Transforming the mundane with Bianca Saunders
The work of the RCA graduate explores black masculinity and gender expectations in London.
Every January and every June, the global menswear trade descends upon Florence, the cradle of the Italian language and home to the world’s most important collections of Renaissance paintings. It’s hardly often that you think of the quaint Tuscan city as being at bleeding edge of menswear, but, once a season, there it is; first held in September 1972, Florence’s Pitti Uomo has become a key stop on the biannual men’s week circuit for buyers, editors and street-style peacocks alike. “I thought London could be showy, but Pitti was even more extreme”, says Bianca Saunders, the Royal College of Art graduate recently returned from showing at the fair. “People had come from around the world just to have their picture taken!” The differences between the two do not stop at that, “everyone was extremely focussed on the quality of design, rather than in London, where people pay more attention to silhouette, or to the materials used” – no surprise, given Pitti’s firm anchoring in the stubborn traditions of Italian tailoring; here, craft is valued over concept.
Bianca is a designer gifted with both: even a passing glance at either of her collections reveals a designer well-versed in the heritage of time-honoured suiting, and it is immediately clear why she was handpicked by Harris Elliott to show as part of 5 CURATORS/ONE SPACE. But, while her work was applauded for the technical proficiency it demonstrates, not all of the exhibition’s attendees were as quick to grasp its conceptual depth: “My pieces were…well, not everyone understood them,” inviting such comments as “Your work is really theatrical! Have you thought about going into costume design?” For the record, no, she has not. And for good reason too – after all, how many graduates can count industry titans like Charlie Porter among their ever-widening base of fans less than a year after graduation?
In London is the Place for Me, her first foray into menswear, she presents a retrospective portrait of Caribbean life in Britain, exploring notions of home, identity and memory: the patterns on quilted khaki jackets mirror the wallpaper of her grandmother’s house, and delicate white lace suggests frilled net curtains; the first look of the collection, a gentlemanly pinstripe suit, would imply an overbearing, masculine severity were it not interrupted by wide, fuzzy bands of cobalt blue carpet. This is no novice work, requiring a mastery of advanced technique, a steady hand and an eye for precision. That does not, however, go to say that there was no error in the trialling process: “There were many things that almost went wrong,” remembers Bianca, recounting her first attempts at felting and cutting suit patterns, “it was my first time making menswear, and I had no idea where to begin with making a suit. I bought one, took it apart and thought I’d be able to make a pattern,” with little initial success.
If London is the Place for Me is where she first acquired and tested her arsenal of skills, her second collection, Personal Politics, is where she made those skills her own. Here, the tools of contrast and contradiction that carried the first collection are executed with newfound subtlety, with textured meaning stitched into the very seams of each piece.
Research for the collection began with a short documentary, a series of one-on-one interviews with her male friends, documenting their experiences coming to terms with stereotypes of black hypermasculinity and the challenges of self-fashioning under a social climate in which such stereotypes govern. At the outset, Bianca’s approach was far from set in stone: “When I first started on it, I thought it would be filled with pleats and pink details, but that just felt so obvious.” On the advice of her tutors, she returned to the drawing board and saw that the very crux of what she wanted to say lay in the body language of her interviewees, a realisation that had profound effects on the design process going forward. Designing by draping, pinning swatches of fabric to a mannequin, her collection became a question of creating fashion that expressed and validated the in-betweenness of her subjects, weaving subtle signifiers of femininity into an otherwise boldly masculine silhouette. A black mesh vest with thick adjustable straps simultaneously giving the intimacy of lingerie and the sporty practicality of a nylon backpack, while the pocket of a billowing pair of grey cotton tracksuit trousers is delicately ruched. “I’m fascinated by the idea of transforming the mundane,” she said, speaking of this latter piece, going on to reference the work of black sculptor Thomas J. Price as an inspiring force: “He always sculpts black men that aren’t necessarily young or particularly striking – they’re just average guys.”
Just this week, Bianca is in Copenhagen presenting her work at the city’s International Fashion Fair. Selected along with four other recent graduates, the exhibition is part of an initiative organised by 1 Granary and Machine-A, showcasing the future of independent fashion design. And what is it that ensures her part in this future? Above all, the integrity she deems necessary to get there: “It’s all well to produce a twenty-look collection, but how is it improving fashion? How is it changing it? At the end of the day, fashion needs to have something to say.”