Black designers have made an extraordinary contribution to Britain's design history. You only have to look to London’s current roster of talent, where Grace Wales Bonner regularly collaborates with global megabrand Adidas, Martine Rose is a household name and the likes of Saul Nash, Priya Ahluwalia and Bianca Saunders push garment innovation, season on season. Yet the influence of Black British creatives has long gone unacknowledged; often excluded from the story of British fashion. It feels fitting that at the helm of Black History Month, Somerset House presents The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion, an exhibition charting the profound impact of Black designers on the British fashion landscape.
Nicholas Daley's commission for the exhibition
Curated by Harris Elliott, Andrew Ibi and Jason Jules who make up BOLD (Black Orientated Legacy Development Agency), the trio set out to document the rich history of Black British fashion. Spanning the 1970s to present day, the showcase presents the development of Black British style and design in the spaces they were nurtured within, documented through photographs, films and ephemera through evolving socio-political contexts.
Alongside menswear designer, dancer and htown’s own Saul Nash, commissions from designers Nicholas Daley and Bianca Saunders speak to a new vanguard of British talent. A precursor, perhaps, to the show's final section which pays homage to the late, great designer Joe Casely-Hayford, a trailblazer of tailoring who largely remains unrecognised in British fashion history books. It’s a joyous celebration of Black British creativity which shines light on the immense impact Black communities have had on British design, culture and counterculture.
The exhibition's final room, dedicated to Joe-Casely Hayford OBE's archive
A Map of London
Titled ‘A Map of London’, Saul Nash’s commission presents a jacquard wool tracksuit, knitted with an autobiographical map of the designer’s birthplace. Charting the nuanced cultural identities and subsequent boroughs of London, the two-piece attempts to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding Black men who wear hoods.
“I started by thinking about my journey growing up in London," said Saul. " I was often stopped and searched as a teenager and at the time, I thought this was associated with identity and how people perceived me based on what I wore. Through reading and my own knowledge, I found that this hasn’t really changed from my generation to the next”.
Reflecting on the stereotypes surrounding the hooded tracksuit, Nash chose to construct using fine merino in an attempt to re-contextualise what is an increasingly political garment.
“Part of my work as a designer is to challenge preconceived notions around sportswear and the men who wear it”.
Saul Nash's ‘A Map of London’ illustration
From filmmaker and artist Sir Isaac Julien to drill artist Unknown T, the garment is decorated with the names of Black British males, along with the multi-faceted identities occupied by these figures. “I wanted to feature a diverse range of ages and inspiring talents from across London and highlight the fact that although the [tracksuit] silhouette may have created stereotypes, people are multi-layered and cannot be reduced to stereotypes”.
“The map of London was really an attempt to break down these stereotypes, and highlight the fact that beneath what people may think about this silhouette and identity of people who wear them, there is nuance and beauty.”
The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion is showing at Somerset House until 7th Jan 2023.
Words - Ella Aldersey-Williams