London designer Maximilian is bringing Black elegance to fashion
The Wales Bonner alumnus discusses his SS21 Fashion East debut and how his world is a collision of 18th-century portraiture, Trinidadian Carnival and Sean Paul videos.
Photography Rafael Pavarotti
Over its 20 year tenure, Fashion East has given us some of the most memorable designer debuts in contemporary fashion history. From Gareth Pugh’s blow-up bubble dress for AW05 through to the sumptuous Afro-inflected decadence of Wales Bonner’s AW15 Ebonics collection, a debut on Lulu Kennedy’s stage has been the springboard for some of the most acclaimed designers working today. Though things were a little different this season -- in the place of its usual catwalk show, a socially-distanced screening of four short films was held -- the London-based talent incubator’s knack for bringing the most exciting young fashion talents to the world for the first time remained intact. This season, the gauntlet was passed to Maximilian Davis, whose SS21 collection, J’ouvert, was an accomplished toast to Black elegance.
It’s title translating to ‘dawn’ or ‘daybreak’, the clothes themselves sit in a twilight zone between refinement and proudly-flaunted sexiness. Looking to the annual Carnival that takes place in Trinidad, his late grandmother’s home, for inspiration, it’s a collection that reclaims the sartorial tropes of its 19th-century origins and celebrates the exuberance of the costumes worn today. The primness of a dinner jacket or a princess-seamed frock coat is counterbalanced by a svelte suede dress, slashed to resemble a palm frond; or bras with harnessed backs, feather-trimmed satin shirts and pleated ra-ra skirts. The two contrasting spirits also find a comfortable home in halterneck tops inspired by a cravat worn in a late 18th-century painting by freed slave Jean-Baptiste Belley, and an open-backed evening gown.
Captured in a video directed by Akinola Davis (a sweaty, sensuous ode to the party that comes after the parade) and in a lookbook book styled by i-D’s Ib Kamara and shot by Rafael Pavarotti (“the collection is about Carnival and he’s Brazilian, so I knew he'd get it straight away,” Maximilian says), the 25-year-old LCF and Wales Bonner alumnus’ premiere was among the most memorable moments of this most surreal of fashion months. Below, Maximilian fills us in on how he’s dealing with the hype, the importance of rigorous research, and the nuances of Blackness he hopes to bring to light.
How are you feeling now that the dust has settled a bit?
Good! I was kind of overwhelmed with it all at first, I'm not really used to talking about my work. I'm so used to being in the background and have been happy doing that. Once it was released on Sunday, I just couldn't believe the response that I got, it's not what I expected at all. Especially because I've never put on my work before. Now I'm a bit like, 'Fuck, I need to make sure next season's cute,’ you know?
What made you feel that now was the time to share your work?
I was working at Wales Bonner before this, and during my last collection there, my grandmother passed a couple of weeks before the show. I just wanted to spend time with my family and focus on myself, so I took some time out of fashion. I was still working at Dover Street Market though, and I reached a point where I realised that this wasn’t what I wanted to do, that my heart was actually in fashion and design and creating. So I decided to just make a collection, just to build my own portfolio. I then spoke to Ib, saying how I really wanted to shoot with Rafael and asking whether it would be possible. I made six looks for February, and then the week that we were going to shoot, we went into lockdown. I didn't really know what I was going to do with these looks hanging around my room and just everywhere, so I was like, ‘You know what, let me see if I can apply for Fashion East’ when I saw that the applications were open.
So things have been in the works for a while then?
I knew that I wanted to include some tailored pieces in the collection, which I know can't be rushed. They were actually the first pieces I made, I worked with a family tailor that my mom's had suits made by for over 15 years. We started with the black tuxedo jacket, and then once I found out that I'd got Fashion East, I needed to add more pieces, so I went back and made the grey jacket and the ivory frock coat with the princess seams.
There’s a real formality and elegance to those pieces, but we also see this Y2K sexiness elsewhere. Why did you want to bring the two together?
My starting point was looking at Carnival today and Carnival in the 19th century and observing what the differences are. What people wear now are very easy going things, just super sexy. There's a sense of freedom to it, and I took a lot of the cutout shapes -- as well as the bras and the harnesses that people wear with feathers, beads and embellishments -- from the costumes you see today. I remember going to Trinidad in the early 2000s and seeing what my sisters would wear for carnival: little ra-ra skirts and slashed t-shirts. At the time, they were watching Sean Paul and Hype Williams music videos -- the Sean Paul videos are especially insane, so I wanted to reference the colours they were using, and the pieces that were worn in them. The references I found to Carnival in the 19th century were people wearing leotards with a harlequin print, which I used throughout the collection. There’s a pair of jeans, as well as a couple of pieces that weren't shot, like a harlequin bra.
You clearly invest time in researching. Is that something you picked up working with Grace Wales Bonner?
Definitely. Grace would spend a week or two researching by herself, and then she would come back to the team and explain what the collection would be about and give us all different things to research. That could be by reading, watching films or just finding garment references or costumes, right down to jewellery and textures. With my own research, I felt that music was really important. It was something that my grandmother lived for. I remember being woken up at her house by her playing calypso and soca music on vinyl. Watching music videos and seeing how people move and react to music was a massive part of my research, too.
What did you want to convey in your own film?
A number of things. One of them was the music, which is something that we started working on a few months before. I knew that I wanted to make my own track with Suutoo, so I sent her about 45 songs to listen to just to get the mood. Another thing was showing celebration and the movement of the Caribbean people. That’s what Carnival's about, it's a celebration of freedom. I felt it was really important to capture the movement of people dancing in a really elegant and sexy way.
How did you feel about not being able to present physically for your debut?
My first feeling was, ‘Fuck, I wanted to do a catwalk!’ But a large part of my research process was watching films, and this presented an opportunity that I might not have had if I were doing a catwalk, to make my own film and do what I want. I had fun just watching music videos, taking what I liked from those and figuring out how to make my own film. It was stressful at times, but the final outcome was definitely worth it. Film is something that I want to continue, I don't want this to be the end of that. Also, the film has had such a wide reach. If I did a physical show, it would only have been seen through the Instagram stories of the people who were there, but now there's more of a chance for more people to see the collection. It makes people feel more included, like they’re more a part of the story.
You’ve previously described the collection as “your distinct perspective on modern Black identity”. What nuances of Blackness are you most keen to bring to light that haven't been expressed before in fashion?
During the lockdown period, I felt like there was so much portrayal of Black people in a negative light, and that we weren't in charge of our own narratives. I wanted to see people of colour presented in an elegant way. Going to galleries, for example, you get so used to seeing 19th-century paintings of white people in elegant tailored pieces, but never any people of colour. And if you do see representations of people of colour, they're presented in a way where they're seen as slaves or not in any position of power. I wanted to take the elegance and the power that we are so used to seeing there and putting that on the Black body. I wanted to show that Black elegance exists.
Are you optimistic about the current conversations being had around Black representation in fashion?
I am, but I just hope it's long-lasting. The industry can be so quick to jump on things and be a part of a movement or trend, and I just really hope that this isn't another one. There are so many magazines that have put Black models on the front cover, doing all these issues with more and more Black faces and this needs to continue. It can't just be for this year or the next year, it needs to be something that is sustained throughout the industry.
Photography Rafael Pavarotti
Styling Ibrahim Kamara