second generation designers are shaping the future of the british fashion industry
Fashion journalist Osman Ahmed celebrates a new generation of young designers from multi-cultural backgrounds who are redefining and reimagining what British fashion means today.
ASAI. Photography Alexandra Leese.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Superstar Issue, no. 354, Winter 2018
Why aren’t there more brown designers? A question that’s often asked but rarely answered. The truth is it’s less to do with racism, more to do with internalized cultural stigma. There’s a phrase, for example, that most first or second-generation immigrants are likely to hear from their parents while growing up: “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” It’s a sentiment that rings true for many of us: the idea that education and security are what’s most important — hence the emphasis on vocations like medicine, law, and engineering — and anything less reliant on academic merit, like the arts or entertainment for instance, is better left to those who have dominated those arenas since the beginning. In other words, it’s better not to try than to have failed.
But a new generation is more at home here than their forefathers, less nostalgic for a home they’ve left, and are tapped in to wider gender, racial and political issues.
30-year-old designer A Sai Ta’s Chinese father and Vietnamese mother arrived in the UK as refugees in 1979. A Sai was given an anglicized name (Andrew) by his parents, but reverted to his Vietnamese name upon visiting as a young adult. “It’s apparent if you look at your classmates at school. You are automatically othered. That makes you go through an internal process about your own morals and values and perspective. What eyes do other people perceive you with? How do you understand your own culture?”
When A Sai’s mother got a divorce from his father, she faced stigma from both her own community as well as racial prejudice from the one she had settled into. He describes an isolated upbringing that he emotionally internalized. “Clothing has always been instrumental in my journey and communicating my Britishness,” he explains, recalling the childhood embarrassment that is familiar to many second-generation people. “I wanted to people to know that I’m from London because people fresh off the boat have a certain style and you don’t want to be associated with them.”
“I is a verb masquerading as a noun,” wrote philosopher Julian Baggini. Indeed identity is an ongoing performance, not a static state. Hence a widespread shift towards individualistic storytelling, compared to a time when every minority was lumped together and considered ‘other.’ Identity is no longer just political; it’s pop culture. Think everyone else is just like you? Think again.
When the film Bhaji on the Beach was released 25 years ago, it put the double yoke of sexism and racism that South Asian women face at the heart of its story. The film was both funny and fearless in the way it tackled the serious issues of domestic violence, interracial relationships, xenophobia, generational divides, culture clashes, and modern-day values. One pertinent scene sees denim-clad British Asian teenager Hashida sat in a café, overwhelmed by the dual pressures of her upbringing. On one side are her ‘aunties’ condemning the British for their manners and the youth for betraying their cultural traditions; on the other side are two locals hissing about Asians breeding like rabbits and that they should just bugger off back to their own country.
“You try fusion and you get con-fusion!” one character says, skeptical of cultural collision. A quarter of a century later, it’s just as prescient. “You’re neither here nor there,” agrees Supriya Lele, the RCA-trained womenswear designer whose parents moved to the West Midlands from Nagpur and Jabalpur in India. Having just graduated from Fashion East, Supriya’s work explores the nuances of British Asian culture and Anglo-Indian dress codes. “I was able to work through things that I was embarrassed about,” Supriya says. “Growing up, I was always very aware that we ate certain food or dressed in a certain way. Now, I’m proud of my heritage but I still have to stop myself from blocking it out.”
“I sometimes worry that my collection’s too Indian, but what does that even mean? Maybe it’s because that comes from a fear of being discriminated against.” Supriya Lele
Supriya remixes the canon of western wardrobe classics like trench coats, shirting, cocktail dresses, and pencil skirts, imbuing each garment with subtle nods to India: sari darting, drapery, and ornate embroideries. What gives it a sense of the here and now, however, is that it is an antidote to the traditional tropes of Indian style, which are usually centered on Bollywood sparkle and woodblock elephant prints. Instead, she prefers to borrow from the photographs she has taken of people on the street in India, who are often in a mishmash of dhoti linens and nylon sportswear.
“I start getting frightened of it and worry that it’s too Indian, but what does that even mean? Maybe it’s because that comes from a fear of being discriminated against,” she offers. Despite her heritage, though, Lele is still as distinctly British – when asked what she found most alien about India, she swiftly replies: “No one bloody queues!”
Today, second-generation designers are ostensibly more literal when it comes to their approach. One of the standout shows of London Fashion Week in September was Simone Rocha’s artful exploration of the Tang dynasty, which nodded to her own Chinese heritage. It featured interpretations of paintings found in Hong Kong antique markets — themselves imitations of sixteenth-century paintings of Chinese concubines. The result was a spellbinding line up of cocoon shapes with prints of paintings, Tang-inspired chiffon aprons and scarlet embroidered line paintings on white cotton dresses.
Asai’s show was a paean to Kim Phuc, better known as “Napalm Girl” in war photographer Nick Ut’s famous image. There were tie-dye tiger-camo prints, sharp-edged military details, blue dragons and Chinoiserie, monastic Buddhist drapery, the curves of traditional Vietnamese “ao dai” tunic. In New York, Asian American designer Sandy Liang staged a presentation in her father’s Chinese restaurant among traditional Cantonese dishes. Meanwhile, South Korean designer Yoonsuk Lee, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Academy of Art, was inspired by an exhibition of Korean dressmaking at the city’s Asian Art Museum, reinterpreting the conservative full-length styles into something sexier.
“Western influences naturally became a part of my aesthetic and vision,” Yoonsuk says, while acknowledging that he borrows from the layering of traditional Korean dress to create dramatic volumes. It’s a far cry from a previous generation of Asian American designers — Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Anna Sui, and Vera Wang for instance — who hardly reference their heritage at all.
Where perspectives are already most nuanced is within black culture, where there is a plethora of perspectives that dramatically differ from one another, largely a result of the intricacies of the class system. Mowalola Ogunlesi arrived in the British countryside from Lagos at the age of 12 to attend an all-girls boarding school and her work is an exploration of afro-futurism with a focus on the style of Highlife, a genre of music that became the soundtrack for postcolonial Nigerian euphoria in the 60s and 70s. In Britain she was the only black student in her school year. “It’s about knowing more about myself and my history,” Mowalola says. “When I came to school in England, we were learning about Henry VIII, but I didn’t learn any of my own history. Then at college, I made sure I learned something about my culture. I wanted to get knowledge on that, so I don’t feel out of place and I can fully be myself.”
“When I came to school in England, we were learning about Henry VIII, but I didn’t learn any of my own history. Then at college, I made sure I learned something about my culture. I wanted to get knowledge on that, so I don’t feel out of place and I can fully be myself.” Mowalola
Before she graduated from Central Saint Martins, Ogunlesi worked for Grace Wales Bonner, the British-Jamaican designer who has investigated black masculinity and post-colonial history through collaborations and research into black artists, poets, and musicians. Wales Bonner’s soft and romantic portrayal of black masculinity and sexuality is a riposte to the aggressive and often hyper-sexualized representation of black men as criminals, savages, and brutes. Wales Bonner, however, has overwritten that narrative, refiguring black history, subverting traditionally orientalist imagery.
“What I’m doing is about openness,” she once told me. “At the same time, I don’t think that you should have to explain. If you’re making clothes they need to stand on their own context. I’m interested in creating something that has its own value.”
Samuel Ross, by contrast, was born in south London to Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. The former graphic designer has devoted his label, A-Cold-Wall*, to the nuances of urban working-class culture. His clothes have a utilitarian and brutalist edge, borrowing from the architecture of social housing. It’s a world away from the bright retro-futurism of Mowalola and the intense elegance of Wales Bonner.
What Wales Bonner said about something having a value of its own is an important point: if you are a brown designer, should your work reflect that? “The global luxury customer doesn’t care where something is from,” asserts Dal Chodha, a British Asian fashion writer and educator. “If we politicize it too much we’ve failed as a generation, because then you’re creating clothes for people that are exactly like you, and you end up speaking to yourself.” The world is becoming more globalized and everyone is just as likely to be wearing trainers as traditional dress.
“There’s a sense of guilt with second and third generations,” Chodha points out. “They want to repair those fractured lines. You go to India and you find a culture that is completely changing and it begs the question of whether the whole world is becoming a massive Westfield shopping centre.” That can often result in second-generation designers fantasizing about something lost. What makes a difference is when designers get personal, imbuing their clothes with a sense of narrative, emotion, and vision.
In Berlin, designers Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik are the forces behind GmbH, a label garnering acclaim for its tough-luxe slickness. Huseby is Norwegian-Pakistani and Isik is German-Turkish. Both are gay, too, and their work has a sharp twang of Berlin’s queer scene. “I felt like I wasn’t white enough for Germans, but not brown enough for the brown community,” Serhat says. “Our approach is very personal,” Benjamin adds. “We take inspiration from my mum’s wedding sari or a jacket from Serhat’s grandad going to the mines in the morning. It’s very culturally complex.”
GmbH is known for its diverse casting and shows, but the clothes in question — amazingly sculpted tailoring and high-waisted trousers, fleece jackets, and paneled biker leathers — never look ostentatiously exotic. “Usually in fashion, when people say ‘ethnic’ it’s always a travel reference, but that’s never what it is for us,” Benjamin says. “We didn’t go to a Moroccan souk or on a journey to India and design a collection.” Indeed, their embroideries are done in India, but you won’t catch a paisley in sight. They prefer to tap into more nuanced codes of second-generation culture: the idea of sartorial insecurity. “We use a lot of people of color in our show and it’s important for us that they look beautiful,” Serhat says. “Right now, a white European aesthetic is very much about people looking cool or ugly or weird or unhealthy.” He’s right. As a person of color, you always want to look your best; polished shoes, ironed clothes, and good hair. Let’s call it Sunday Best mentality: taking pride in how you present yourself to the world and represent your culture. It’s also a class thing. Just think of aristocrats in their moth-eaten jumpers and upwardly mobile immigrants in their pressed shirts. “When I go to the bakery in Berlin in a tracksuit, they don’t know if I’m a drug dealer or a hipster,” Serhat says. “We want to elevate that look to a level where it doesn’t have the stigma.”
As more designers from minority cultures become more visible within fashion the more nuanced their exploration of heritage will become. They might want to explore their lineage in overt abundance, or they may just want to zone in on what inspires them, regardless of racial identity. “As my work grows, it won’t have to be about my race anymore because there’s more to me than that,” A Sai Ta brilliantly put it. “Having your output defined by where you’re from is backwards, but there is a hand and a voice. I don’t speak of my culture; I speak with it.”
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.