Blacks are often referred to as resilient. We continue to survive the unthinkable while leaving the world more beautiful and fairer than we found it. More than resilience, it is our innovation and our ability to see what is not yet present – justice, joy, empowerment – and bring it to life. Anifa Mvuemba knows it. As one of the fashion industry‘s most innovative designers and founder of the Hanifa brand, her creative eye and business prowess have seen her dress top fashionistas including Zendaya, Trace Ellis Ross, Bella Hadid, etc. ELLE.com caught up with Mvuemba to reveal his Congolese roots, his upbringing in the United States and how his imagination took the Hanifa brand to new heights.
How did your time at Morgan State influence your perception of the darkness and the vastness of the diaspora?
If I had gone to another school, I would not have experienced darkness as I did. The HBCU experience is unmatched! At Morgan State, I was so young and still trying to figure out who I was and where I wanted to be. My time at Morgan was a springboard, not just for me. Many people don’t even know Congo and in many of my groups of friends I am the only Congolese person they know.
Do you see yourself as a bridge between the African diaspora and the African continent?
With [Hanifa’s fashion collection] Label Rose Congo, I was happy to enlighten and raise awareness, so I really want to do with the Congo! At the same time, I am still understanding and learning my roots.
Speaking of diaspora, travel is also clearly one of your loves. I particularly like all your getaways to Dubai! How has exploring the world influenced your way of designing?
My parents have always traveled a lot, but in 2005 my brother was murdered in Maryland, and it was a very difficult time for my family. We were invited to Dubai by a family friend to get away and freshen up. I was a freshman in high school, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the trip because my world was already changing so much. But when I look back on my time there, it’s clear to me that my outlook on life has changed. You meet so many people from all walks of life, religions and racial backgrounds. The inspiration I had was crazy.
I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your brother, but I’m so glad you had this time to take care of yourselves as a family. Would you say that resting and taking time for inspiration are still important to you today?
I’m getting better… I found it was definitely about finding that balance, which can be difficult when your team really depends on you. There are seasons when I leave for two weeks and other seasons when I work non-stop. Now I have a business coach and I make time for mental work days where I’m not on the phone or talking to anyone. It gives me time to process my thoughts and present myself as a better and creative leader for my team.
You certainly stay busy, so it’s good to know that you’re so intentional when it comes to self-care. I want to jump into some of your most breathtaking moments, which were at the intersection of technology and fashion, two industries that may seem so far apart. Where does this passion come from in you and how do you want to continue to leverage each other?
It’s really cool, because if I wasn’t into fashion, I’d probably be building computers somewhere. Ever since Myspace and the early days of blogging, I’ve been obsessed with coding and how technology works. It was a divine moment when [Pink Label Congo] happened in 2020. [Editor’s note: In May 2020, Mvuemba debuted her collection Pink Label Congo with 3D renderings on Instagram Live.] I was already going back and forth on whether to do a virtual or in-person show and when the world stopped [because of COVID-19], it became obvious. Merging the two passions is a dream come true. Now we see these two worlds collide more than ever through digital avatars, the metaverse, and more. I still hope to innovate in this space.
It wouldn’t surprise me. You intentionally changed the fashion world to make it a more inclusive place in many senses, including more geographies, by giving access to your shows to non-celebrities or industry leaders, and by being intentional about the size and casting of models. Have you always been like that, or was there a point in your career when you felt “successful enough” to disrupt the status quo and change the rules?
It was really hard for me to get into the industry because I didn’t have the traditional fashion experience or those resources. I read so many articles and YouTube videos on Google to figure out how to break into this industry, but I had to figure out how I was going to do it and do it my way. Rejection made me have this mindset to transform the industry, but I also have social media to thank. Early in 2011, I was on Instagram and posted my first dress when the platform was really new. Social media has opened up new avenues for designers. Now that I’m more sure of my place in the industry, I’m also working hard to create more opportunities for those who come behind me. There are so many programs that support new designers and future designers, and I’m developing them now.
Of all those who have worn Hanifa, who are you the most geeky?
Michelle Obama wore a custom-made piece and I screamed! LA Michelle Obama! It was super surreal. Plus, Beyoncé wore an Alia dress on vacation.
You must be proud of yourself! In many ways, you and your brand are so in sync, from naming the brand to posting your first design on your birthday many years ago. As you continue to climb the industry, how do you distinguish Anifa the wife from Hanifa the company?
That’s a great question! I always talk about Hanifa growing up with me, and we both become what I always wanted us to be. I’ve always been connected to my brand, but recently I’ve been trying to figure out what it would be like to separate the two. A lot of people have discovered Anifa from the creative side, but I also want people to know about the business side as well. This mentoring program that we are developing will be an extension of that.
What up-and-coming black-owned brands are you passionate about or reclaiming black joy and art in innovative ways?
Fisayo Longe is the founder and CEO of KAI Collective, a UK-based brand. Our paths align and she’s doing a lot of creative and cool things, so I’m really excited to see what she’s going to do with her brand. This year I attended the Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala, and it was so inspiring to see a room full of black creatives, black designers, and black business owners. I really can’t wait to see more.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series airing in Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of black culture on American life and shine a light on some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the full portfolio.