Kiara Carrion was 15 when she designed her first corset with her mother for a friend’s fashion show fundraiser. From then on, she strove to prove herself to her critics and skeptics, showcasing new designs when sparse opportunities presented themselves.
Now 21, Carrion is the CEO of KITARA Designs, which specializes in designer bras and corsets. She also shows her talents as a New York Knicks dancer, singer, and actress.
One of the big opportunities to showcase her designs was Bronx Fashion Week, which began connecting her more closely with her Bronx community.
“I was able to have these girls from underserved communities come and model my clothes. I thought it was a great way for me to really interact with my community in a way that I really haven’t been able to before,” she said.
Carrion’s now creating a line of colorful new corset patterns inspired by the 1950s and 60s to debut at the upcoming Bronx Fashion Week festival in the fall. Beyond that, she dreams of showcasing her talent at Milan and Paris Fashion Week.
Bronx Fashion Week, founded in September 2014 by Flora Montes, strives to provide business opportunities for local emerging or established designers and models to showcase their skills and abilities in an industry that is often non-accessible.
“Flora’s such an amazing person and she truly cares for each and every designer that she has in Bronx Fashion Week, and I think that’s what really sets her apart from every other fashion week out there,” Carrion said.
Bronx Fashion Week is actually the name of the company that operates the shows. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all shows were put on hold for two years. But this spring, Bronx Fashion Week resurfaced to cheers and whistles with a one-day show at the Mall at Bay Plaza.
“It is amazing,” Montes said. “I’m grateful. At one point, I lost hope during COVID, I think as many did.”
Growing up in the Mill Brook Houses in the South Bronx, Montes had moved to Connecticut but returned to the Bronx to make sense of life after her daughter died. She contemplated how to carry on her daughter’s legacy and create her own – which led to the creation of Bronx Fashion Week.
“Fashion is more than fabric,” Montes said. “It builds self-esteem. It builds confidence. I’ve seen models that come to the casting with their broken shoes and their tattered T-shirts, but they had a dream. They had the courage to come out. So, I want to be able to help them but also encourage them.”
The recent show included plus-size, Black and Brown, male and female models as they showcased designs of various stores and designers. Larry Franco was one of the featured designers.
As models strutted down the runway wearing his Spring 2022 designs, Franco said it was a beautiful experience, especially after dealing with the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Colombian designer, who also runs a nearly 30-year-old family business consisting of three stores, said the lack of fashion shows during the pandemic led to less exposure for his business and a decline in sales. Returning to Bay Plaza, he said, was a thrilling and beautiful experience.
“It is inspirational, not only to see my designs but see other designers…a lot of minorities with huge plans and ideas and beautiful ideas,” Franco said. “It is super important.”
With the rise of online shopping and the closure of small businesses in the Bronx, Franco said many wondered if his business would survive. But after showing designs at Bronx Fashion Week for a few years, Franco said he has witnessed a rise in sales, social media activity and in-person store visits after each show.
During the May show, camera flashes illuminated 21-year-old Ryan Barnes as he strutted down the runway in one of Franco’s designs. Striking a pose in a three-piece beige suit, Barnes had his first modeling experience with Bronx Fashion Week.
“It’s just an amazing opportunity,” Barnes said. “I love that Flora is giving people of all different shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities, genders even, the opportunity for them to wear designer things and really showcase their worth to regular people.”
Inspired by the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model and fashion journalist André Leon Talley, Barnes began developing a deep passion for fashion at a young age. But he rarely saw people with his background — as a gay Black man without a college education — breaking into modeling.
The fashion world has seen an increase in inclusive and diverse models, something lacking a few years prior. In New York Fashion Week in Spring 2015, 20.9% of the models were of color. This year, that number leaped to 55.5%, according to the Fashion Spot’s diversity report.
Barnes decided to become a modeling pathbreaker. “So that way growing up, people like me when I was little can look at me and say, ‘I can do that too.’”
Barnes, who wants to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, said he feels Bronx Fashion Week is vital to his community.
“There are amazing designers, amazing people, amazing stylists, amazing makeup artists that come from the borough of the Bronx who do not get any sort of visual representation, Flora gives them that opportunity to do so,” Barnes said.
Montes, who describes herself as a “fashion mother,” recalled a young man who had been released from prison and who always wanted to be a model but “no one believed in him.” Bronx Fashion Week gave him that platform, and he has continued to model and turn his life around, she reported.
“I’m building a legacy now, not a company – I’m excited,” Montes said. “I’m working on other projects, bringing workshops, empowering on a larger level, and bringing the whole dream to life. I’m on cloud nine. I’m grateful every day I wake up. I thank God to be able to come back.”