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Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Teen Vogue

The Congolese fashion designer leading 3D runway innovation

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Jul 16, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Moving down the runway in an eye-catching pleated backless mini dress, the flared arms swing and it is impossible to look away from the bold color visage. Debuting in May 2020, the Pink Label Congo collection made huge technological and sartorial waves. Far from a regular presentation, the dress moves as if an invisible person is wearing it.

No, this is not a Fashion Week remake of The Invisible Man, but rather the first 3D runway show of its kind. What transpired during this presentation, hosted on Instagram, is a groundbreaking moment in an industry grappling with methods to move forward in the wake of COVID-19.

Fashion designers have always looked to technological innovation in a bid to push boundaries when unveiling a new collection. Rag & Bone ditched the usual NYFW format back in 2014, using different methods to showcase the new season. Last year, an intimate dinner with an Artificial Intelligence component excitingly blended fashion and technological innovation.

Other factors such as 3D printing have impacted the industry, but the change that has made the biggest splash is the ability to livestream. In the past, live runway events had been an exclusive endeavor that very few had access to, but streaming has opened an elite experience up to a global audience. Now it is possible to take a seat on the front row without having to leave their home — very on-theme for 2020. In the decade since Alexander McQueen's legendary Plato's Atlantis made history as the first Fashion Week presentation to livestream online, this concept is now part of the regular landscape. Social media has offered further access thanks to features including Instagram Live, which is how Hanifa presented the Pink Label Congo collection in May 2020.

Social distancing has forced many industries and professions to reconsider events previously taken for granted. Paris Fashion Week went ahead earlier this year, scraping in before lockdown began, and event organizers have stated that it will go ahead as scheduled come September. The number of people involved in a physical show has made these gatherings impossible, which is one of the reasons why the innovative Hanifa runway debut attracted so much attention. In a world of digital influencers with millions of followers, using technology to showcase garments is the next logical step. But instead of an avatar wearing the clothes (or even using a digital celebrity like Lil Miquela), Hanifa founder Anifa Mvuemba made sure all eyes were on the collection and not who was sporting the flowing feminine garments.

Hosting this event on Instagram Stories — initial technical issues led to it streaming on the Hanifa Bridal page — this concept was not conceived as a result of COVID-19. Rather, Mvuemba first considered this method five years ago, the self-taught designer noted. "In my case, I previously learned 3D technology prior to COVID-19 and was able to amplify that experience in the form of a fashion show much later." Based in Baltimore, Mvuemba's Pink Congo Collection is a celebration of her home country. "Riddled with a painful history, the beauty of Congo is often untapped and overlooked. The gentleness, beauty, history, poise, majesty, strength, power, and hope of the Congolese spirit inspired this collection."

Stories her mother shared about the women she knew back home and the strength they possessed play a role. She went on to say, "My hope is that this collection inspires all women to stand tall in their power and like the Democratic Republic of Congo, to use their history, whether pretty or painful, to redesign their future."

A documentary short played before the main show detailing the damaging Coltan mining taking place in this country. In partnership with non-profit As You Sow, 20 percent of proceeds from the Pink Conga Collection T-shirt will "support initiatives against illegal Colton mining in the DRC." Not only is Mvuemba using her voice to celebrate where she is from but she is using it to speak out and highlight an exploitative industry. The mineral being mined is used in electronics.

Even with the new level of livestream access turning your phone into a front-row ticket, high-fashion is still often dominated by clothing for a limited audience. Unlike other ready-to-wear collections, Hanifa is size-inclusive running from size 0-20. The selection of women featured on Hanifa's Instagram and website embraces the ethos of this brand. "We design for everyday extraordinary women like you who embody class while setting their own rules." The curves and lines of a woman's body are a feature of the 3D runway; rather than the uncanny valley of digital influencers, this feels like you are watching a real figure.

Showcasing the pieces in this manner (including the aforementioned stunning red pleated dress), the viewer gets a sense of how the garment will look and move out in the world. You can even pull up the playlist that accompanied the presentation, which adds to the authenticity and enjoyment. Each design is infused with meaning — the Kinshasa backless dress represents the pain of the past and hope of the future, the beautiful Congo river print Mài maxi frock embraces femininity, and the Zaire denim set uses techniques inspired by traditional African seamstresses. Fashion can be fun and empowering, while drawing on the past in an effectively moving manner.

"The future of fashion shows for African designers is limitless. We just need the access and knowledge to bring our ideas to life," explained Mvuemba when discussing this innovative technique and the current landscape. And while the Hanifa runway debut isn't exactly what founder Mvuemba has planned, the 3D presentation is a visionary boost that deserves every groundbreaking moniker uttered. Once again, technology and fashion are proving to be the most stylish bedfellows.

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