Jersey City is an informal place. We don’t need to get dressed up to roll into our best restaurants. Most of our big events feel — and look — casual. Civic leaders often appear in public in jeans.

Is this the right place for a festival dedicated to fashion?

MANA Contemporary is betting that it is. The municipal government is making the same wager. This Wednesday (September 6), they’re joining forces with the recently minted MANA Fashion Services for the Jersey City Day of Fashion, an unprecedented celebration of couture in a t-shirt town. Events begin at nine in the morning and will twinkle on into the night. They include three separate fashion shows at the Biergarten Gallery on the main MANA campus at 888 Newark Avenue — one hosted by the Fashion Designers of Latin America, one dedicated to contemporary African fashion, and one done in collaboration with Englewood, New Jersey direct-to-fabric printers Kornit Digital. There’ll also be happenings at city hotels, 150 Bay Street, Deep Space Gallery, and independent retailers SECÜR (291 Grove St.) and NJ Skateshop (383 Monmouth St.) Reservations for each event are available here. Most are free.

The event is an expression of MANA founder and developer Moishe Mana’s interest in fashion. But it wouldn’t have taken the shape it has — or become as comprehensive as it is — without the enthusiastic support of City Council president Joyce Watterman.

“Councilwoman Watterman was excited about the event and wanted to help,” says Martu Freeman Parker, the director of the Miami-based MANA Fashion Services. “She reached out to the hotels, and encouraged us to involve and highlight small businesses. We started out with five events, and now we’ve got fourteen.”

The Councilwoman will lead a fashion-focused panel discussion at the Waterfront Hyatt (1 Exchange Place). Her roundtable follows a 9 a.m. press conference at City Hall (360 Grove St.)

The Day of Fashion finds MANA Contemporary and the city government in an unusually snug embrace. It’s further evidence that the once-reticent arts organization is opening up and taking community engagement seriously. It’s also another milestone in the arts center’s course alteration. Not too long ago, MANA felt like a smaller version of the DIA Beacon, the post-industrial Hudson Valley arts center that spotlights austere mid-20th century minimalism. MANA even featured many of the same artists that DIA does: Fred Sandback, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, among others.

Beginning with “Materialistic,” an outstanding textile show in autumn 2021, MANA has pivoted toward fiber, cloth, and the future of all things wearable. “50 Years of Beats and Sneaks,” an exhibition by Day of Fashion participant Sean Williams examining the connections between shoes and hip-hop, was a centerpiece of the MANA 2023 schedule. Jonathan Mannion’s “Indigo,” featuring laser inscribed images on jean denim, currently hangs in the MANA lobby.

MANA Contemporary creative director Kele McComsey confirms that this isn’t a coincidence.

“Those shows were a strategic effort to begin integrating design and fashion into the MANA ecosystem,” says McComsey, who took the helm at MANA Jersey City in February 2022. “Recently, we’ve been looking at ways of expanding our programming within Jersey City and tapping into the vast talent that lives and works here. Last year we programmed and hosted a runway show and panel discussions during fashion week, and now we are focusing our efforts toward uniting that creative talent into a larger event.”

“And yes, there will be more to come.”

The programming adjustment comes amidst a transitional period for MANA Contemporary. MANA also maintains facilities in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago and Wynwood, the colorful street art capital of South Florida. MANA’s Miami location is currently closed, but the organization’s Floridian activities have otherwise accelerated. MANA Fashion Services, for instance, was launched in April 2022. Freeman Parker is headquartered in Miami, but she’s got history in New Jersey, and particular affection for Jersey City.

“I used to live in East Orange,” says Freeman Parker. “I remember when Grove Street was figuring out what it wanted to be. I love what it’s become, and I love riding around and seeing all the stores and the culture. I want people from New York to come over and see what’s happening.”

One of the Jersey designers that she champions is Marco Hall, proprietor of the MH302 Boutique on Halsey Street in Newark. Hall has been involved in prior fashion events at MANA Contemporary, and he’ll be showing his work on the ground floor of the big building at 2 p.m. In addition to his own “Fashion in Motion” exhibition, he’ll have work in the Kornit Digital fashion show, alongside designs by Keely Bembry of Grove Street boutique SECÜR, Tyler Neasloney of 150 Bay Street, and the ubiquitous Bryant Small, painter in alcohol ink and incoming executive director of the Jersey City Arts Council.

Small’s participation in the Day of Fashion is a reminder that the borders between the arts are more permeable than they sometimes seem. Many of the finest artists working in this town incorporate textiles into their pieces already. How the maximalism of commercial fashion harmonizes with Jersey City’s aesthetic personality — earthy, unpretentious, environmentally conscious and frequently driven by narrative — is an open question, and one we’ll begin answering on Wednesday. For now, it's deeply meaningful that an arts facility renowned for painting and sculpture is making room for something a little more malleable. Maybe a little more populist, too.

“MANA is a creative community that is constantly expanding, and that includes fashion,” says McComsey. “These events will prove what can be accomplished when creative people working in different disciplines converge.”

Tris McCall: [email protected]

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...