At ConnCORP, Black Excellence Returns To The Runway

Lucy Gellman | August 22nd, 2023

At ConnCORP, Black Excellence Returns To The Runway

Black-owned businesses  |  Bomb cyclone  |  Culture & Community  |  Economic Development  |  Hamden  |  Arts & Culture  |  ConnCORP  |  Arts & Anti-racism

ConnCORPShow23 - 30

ConnCORPShow23 - 33

Top: Carter in his element. Bottom: Tea Montgomery, Lillian Pearson of Elle Dot Kay, and Elaine Roper. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Maybe it was the white mesh that caught the audience’s eye, draped in gown-like folds that still worked as trousers. Or the gold slippers, so delicate it looked as though they might melt into the asphalt if they spent too long in the sun. Or maybe it was the designer himself, arms extended to their full wingspan, white linen billowing around him. At the center of the runway, Donald Carter was in his element. 

Sunday afternoon, Carter was just one jaw-dropping highlight of ConnCORP’s second annual back-to-school backpack drive and Black Excellence Fashion Show, held at the LAB’s 496 Newhall St. hub in Hamden. The trend-setting brainchild of the Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program (ConnCORP) and several New Haven designers and stylists, the show started last year as a way to give back to the community, and has since grown into a celebration of Black fashion and Black small business in New Haven.  

This year, it felt of a piece with New Haven’s second annual Black Wall Street Festival, held Saturday on the New Haven Green. After a backpack giveaway that served over 225 kids, the show featured styles from Noir Vintage, Black Goat Milk Clothiers, More Amour Boutique, Syd University and designer Donald Carter. Before the festivities ended, ConnCORP also named Carter the recipient of its inaugural “Fashion Pioneer” award.

ConnCORPShow23 - 32

ConnCORPShow23 - 27

Top: Carter with his muses. Bottom: A number from the artist's Royal Collection. 

“I feel so proud,” said Carter, an educator and fashionista who has loved fashion since his childhood, and designed his signature couture from his Hamden home for decades. “It’s overdue, but at the same time, it’s in God’s plan.”

Organized by a team of designers and ConnCORP staff, this year’s show took off where last year’s ended, showcasing a mix of both new and veteran Black businesses and designers. Outside, tents and vendor stations for Neckbones Photography LLC, Tierra Soap Co., Black Goat Milk Clothiers, BAMN Books, Runny Novs and others transformed the parking lot into a Black business fair, complete with food from Cool Runnings. From a bouncy castle that always seemed to be in motion, gleeful, cacophonous shrieks of delight rose into the late summer air. 

A full list of vendors included Veezy Vibetime Creations, Final Touch Apparel, Pave Apparel, Dips & Designs, Kobéy Enterprises, Fly Reasons, Mystical Medu, Express n’ Create, Kim Townsend Designs, Everything is Art, Ana-Simone Organics, Journey2Juicin and Home Ventures. The Westville-based boutique BLOOM was also onsite with a station for kids to design and decorate pencil cases. 

Diamond Tree, who runs the group Hood Hula, floated through the space with her arms extended and hips working, a handful of kids with pint-sized hula hoops always in her wake. 

ConnCORPShow23 - 10

ConnCORPShow23 - 5

Top: Diamond Tree with five-year-old Milan. Bottom: A look from More Amour.

Inside, designers and models put their final touches on their runway-ready fashions, from More Amour’s vibrant fall line to Carter’s Royal Collection and new floral pieces, which blend ruched and rigid Bridgerton-era waists and skirts with a blue-and-white flower print, as if models are undulating, breathing pieces of Delft porcelain. 

Inside a converted conference room, Carter leaned forward, his eyes closed in a rare moment of stillness as a stylist attached delicate, long lashes that caught in the light. Every so often, one eye would flutter open to check the room, as if he were a den mother keeping watch over a litter of cubs. When he did, it was always delivered with a piece of advice, his decades of experience broken into bite-sized anecdotes.   

Across the table, models Ciera Murray and Beverley Jeanty checked in with each other, Jeanty fussing over Murray’s makeup as the clock ticked down to 4 p.m. A student majoring in public health at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU),  she said that modeling has helped her build up her self confidence. 

As he bounced between rooms in the hallway, fellow model Glenroy Ford said that he started modeling in 2019 for the same reason. As a fellow SCSU Owl—when he’s not studying accounting, he’s a member of the student group Fashionable Artistic Creative Elegance or F.A.CE.—he first connected with the fashion show last year, through stylist Lillian Pearson of Elle Dot Kaye. This year, he was excited to come back as part of the team. 

“It’s empowering,” he said. “When I’m modeling, I know that I have to do the best. It can’t be like, 10 percent or 20 percent. You have to be at 100 percent.” 

ConnCORPShow23 - 7

ConnCORPShow23 - 4

Styles from More Amour.

Designer Tea Montgomery, whose brand Threads By Tea has continued to grow this year, was also quick to say that no part of it happened in a silo. This year, he was part of an organizing team that included ConnCORP’s Daniel Hunt and Elaine Roper, Elle Dot Kaye, digital artist Shannon Harrell Jr.,and vintage maven Ashleigh Huckabey. After walking in last year’s show, he chose “to step back” and focus on his role as an organizer. 

“I wanted to give other people the chance to shine,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing, all the love and support that we got last year. Really, part of this is giving back and empowering others.”

And for the next two hours, the sun-soaked fashion show did just that, attendees cheering, clapping, and sweating it out as the runway moved outdoors, and the parking lot morphed for the second time that afternoon. As attendees settled in, Beyoncé’s ‘“Energy” blasted over the audience, DJ Dooley-O pumping his arms at the turntables. 

To the sound, models strutted out onto the runway, unveiling some of the fall fashions that will soon arrive at More Amour’s Chapel Street shop downtown. As she watched from a window (she later joined models on the runway), owner Kimberly Sewell-Poole beamed, the designs coming to life after months of carefully weighing and making selections as a small business owner. 

ConnCORPShow23 - 6

ConnCORPShow23 - 13

Top: More Amour. Bottom: Noir Vintage. 

This year, the collection leans into the blend of whimsy, grace, and vivid and geometric color that have put More Amour on the map. To Beyoncé’s pulsing vocals, a model appeared in a flower-patterned white jacket, classic and chic enough for a grandmother and granddaughter to wear in the same weekend. As she looked over her shoulder, her green hoop earrings swiveled with her.

In another, model Careece Campbell walked out in a white tulle and chiffon dress that floated on her body, as if she had harnessed and slipped on a cloud moments before coming  outside. As the sleeves ballooned delicately around her shoulders, her skin glowed beneath the fabric, a honeyed glow against the gold bangles on her wrists. For Campbell, who is a nurse based in Waterbury when she’s not on the runway, the moment was a chance to de-stress. 

Other models channeled a day-to-night sensibility that has made Sewell-Poole’s shop part of the city’s sartorial fabric. One model came out with an open blouse fastened with a rhinestone brooch, with puffed sleeves and beaded detailing just over the chest. Another time traveled, drawing oohs and mmmmmms as she posed in a flower-print dress with a dropped waist, slouchy shoulders and matching purple headpiece.  

Those moments weren’t without a few impromptu pivots: model Briana Wilson lost a heel and kept going when she glided out in a flowing green skirt and matching top. By the end of her time on the runway, she was rocking the style completely barefoot, as if that had always been an organic part of the vision. When she returned with fellow models, she drew extra applause from the audience.       

ConnCORPShow23 - 9

ConnCORPShow23 - 8

Top: Washington. Bottom: Store owner Kimberly Sewell-Poole (at center).

“Shout out to the model that thugged it out with just one heel and then no shoes,” said emcee Avery “Slay” Washington, fresh off an afternoon emceeing Black Wall Street on the New Haven Green. “That’s how it is on the runway.” 

Designers and models—it was sometimes hard to say who brought a higher fierceness quotient—were just getting started. With pieces from the newly opened Noir Vintage & Company, models wound back the clock to the 1960s and 70s, some ready to tell a story of decades that had taken place long before they were born. 

In a bucket hat and short, honeycomb-patterned dress, one model looked ready to step onto the set of a French New Wave film, or maybe a train heading straight for Monaco and Nice. Another turned a vest into a statement piece, the brown glistening over a sleeveless, long red dress. With Jimi Hendrix on the brain, Antonio Gonzales IV took his time stepping out, opening a suede jacket to reveal a polka-dotted button down, his hands atop fringe the color of hazelnuts and caramel.    

Attendee Tracey Massey, who is Evelyn’s cousin, watched from one end of the runway, holding two small canvases from her small business “Everything Is Art.” As she watched, a smile spreading across her face, she said that she feels like New Haven is in the midst of a cultural Renaissance, in which Black-owned and organized spaces like ConnCORP play a vital and ongoing role. 

“This is the rebirth of the arts,” she said, “It’s our season.”  

ConnCORPShow23 - 20

ConnCORPShow23 - 15

Top: Tracey Massey. Bottom: Noir Vintage.

In front of her, parents and their kids often took the runway between designers, becoming part of the action as Dooley-O and Washington gave models time to chance. Before walking hand-in-hand with her five-year-old daughter Milan, Hamdenite Demeka Anderson praised the event as fun for both her and her two children. The three had been on the way to the park when her kids spotted the bouncy castle, and decided to swing by.

“I’m having the time of my life!” she said. Before her children were born, she was a student at the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT), and knows President and CEO Erik Clemons. Sunday, she said she was glad to see several familiar faces.  

Back on the runway, apparel from Syd University shifted into focus, with bold prints, HBCU-esque streetwear and a few new patterns and fabrics that have become Syd Bell’s trademark. Since last year’s show, she’s been busy growing out her brand and experimenting with new materials, particularly those that are sourced in smaller and more sustainable batches. 

ConnCORPShow23 - 3

ConnCORPShow23 - 17

Top: Syd Bell of Syd University. Bottom: Syd University.

“I’ve been making connections,” from Ohio to New York, she said. Now, she’s preparing for her first appearance at New York Fashion Week, which begins  in early September. As she prepares, she’s unveiling never-before-seen items like form-fitting dresses and clothes from knit fabrics. “I’ve been trying to do something for everyone,” she said.  

It flowed right into designs from Black Goat Milk Clothiers, a brand that Westvillian Anthony Murrell has nurtured for years. As a small fleet of models flaunted his nineties-inspired polo shirts and apparel, their long shadows fell across the pavement, reminding attendees that the bright, sizzling afternoon sunlight wasn’t going to last forever. 

Like Massey, Murrell said that he was excited to be part of the show, particularly as he works to build awareness around his brand. 

“This feels awesome,” he said, adding that he’d delayed a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard to be present on the day of the show. “The recognition of artists is wonderful.”          ConnCORPShow23 - 18

ConnCORPShow23 - 19

Black Goat Milk Clothiers.

Then—and with a dramatic pause—Washington announced that it was time for the main act. To a synth-kissed beat, models walked out in an explosion of color, one radiant in a pink-and-red layered crop top and skirt as another showed off a slinky, rainbow-patterned dress with an asymmetrical hem. The designs kept coming, from a black, off-the-shoulder chiffon dress with fabric flowers to suits made of white and red mesh to flowing overcoats.

Even before Carter himself had swept onto the runway in layers of blue and white fabric, cries of “Yes, Donald!” and “Get it, Donald!” filled the air.

What followed was a blur of style, cut, and color, sometimes punctuated by appearances from Carter himself. Just weeks after showing off styles at the Dixwell Neighborhood Festival in June, he returned with a few favorites from his Royal Collection, including a deep red, flowing cloak with a gold exterior that matched a glittering, loose jumpsuit inside.

A beat, and models were back with sequined dresses sprouting purple tulle, raw linen suits with one arm, and Carter’s now-signature bottoms, split into a skirt, pants and draped bottoms that consistently buck the gender binary.  

ConnCORPShow23 - 23

ConnCORPShow23 - 25

Across all of them, attendees could see the sheer breadth of Carter’s work, from his eye for geometric patterns to the risk he was willing to take in mixing fabrics, prints, and historical references. 

It was all of those reasons, said Hunt and Pearson, that they selected him for the pioneer award. Only minutes after the show had ended, they called him to the front, ready with a teardrop-shaped plaque. “You show us exactly what it takes, and you don’t give up,” said Pearson, whose work on the backpack drive ended in flowers, praise, and a second award tailor-made for her.

ConnCORPShow23 - 31

Carter: “Don’t give up on anything.” 

For Carter, who spoke through tears as he received the award, it has been a very long time coming. Born and raised in Hamden—he and a brother now share their childhood home—he has always loved fashion, and spent years teaching design and outfitting men and women across New Haven. 

But sometimes, it has been a hard road too, he said. In 2001, he put his career on the back burner to care for his father, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers and dementia. He was ultimately the primary caretaker for 17 years. When he returned to his career, it was with a zeal that he has felt ever since.

“I want young people to know,” he started, something catching in his throat. “Don’t give up on anything.” 

Watch more from Sunday's show here