CULTURE, FEATURE STORY

RECAP: Detroit Rocks the Runway’s Return to the Catwalk

After postponing the fashion show in 2020, Detroit Rocks the Runway made its return to the catwalk at the African World Festival! I connected with Piper Carter, coordinator of DRR, to learn more about how, in just a few short weeks, Detroit Rocks the Runway created an exciting and successful fashion show.


Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion model walks the runway wearing a beautiful, multicolored design by Classic Expressions. (August 2021)
A Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion model walks the runway wearing a beautiful, multicolored design by Classic Expressions. (August 2021)

September is known as the month of fashion. Many elite fashion events and shows like New York Fashion Week and the Met Gala take place in September. Other major global cities like London, Milan, and Paris also host similar fashion series throughout the year.

Considered an international sensation, Fashion Week is a big deal in the fashion world. Celebrities, social elites, style influencers, magazine editors and journalists, and other fashion experts attend these fashion extravaganzas to get the scoop on the hottest seasonal designs and trends.

The styles featured in Fashion Week influence the trends we see in media and stores. Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway?

I always think back to Miranda’s (played by Meryl Streep) iconic monologue when Andy (Anne Hathaway) snickers because she thinks everyone is making a big deal over two blue belts that she thinks are exactly the same.

“…that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry. When, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”

Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

via GIPHY

This scene from the movie forever changed my perception of the fashion industry and gave me a little insight into how trends are created in fashion.

So as New York Fashion Week comes to an end, I’m reflecting on the most recent fashion event I attended in Detroit: Detroit Rocks the Runway (DRR).

It was my first time seeing the show and I loved every minute of it! I was so impressed with the event that I was eager to learn more about it. A few days after the fashion show, I connected with Piper Carter, the coordinator of Detroit Rocks the Runway, to learn more. 


READ: “WARMTH DETROIT’S KATIE BOYCE TALKS SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND WORLDWIDE KNIT IN PUBLIC DAY”


A Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion model poses in a design by Wrapped in Love. (August 2021)
A Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion model poses in a design by Love Rose, Wrapped in Love. (August 2021)
Long red gown featured in the Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Show. The design is from Wrapped in Love by Love Rose, a Detroit fashion designer
Design by Wrapped in Love

WHAT IS DETROIT ROCKS THE RUNWAY?

Created by Mama Nija Kai, “Detroit Rocks the Runway: Where Fashion Gets Cultured” is one of the top events featured at the African World Festival (AWF). The first DRR fashion show premiered when the festival was held at Hart Plaza in Downtown Detroit. 

About ten years ago, Piper stepped in as the coordinator of the fashion show when Mama Njia became the Director of the African World Festival. (She now serves as a consultant for the festival.) This was also around the same time the festival was relocated to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (The Wright). 

Detroit Rocks the Runway is a community event featuring professional and up-and-coming designers showcasing beautiful, original fashion styles. Live entertainment and music are also an integral part of the show.

After the fashion show, guests have the opportunity to connect with the designers and purchase their fashion designs.

“Basically, the show is for the community,” Piper explains to me during our phone interview. “It’s a blend. It’s a professional production so that everything is presented with the highest quality. The content-wise is a mixture of community members and also professional or emerging fashion designers and models.”

Detroit Rocks the Runway also focuses on diversity and inclusion. Models of all ages, body types, and abilities are welcome to join. This is something that is very important to Piper.

“We want everyone to see themselves as beautiful,” she says. “We want to celebrate all of our beauty and all the ways in which we came to the planet.”

Three models walk the runway wearing designs by The McClure Collection at the Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Show (August 2021).
Design by The McClure Collection
A male model and a young girl model are wearing designs by The McClure Collection. (Detroit, Michigan) Detroit Rocks the Runway
The McClure Collection

PLANNING FOR THE SHOW DURING COVID

Planning for the fashion show generally begins at the beginning of the year. However, the festival was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic so, understandably, the fashion show was also postponed.

On June 22, 2021, Michigan reopened to full capacity, allowing many seasonal events like AWF and DRR to take place again. But with only about a month and a half to prepare for the fashion show, Piper and her team had to quickly plan and produce the show in time for the August festival.

The team got together and planned the show in just a matter of a few weeks. Instead of holding a big casting call, which is typically held at the beginning of the year, Piper reached out to designers and models in DRR’s Facebook group. Designers and models who were featured in previous fashion shows signed up for the 2021 event.


READ: “MY PHOTOS FROM THE 2021 AFRICAN WORLD FESTIVAL”


Classic Expressions fashion design in Detroit, Michigan (Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Show)
Classic Expressions

“We want everyone to see themselves as beautiful. We want to celebrate all of our beauty and all the ways in which we came to the planet.”

Piper Carter, Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Coordinator

Two female models wear designs by The McClure Collection in Detroit, Michigan.
The McClure Collection

Thankfully, the designers already had new fashion collections ready to showcase. This made it easier to organize the fashion show since they had a shorter time frame to prepare. 

Also, taking the pandemic into consideration, The Wright and the DRR team worked together to ensure everyone’s health and safety were a top priority. Modifications were made to the fashion show in order to follow COVID safety protocol. “We had to do everything 100% outside, which made it better because of COVID,” Piper says.

Multiple tents for the designers and models were set up outside of the museum. The tents were placed near the center stage so everyone could easily change their clothes and do their hair and makeup. Each designer and their models, had their own tent making it easier to social distance.

A male model wears a design by Lasijas fashion designer in Detroit, Michigan at the Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion show.
Design by LASIJAS
A model wears a design by the House of African Prints in Detroit, Michigan.
House of African Prints

OTHER MODIFICATIONS MADE TO THE SHOW:

  • Outdoor rehearsals. All of the rehearsals were held outside of the museum instead of inside the building.
  • Contactless communication. Instead of meeting in person, the designers, models, and other support team members had phone conversations to discuss and plan for the fashion show. 
  • Reduced number of support crew. For previous fashion shows, Piper hired a walking coach, professional makeup artists, and fashion stylists. But to keep everyone safe, she didn’t hire an additional support team.
  • BYOS– Bring Your Own Supplies! Since professional hairstylists and makeup artists weren’t available, everyone brought their own supplies. The models did their own makeup and helped out anyone who needed help with their hair and makeup, too. To prevent cross-contamination, beauty supplies such as cotton swabs and sponges were used with the makeup.
  • Shortened runtime of the show. Detroit Rocks the Runway typically runs for about two hours, but this year’s show was only an hour long.
Piper Carter and Sowande Keita perform the libation ceremony at the opening of the Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Show.

HONORING ANCESTORS AND LOVED ONES

Detroit Rocks the Runway first opened with libations– a ceremonial tradition to honor the Ancestors and loved ones who have recently passed away.

Piper and Detroit musician Sowande Keita performed the ceremony to honor the late Maggie Jene Resor (Piper’s mother) and Queen Mother Osundara. Both women’s strong presence in Detroit’s art and culture community had a positive influence on the city. 

While we discuss the libation ceremony, Piper makes an honorable mention of Sowande’s late father, King Sundiata Keita. Just like Ms. Resor and Queen Mother, King Sundiata Keita also had a great impact on Detroit’s art and culture community. She explains why it was important for Sowande to continue his father’s legacy.

“He comes from a legacy family in Detroit,” explains Piper, “and his father, King Sundiata Keita, helped bring African dance to Detroit. [He] was one of the founders of the African drum and dance community here in Detroit.” 

I found this 2007 article on Metro Times about King Sundiata Keita if you’d like to learn more about his work and the inspiring influence he had on his son’s life. 

Piper Carter pours water onto the ground during the libation ceremony at the African World Festival. Sowande Keita stands beside her speaking to the audience on a microphone.

In a follow-up Instagram post, Piper shared with readers why the libation ceremony was significant to the African World Festival and Detroit Rocks the Runway.

“Our culture’s beautiful, rich, and complex,” the community activist wrote. “Of course before everything we do we honor our Ancestors because we believe we are because of them.”

She went on to say, “…we build upon the Greatness that has come before us. We also pour to acknowledge that this moment we live in is precious: the present from Our Beloved Creator and that we’re given this time as our Gift.”

Maggie Jene Resor, Piper’s mother, was from the Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit– a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit that is now Lafayette Park.

Ms. Resor was very involved in the arts and culture community in Detroit. She served in many different facets in the media industry, from working at Motown in the 60s to acting in the Detroit Repertory Theater.

Piper wanted to honor her mom during the libation ceremony “not only because she’s mom,” she explains, “[but] because she also represents that Detroit spirit and creativity. She instilled all that stuff in me so that’s how I ended up growing up steeped in all this arts and culture and community because that was in me.”

Piper continues, “and the same thing with Queen Mother. She always upheld our culture and she always was making sure that others were upholding our culture. She always held our ceremonies and helped us be correct and steep in our tradition.”

The libation ceremony closed with honoring African Americans who lost their lives from police brutality and other conflicts.

Piper Carter and Sowande Keita honor Queen Mother Osundara at the African World Festival. A photograph of Queen Mother is displayed on a large screen behind them.

“Our culture’s beautiful, rich, and complex. Of course before everything we do we honor our Ancestors because we believe we are because of them.”

Piper Carter, Detroit Rocks the Runway Coordinator

THE HOUSE OF BASTET AND MUSICAL PERFORMANCES

After the libation ceremony, the stage exploded with positive vibes and vibrant energy from the House of Bastet!

Dancers dressed in beautiful Caribbean costumes suddenly appeared and began dancing across the stage. While the audience excitedly got out of their seats and started to dance along. 

“The House of Bastet– they are a powerful collective, the brainchild of Tene’,” Piper says. Dance instructor and Reiki master Tene’ is the founder of the House of Bastet, a Detroit-based wellness group.

Aside from performing at various special events, the Detroit-based wellness group also offers fitness and health classes such as Chair Yoga and Enhance Fitness for older adults. 

A dancer from the House of Bastet is dressed in a beautiful, vibrant Caribbean costume. She performed at the African World Festival in Detroit.
The House of Bastet was the first opening act at the Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion show.

Tene’, also known as DJ Lovebeam, was also the DJ for Detroit Rocks the Runway. Collaborating with Piper, drummer Aisha Ellis, flutist DeBlon, and violinist Ashley Nelson, the women created a powerful soundscape for the fashion show.

The artists combined various forms of music from the African Diaspora such as Afro Pop, Jazz, R&B, Soca, and Techno.

“The music was incredible!” Piper exclaims. “They rehearsed all together and they created this soundscape for the show. I thought they pulled it together very well.”

This year, the music production for DRR was arranged a little differently. In previous years, a band performed at the fashion show. However, this year, the individual music artists (Aisha, DeBlon, and Ashley) partnered with DJ Lovebeam to perform together as a band. 

CLICK THE YOUTUBE VIDEO TO WATCH A SHORT VIDEO OF THE HOUSE OF BASTET AT DETROIT ROCKS THE RUNWAY!

DETROIT ROCKS THE RUNWAY 2021 FASHION DESIGNERS

Normally, Detroit Rocks the Runway features 10 to 12 designers and 100 to 150 models participate in the show. But because of COVID, the number of people was reduced to seven designers and about 50 to 60 models.

HONORABLE MENTION: Piper wore a beautiful robe by one of her favorite designers Stella Safari (Zapenda Shop). Unfortunately, Stella wasn’t able to participate in the fashion show because she had just returned from the Congo. 

“She goes to the Congo to get the fabric and to have the clothes made,” Piper explains. “And the women who make the fabric and her garments [use] techniques that have been in their culture for thousands of years. And the quality level of what she makes is just outstanding.”

Piper Carter is wearing a beautiful blue robe designed by Stella Safari from the Zapenda Shop in Detroit. Sowande Keita is smiling standing beside Piper.
Piper wore this beautiful robe designed by Stella Safari (Zapenda Shop). Photo credit: Piper Carter
Sevin McClure, designer for The McClure Collection
Sevin McClure, The McClure Collection
Love Rose, designer for Wrapped in Love
Classic Expressions designer walks the runway at the Detroit Rocks the Runway Fashion Show.
Stunning design by Classic Expression

In order to be considered for DRR, designers must have a clothing line and their styles need to be available for purchase. “We’re looking for garments that are utilitarian,” says Piper.

“They’re designers and it’s a show, so obviously some things are a bit fantasy just to add to the interest of the show. But the majority of their line has to be something you or me could contact them and then we could go buy it and wear it to work or to an affair.”

Designers have to be at the top of their game so high-quality fashion is a must for Detroit Rocks the Runway. There’s no doubt that the seven designers featured in the fashion show are the real deal. Their designs were absolutely stunning! 

“We encourage [the designers] to look at the hues, the fabric, the colors, the traditional clothing styles from across the African diaspora,” says Mama Njia. The designers are encouraged to take these cultural concepts and discover new ways to create their designs. 

“Many of the designers who come– that’s already what they do,” she says. “But it is an opportunity for other designers to really have this emphasis. To focus on bringing the culture into their work, where it is appreciated, and where folks are really eager to see what they will create.”

The McClure Collection by Sevin McClure
The McClure Collection
Wrapped in Love fashion designs by Love Rose at the Detroit Rocks the Runway fashion show.
Wrapped in Love

The overall production of the fashion show was remarkable. “Oh, I gotta let you know the audio/video people– they were awesome,” Piper says at the end of our conversation. “The quality level of the show was incredible!” 

From the beautiful fashion designs to the professionals working behind the scenes, everyone who took part in the show did a wonderful job.

“People are saying they really feel that the show was powerful for them. They enjoyed seeing community leaders in the show. They enjoyed the clothing. They liked to see the variety of models with everyone expressing themselves in a different way.”


MORE PHOTOS FROM DETROIT ROCKS THE RUNWAY 2021

Two models wear designs by The McClure Collection by Sevin McClure
The McClure Collection
Two models wear designs by The McClure Collection in Detroit, Michigan at the African World Festival.
Sevin McClure, designer of The McClure Collection, poses with two models wearing his fashion designs. (Detroit, Michigan)

Special thanks to Piper Carter and Mama Njia Kai for taking the time to interview for this piece.

Except for Piper’s Instagram photo, all photographs were taken by Jennifer Hamra for Good Life Detroit. 

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