A Bridal Fashion Newcomer Stages a Grand Debut

On Sunday, at a grandiose country resort, some 200 guests were seated inside a massive tent draped with white curtains, the sun peaking through the ceiling and onto their faces. They had flown in from New York, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, which is not unusual for the typical big city fashion show. But this was in Middleburg, Va., an hour away from the Washington airport.

That’s the kind of ride-or-die community that Anifa Mvuemba, 32, the founder of the clothing brand Hanifa, has cultivated. Guest lists at fashion shows usually include celebrities, influencers and media, but this one largely comprised longtime friends, supporters and family members, including five siblings, who were willing to travel for the show.

Hanifa has a fervent fan base, loyal to Ms. Mvuemba’s vibrant dresses and knitwear. It can sometimes be hard to be creative with color while getting dressed, to divert from blacks, whites and neutrals and find bright pieces that are cool and chic. But she made it easier, appealing to people who are willing to invest in quality pieces that don’t cost thousands. In her fall 2023 collection, tops start at $125 and pants at $169.

Now, Ms. Mvuemba is expanding into the bridal space. She inadvertently closed Bridal Fashion Week, which took place Oct. 10-12 in New York, presenting her debut collection outdoors at the Salamander Resort and Spa, a Black-owned, women-owned luxury resort in Middleburg.

“I wanted everyone in the audience to fall in love with the gowns,” Ms. Mvuemba said of the show, which was themed “Love at First Sight.”

The event, which was set up like a wedding, began with welcome drinks indoors. Women in matching pink custom Hanifa jumpsuits greeted guests, many of whom were dressed in cocktail attire from Hanifa’s previous collections.

Then, guests walked over to the tent for the runway show, stopping along the way to take selfies in the sun as a string quartet played renditions of John Legend’s “All of Me” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” The theme of the show was “Love at First Sight,” and Opemipo Olowomeye, a writer, read a love poem out loud at the start of the show.

“I wanted to wow people,” Ms. Mvuemba said in an interview a week before the event, sitting on a folding chair outside a studio in New York during the final day of fittings for the show. “I wanted to do something unexpected, and I wanted everyone in the audience to fall in love with the gowns.”

Then came the after-party, where the D.J. was spinning Pharrell’s “Beautiful” and Usher’s “You Don’t Have to Call.” Guests enjoyed truffle pizza, chicken sliders and champagne.

“I’m really about experiences and doing the most,” Ms. Mvuemba said.

She said she had structured the event that way because she wanted to highlight the thriving Black wedding culture in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, known as the DMV. She invited wedding makeup artists, hair stylists and event planners. Ms. Mvuemba even hired a wedding planner for the show, B Astonished Events, based in Washington. She is getting married herself, sometime next year. In May, she and her fiancé welcomed a baby girl.

She is inspired by couture classics like Schiaparelli and Valentino, and finds herself drawn to bridal design because of the “attention to detail.”

Ms. Mvuemba, a self-taught Congolese designer, was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Growing up, she lived in Washington and then all over Maryland, where she is based. Representing the DMV area is important to her, she said. Her last runway show, in November 2021, was at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Her atelier is in Rockville, Md., and half of the models in the bridal show were based in the area. (The other half were based in New York.)

“I love that the show is in the area because a lot of fashion people from the DMV area tend to move outside,” said Bahgi Solomon, 34, a wardrobe stylist and event planner from Washington who attended the event.

Perhaps an advantage of presenting in Virginia, away from the fashion week calendar, is that guests do not need to rush to the next event. At around 30 minutes, it was a long runway show. The bridal collection was replete with sculpted shoulders, cinched waists, jacket structures and feathers. Ms. Mvuemba said she had designed the dresses for “the modern woman” and had intentionally avoided lace. “You see lace all the time,” she said about bridal collections. “I wanted to challenge myself.”

Ms. Mvuemba had her first bridal client in 2016. A friend from her church in Gaithersburg, Md., was soon to be married, and had heard that Ms. Mvuemba was making clothes and taking custom orders. So she asked Ms. Mvuemba to make her wedding dress. The dress had a satin underlay, a lace overlay and layers of tulle at the bottom.

“It was overwhelming,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “Since then, it’s been a journey of trial and error. It’s been a journey of understanding the craftsmanship of making a gown.”

Back then, she was a one-woman business, struggling to fulfill orders. Now, she has a studio with a team of 20 patternmakers and seamstresses. Starting a bridal collection has always been a dream for Ms. Mvuemba, and finally, “it was the right time,” she said. “Financially, I can support it.” Her first bridal client attended the show with her husband.

But there were still challenges for Ms. Mvuemba as she prepared for her bridal debut. Hanifa is known for being a size-inclusive brand, but it took time to grow accustomed to bridal sizing and make sure her sample gowns properly fit each model’s body.

“I kind of understood why brands use size 2 for a lot of things, because if it doesn’t fit this size 2 model, it’ll fit the other size 2 model,” she said. “Whereas if we make something to fit someone who’s a size 16, it’ll fit another person who’s a size 16 a lot differently because of curves.” (In her “perfect world,” she would book models months in advance, she said, so that she could make the sample pieces using exact measurements.) Still, she said, she made it a priority to stick to her values. There were several plus-size models on the runway, which was a breath of fresh air after New York Bridal Fashion Week.

After a presentation on Instagram Live in May 2020, Hanifa went viral and became a celebrity favorite. Keke Palmer, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Coco Jones and Bella Hadid have all worn Hanifa. And in 2021, Ms. Mvuemba received a grant from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.

But Hanifa has always been a local favorite. Several of Ms. Mvuemba’s guests have been following her work since she started taking orders via text messages and Instagram in 2012.

“Her knits are her bread and butter, they’re just high quality,” said Brittany McCoy, 29, an e-commerce and digital marketing manager at Mielle Organics who was at the show, wearing a peach-colored knit dress with tassel detail from a previous Hanifa collection. (Mielle Organics was a sponsor for the show.)

Jason Andrew for The New York Times

“She doesn’t follow the trends like everybody else in the fashion industry,” Ms. McCoy added. “She does things on her own terms.” Ms. McCoy, who is from Washington, started following the brand in 2012, and she connected with Ms. Mvuemba shortly after. Ms. McCoy is a designer herself, but she has been on pause since 2020, when she started a bridal collection of her own.

“This was the inspiration and motivation I needed to go back to doing what I love,” Ms. McCoy said.

Ebonee Davis, 30, a model and author, flew from Atlanta to attend the show. She met Ms. Mvuemba five years ago after reaching out to her on Instagram. “I’ve always been interested in supporting up-and-coming Black brands, women-owned brands,” which have been historically underrepresented, she said.

“Fashion in general is really difficult. I’m really grateful for the community that we have,” Ms. Mvuemba said. She gave her top spending customers front row seats as a token of appreciation. “They ride for Hanifa and I don’t take that for granted.”

“Now, I just need to get married,” one guest said after the show concluded.

For Ms. Mvuemba, the bridal collection is the start of “a new era” for Hanifa. As of now, the brand is an e-commerce business, but she plans on expanding her reach by introducing Hanifa Bridal gowns to retailers and eventually opening her own bridal boutique. The bridal collection, which will be available online on Oct. 27, will include ready-to-wear pieces and customizable designs.

“Hanifa has always been a brand where women shop for birthdays and special occasions,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “This is just another extension of that.”

Inspired by couture classics like Schiaparelli and Valentino, she has enjoyed bridal design because of the “attention to detail.” She started designing the collection in 2020.

“All of the years of hard work — it’s been a journey,” Ms. Mvuemba said. “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ. And when I think of the symbolism of the bride of Christ, of grace, devotion and perseverance, I feel like that ties into my story of where I’ve come from — basically nothing — and not giving up on my dreams.”

At the end of the show, she walked out onto the runway in a red button-down maxi dress with her 5-month-old baby on her hip. As she teared up, she pointed up to the sky, a suggestion of immense gratitude.

“Bridal,” she said, “is a dream come true for me.”

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