Welcome To Tomorrowland – A Place Where Emerging Designers Are Changing The World
And here we are: 2020. According to most doomsday theories, we’re supposed to have been wiped off the face of Earth by now, courtesy of a disastrous apocalypse. And despite it not having happened just yet, the visuals of the world actually falling apart seem more realistic than before. But now there’s a booming group of young, incredibly talented people unearthing streams of positivity all over the world. Based in locations ranging from Lagos and London to Amsterdam and New York, these fashion designers are coming up with new ideas for creating and communicating fashion as they expand the understanding of sustainability within the industry.
While all absolutely individual in their expression, there is a definite united front seen within the new guard. They don’t need to label their businesses (yes, they are businesses!) as sustainable – they are brands who think innovatively. And there’s nothing more innovative than sustainability. For some, it’s in how they use their fabrics and where those fabrics come from, for others it’s where they use them.
In Johannesburg, Thebe Magugu is carrying the weight of building an industry from the ground up. The latest recipient of the LVMH Prize (and the first from the African continent), Magugu is using the €300,000 funding, along with the 12-month mentorship from the conglomerate, to expand his brand in South Africa and become the first truly global brand to do so. “I feel like sustainability for Europe and sustainability for Africa have slight variances. Whereas sustainability in general refers to environmental challenges that need to be overcome, our sustainability is more social-facing, because those are our immediate needs,” he says. “Unemployment is at an all-time high and [dealing with] poverty remains a top priority. Although I practice environmental sustainability, I am even more concerned about the people around me, whether it’s the people I work with or the general society in which I find myself.”
Thebe Magugu by Travis Owen
Understanding that the value of the prize money is much more powerful both in and to his home country, Magugu is working on establishing a structure of a fashion business and linking it to a network of customers worldwide. His garments not only pay homage to his cultural background in the way they are made, but also through the inspirations and elements that form his unique womenswear POV. “My goal for the brand is to create a global fashion brand that is firmly rooted in its cultural milieu, unearthing all its stories and histories to not only educate and inform people but to also allow them to adorn themselves with a piece of that history.”
Despite being forward-thinking, the answer is not always in innovating when it comes to the design processes used by emerging designers. Instead, a lot of the focus is on preserving cultures and techniques of the past. Based in London, the British-Bangladeshi menswear designer Rahemur Rahman is working with Aranya, a Bangladeshi organisation that’s part of the World Fair Trade Organisation. Founded by the social activist and crafts expert Ruby Ghuznavi in 1990 as a “fair-trade movement to revive natural colours”, Aranya is today a “thriving ecosystem” of more than 3,000 artisans across the South Asian country, all acting together to savour and share traditions in garment-making. “Working with artisans, I get to redesign and remodel traditional techniques for a modern eye, working with them to create new colours on ethically sourced organic cottons and silks,” says Rahman of his poetic menswear. With two presentations at London Fashion Week Men’s already under his belt, he is maintaining a studious approach that is taking him ever closer to his final goal, which is less about selling clothes and more about going back to his roots. “A lot of textiles were taken from South Asia because of colonisation, most of which I can only see in museums. What would be a dream is that, though my work and through development, I get to decolonise them and [return] the archival pieces they hold.”
Bode by William Waterworth
Over in New York, Emily Adams Bode is revelling in the beauty of old-timey-ness as she uses vintage fabrics and the traditional Americana techniques of needlework and quilt-making in her menswear designs for Bode. Now showing on the Paris Fashion Week schedule, her brand has exponentially grown over the past few years, even opening its own physical retail location in NYC’s Chinatown. The space, at 58 Hester Street, was created in partnership with Green River Project, a design studio that honours a research-based approach to hand-crafting furniture and interiors. Embracing a first-come, first-served kind of luxury, Bode consistently drops special, one-off pieces in the store and uses it as a platform for interacting with her customers and informing her future collections.“Everyone said this is unscalable, but [using vintage fabrics] has remained 40% of the brand.” It all derives from her youth, during which she collected doll quilts with her mother and sisters, visiting her hometown Atlanta’s many markets. Regarding the brand’s next challenge, the designer recognises the importance of internal archiving as a way of creating a portfolio of fabrics and swatches used in the collections, with the goal being a library that allows a greater understanding of the past, the present and the future in fashion and textiles.
Upcycling, repurposing, re-contextualising – whatever you want to call it, the use of existing fabrics and garments represents a growing common ground for a lot of young designers. Partly born out of necessity (Bode started using them during her college days), it’s also an unrivalled way of battling overproduction. “I suppose a sustainable brand is one that sees the issue of the negative impact on the planet and the people [who work] in the fashion industry and tries to conduct business in a way that reduces that harm or tries to put a positive spin on things,” says Priya Ahluwalia, a London-born designer who has been running her eponymous brand since 2018, when she graduated from the University of Westminster. As part of her final project there, Ahluwalia released Sweet Lassi, a publication documenting her 2017 trip to visit family in Lagos, Nigeria, during which she noticed a trader wearing a 2012 London Marathon tee.
Ahluwalia by Nilk Khimani
Moments like that led her to look at the bigger story of secondhand Western clothing being dumped in less-developed places, particularly Panipat in India, the global garment-recycling capital of the world. Since then, she’s been sourcing existing garments and transforming them into something completely new, her menswear walking the line between tailoring and sportswear, with a heavy personal touch inspired by Ahluwalia’s multi-culti background. She does, however, avoid using the word upcycling. “I’ve been hearing it my whole life, but it reminds me of what Kirstie Allsopp does. She buys furniture and she upcycles it, with a message like, ‘This is craft you can do at home.’” Ahluwalia urges better understanding of the skills behind creating pieces like hers, and the challenges met while having to source the materials. “I do actually enjoy the whole process, even though it makes it much more difficult and time-consuming. I want to think about it as giving old things new life.”
Joining her in that mission are Duran Lantink, Ancuta Sarca and Conner Ives. Each from a different cultural background, these three designers are all in the running to be named fashion’s Victor Frankenstein. Just like the title character in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, they are putting together pieces that most would imagine completely disparate. But unlike Frankenstein’s creation, theirs aren’t “hideously ugly”. In fact, they are the opposite. Hailing from the rural part of New York state, Ives is currently finishing his course at Central Saint Martins in London, but has been running his namesake brand since 2016. Dedicated to reconstructing garments found in charity shops, he has already had his designs on the carpet of the Met Gala, as worn by Adwoa Aboah in 2017, and seen on just about every celebrity fashion website thanks to none other than Bad Gal RiRi herself. As one of his earliest fans, Rihanna has not only worn his clothes, she also hired Ives as a consultant for Fenty, her recent fashion venture supported by LVMH. His design signature comes in the form of one-off dresses made by collaging branded vintage tees. Taking things at his own pace, Ives spent more than two years creating his latest (SS19) collection, Nature Boy. “I see these collections as self-development for me, a way to catalogue my obsessions and work of the time and see how ideas progress,” he says.
Rahemur Rahman by Emma Gibney
One of the most recent additions to the Fashion East line-up, Romanian-born Sarca was one of the first footwear designers to be part of the emerging fashion platform run by Lulu Kennedy. This past September, her first full collection was shown at the NikeLab space during London Fashion Week. Fitting into their surroundings perfectly, her shoes were hybrids of dowdy kitten heels and sporty Nike trainers, all collected from places like charity shops and car-boot sales. “Each pair plays up juxtapositions of masculine and feminine, high fashion and sportswear,” Sarca said of her pieces before the show, which were then sold afterwards via LN- CC, a store she continues to work with.
For Amsterdam-based Lantink, the upcycling process is reflected in a way that’s more than just mashing up the un-mashable. It’s a mathematical equation that envelops his whole design process, which goes back to his student days, when he began digitally putting together his favourite fashion staples – a statement Balenciaga sleeve from AW08 here, a Prada top from the seminal SS11 banana collection there. At the time, Lantink religiously saved high-res flat-shot photos from Farfetch in what he still treats as his ultimate library of fashion. And despite mixed reactions from his fellow students, who questioned whether it is actually design (“Yes, it is,” says Lantink), he continued to build on this expertise. In addition to working on a commission basis, for which you provide him with old favourites from your wardrobe that he then reimagines as new-season crossbreeds,
Lantink also collaborates with big retailers on reimagining their deadstock and damaged items from the past. Browns gave him carte blanche to go into their warehouse and choose whatever he wanted to revamp, while the Dutch fashion outlet Batavia Stad provided him with all the resources to create a collection for Amsterdam Fashion Week in September 2019. But don’t label him a sell-out –the spectacle rebelled against the idea of a fashion show in a sarcastic way that’s something of a signature of Lantink’s, with one model covered in McDonald’s packaging, food and toys. He doesn’t see himself as a brand, but rather a workshop making sure the large “Sale” sign becomes a thing of the past and leftovers are turned into covetable pieces. “I just want to see people taking very seriously that we have to cut out the production of new materials for the sake of improving the state of the environment. I would also like to see less importance put on seasonal shows. Actually, that’s my biggest dream.”
Fabrics are indeed the biggest opportunity for new names to create their own distinct language. But don’t just expect eco cottons or recycled denim. One of the most exciting new fabric innovators is Benjamin Benmoyal, a French-Israeli alumnus of Central Saint Martins’ textile design course, whose graduate collection stood out for its graphic, statuesque silhouettes (matching wigs included), created in what seemed like a colourful Lurex. But all is not as it seems. Finding beauty and glamour in obsolete objects – VHS and cassette tapes – he interwove glossy tape ribbons with recycled yarns. “My aim is to make something that’s desirable because of its uniqueness. I don’t want to make another beige organic cotton – other people are doing it way better than I would.” Benmoyal puts his undying sense of nostalgia to good use, with plans to showcase his future collections during Paris Fashion Week. “I hope to work with The Butterfly Garden, a UK charity creating purposeful experiences for people [dealing with disabilities of any kind]. They have recycled more than a million VHS units by dismantling them, and they are currently holding about 40,000 units in a queue, with more arriving every day.”
Also focused on the art of weaving is Kenneth Ize. Having moved back home to Lagos in 2013 after graduating from Vienna (and studying under Bernhard Willhelm and Hussein Chalayan), he launched his eponymous label, with a mission to combine his European experience with traditional techniques and sustainable fabrics from his homeland. “I believe in exchange and that, if I can bring talent to Nigeria, it could be something very beneficial for everyone,” Ize said at the finals of last year’s LVMH Prize, in which he was something of a fan favourite. Spearheading a revolution of Nigerian fashion, he’s been steadily filtering his own trademark and making it known worldwide. The vividly hued plaids with fringed hems celebrate a variety of traditional Nigerian techniques and are created by master weavers with generations of experience in fine textile-making. They have also been worn by everyone from Donald Glover to Naomi Campbell, who even walked in his show at Lagos’s Arise Fashion Week in 2019. “I found a solution because my brand is about a social system and creating opportunities for people. Africa has a lot of problems, but it’s just about understanding them and not being aggressive. [It’s about] just narrating them in a very sophisticated way that people will understand.”
Ancuta Sarca by Jason Lloyd-Evans
And then there’s Bethany Williams. A Northern girl with a heart as big as a house and an even bigger ambition to make this world a better place, she is unofficially known as the Greta Thunberg of our industry. “Bethany Williams is not a fashion designer, she is a trailblazer paving the way for a more compassionate, more inclusive future,” wrote Jane Williams, the founder of The Magpie Project (a charity that helps mothers and children living in temporary or insecure accommodation in Newham, east London) and one of Williams’s most recent collaborators. “She uses her immense talent to selflessly leverage her brand and partnerships in the service to our community’s most vulnerable and marginalised members.” With each of her collections, Williams plays the role of a philanthropic matchmaker as she constantly finds ways to connect commercial outlets with pockets of society who would otherwise remain disregarded.
Kenneth Ize by Julian Poropatich
With a wholesome approach to sustainability, she considers it from every aspect – social, environmental, cultural… “I feel like sustainability is obviously a really hot topic and for me quite a problematic word, because it’s very broad and you need to be specific about what you’re working on. My approach is specifically focused on social projects and recycled, organic textiles, but there are so many different elements of sustainability,” the designer said after her AW20 show. And when it comes to the ways Bethany Williams partners with organisations, that includes not only spending time with the people involved in the charities but also creating workshops and opportunities for them to be included in the process and then be rightfully supported from the sales of the final garments. Her mission is never done, though – there’s always someone else who needs a platform, and Williams is here to provide it. “I also feel like I don’t know everything about it. No one knows everything about it – we’re all just trying to learn about it together. I don’t feel there should ever be a right or a wrong. It’s about looking at the big picture and making a decision that’s right for you,” she said.
Things might look gloomy at the moment, and being optimistic does indeed feel equal to believing in unicorns. But thanks to the positive energy and groundbreaking ideas coming from these young minds, and so many others around them, there’s no mistaking we’re going through a revolution.
Taken from Issue 64 – BEST, FOOT, FORWARD – which is on newsstands now.
Bethany Williams by Jason Lloyd-Evans
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