at New York Fashion Week showcasing new, talented designers and honoring female hip-hop pioneer April Walker, luxury designer Sergio Hudson and fashion trailblazer Dapper Dan. The ticketed event is open to the public, but already sold out.

Williams is growing Emerge! by planning a “Beyond the Runway” summit and designer showroom for February 2024’s New York Fashion Week. She’s also eying international expansion to London, and developing more behind-the-scenes video content. 

“I know some shows are all about celebrities, but we’re really about trying to bring those front-row corporate people — the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), media [and] buyers — who really can help our designers,” Williams told The TRiiBE. “We really look at how those [designers] will benefit and who will actually support Black designers.”

Unlike other New York runway shows, Emerge! gives a nod to Chicago’s event aesthetics by including sophisticated venue decor, a pre-show cocktail reception, co-hosts, and an awards ceremony.  

“Chicago, we’re a little bit more about the beauty of the venue, the core, the experience when you come in — that’s a big part of the show,” Williams said. “And, you know, we love a reception from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. And then a host, a co-host. And then the award is structured just like I would do my galas when I’m here in Chicago.”

For Bronzeville-born, New York-based Jameel Mohammed, the month’s NYFW isn’t occupying his creative bandwidth. Although he presented at 2022’s New York Fashion Week, he’s turning his focus this year on special projects with retailers like New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Design Store, which launches this Fall and is inspired by how collective movement leads to community connection. He is also working on a collaboration with the beauty brand Kate McLeod. 

For him, being multidisciplinary is key to being a successful Black creative. “You have to do so much more as a Black creative to stand out and cobble together the better parts of the business models of different industries to work in your favor,” Mohammed told The TRiiBE. “Virgil [Abloh] and a lot of different minority folks have DJing, entertainment hosting or different kinds of ways to get your face and name out there that are less capital intensive while still pursuing things that are more capital intensive like fashion or music. There’s a hustle mentality that I think is part of being a Black creative, but also being from Chicago.”

Mohammed is the founder and creative director of Khiry, an Afrofuturist luxury jewelry brand that’s been worn by former First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Issa Rae and rapper Megan Thee Stallion. As a visual artist, he creates conceptual videos and photoshoots to launch his latest collections.

Mohammed also designs ready-to-wear clothes. He debuted his ready-to-wear collection at 2022’s New York Fashion Week. He also works as a ceramist and musician. He credits his hustle mentality to growing up in Chicago at a time when if you were interested in fashion and culture, you dreamed of working in New York or Los Angeles. 

“You see a lot of stuff from afar, especially before this age of Chicago feeling like a truly global city,” Mohammed said. “When I was growing up, if [celebrities were] having a party, it’s going to be in LA or New York. If artists are doing a pop-up show, it’s in LA or New York. That’s still kind of true, but when we get to these spaces, it’s like, ‘oh, I had all of these ideas when I was a kid.’”

Today, his Khiry brand is sold at dozens of retailers internationally including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. His meteoric success has also given him the confidence to explore other mediums and reflect on his childhood aspirations.

“Like, I’ve already come this far to even be here and be present in whatever industry I’m in. Why not?” Mohammed added.

Letesha Renee, founder and creative director of the Eugene Taylor Brand, has shown at New York Fashion Week for the past three seasons and has many New York clients. Instead of participating in this month’s NYFW, she’s staging a hometown show in Chicago to highlight the talented, diverse, ready-to-wear designers that the city has to offer. She’ll also introduce her jewelry line.

Her upcoming show, “Selfhood” is a ticketed event at the WNDR Museum in Chicago on Sept. 29 from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Interested attendees can follow Eugene Taylor Brand’s Instagram for ticket release information.

At the show, she will introduce her brand’s “uniformed identity,” she said. It will include brand staples like hip huggers, and immersive experiences like waist jewelry-making and custom embroidery stations. As a natural extension to her best-selling hip huggers which are adorned in metal chains, Renee will also debut jewelry including bracelets and necklaces, with attendees having the option to customize the length of their chains.

”I’m a direct reflection of my brand because it’s a lot of things that I like, a lot of things that I’m inspired by, a lot of things that I’m feeling,” Renee told The TRiiBE. “There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of passion that I put into it. 

Renee started Eugene Taylor Brand in 2015 as a tribute to her late grandmother. The brand is a genderless line and has been worn by musicians Maluma and Arin Ray. Her pieces are visceral and textural; this year’s summer collection included neon swimwear and separates interpreted in terry, mesh and crochet fabrics. A standout piece was a chocolate crochet pencil skirt with neon fringe at the hem.

Photo of three models posing in Eugene Taylor Brand Swimsuit line created by fashion designer Leteshia Renee
Models for Eugene Taylor Brand swimsuit line by Letesha Renee. Photo provided by Eugene Taylor Brand.

Renee is a skilled dressmaker, sewing and creating patterns for her line, which is increasingly becoming a rarity for modern fashion design. “Selfhood” is the culmination of three years of reworking old designs. She credits West’s recording process for his 2016 album, The Life of Pablo, as an inspiration. 

“He talked about it being a work of art and island that he kept going back and working on, essentially like Pablo Picasso. How he would go back to his paintings and keep adding to it,” she said. “I started going backwards on designs. Like, ‘Oh, you guys didn’t catch it the first time.’ Let me rework it [with] the critiques that I might have heard or the critiques that I have for myself. I self-reflect after each collection.”

Asked about the idea of Chicago having a Fashion Week similar to New York, Renee loves it. “We deserve it,” she says. However, Renee hopes the city’s artists can collaborate and share resources more. Chicago’s fashion trailblazers West and Abloh were first connected through the city’s creative community, and Renee believes a united front is integral to a renewed focus on fashion in Chicago.

“There’s enough room for everybody to get a slice,” Renee explained. “And we’re not each other’s competition because I don’t have any competition in Chicago.”

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE.