This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Wednesday 19 May 2021, 3pm London-time
Dylan Mekhi: Your work references and draws on elements from either side of your British and Jamaican heritage, addressing existing notions of masculinity through innovative tailoring and use of fabrics, creating an incredible sense of vulnerability and ambiguity that is rarely seen in menswear design, in my opinion. Has this always been the genesis for your work, filling these spaces and creating new ones through a multicultural lens?
Bianca Saunders: My first practice was understanding what guys wanted to wear and what made them feel comfortable. I was just looking at the two different friendship groups I have of men. Guys that are not part of any creative scene and those who are. I had a couple of friends that I spoke to about their masculinity, and it was all about their gestures and body language, which kind of gave off a feminine energy. I thought that was really interesting and I started to think about how to transform that into clothing. It became a bit more of a study. I started doing little films during my degree at the Royal College of Art and it’s become a little bit of a practice obsession, so that each season integrates different ways of doing it.
The AW20 collection was based around dancehall culture, and that culture is mostly based around a woman being in front of the camera, and being the ‘show off’ person. So we had a guy dance by himself in a booth, which is usually a woman’s kind of place, and the guy was further back from the camera. It was an interesting concept to me. Taking those notions is kind of how I introduce thinking about Jamaican and Caribbean culture. I also looked at how Caribbean men groom themselves. Certain guys do their eyebrows, making sure their skin looks a certain way, and that sort of thing. For some people that can be seen as very camp, but for them it’s about carrying themselves in a certain way in terms of body language, being able to look after yourself and look really good.
“I think you can make something have context in another culture depending on how it’s worn.” – Bianca Saunders
Dylan: In your Summer 2021 collection entitled “The Ideal Man”, many of the male models in your lookbook are seen wearing amazing long lace front wigs with their baby hairs laid, short shake and go wigs, and strappy stiletto heels. Juxtaposed with the more traditional menswear silhouettes, these highly intentional styling details are quite stunning. Not only for Black men, but specifically for Black men in a Caribbean setting or within an Afro-Caribbean context this can be seen as quite controversial. Can you talk more about your intention behind these design and styling decisions and the significance of the name of the collection “The Ideal Man”?
Bianca: I think you can make something have context in another culture depending on how it’s worn. I like the idea of characters changing because that’s kind of what people have to do when it comes to dressing up. And I tried to switch off in each of the scenes and make sure that the person could exist in that particular world. It was looking at the two guys and trying to make them merge together and be seen in the same room. What was really good to take away as well is the model who was wearing the wig, he was saying how it was quite freeing to be dressed the way he was in the daytime, wearing his heels and his hair laced. It looks good. So instead of being in a party setting, it actually being daytime, and for him to feel celebrated being who he is. Without it being left for the nighttime. A lot of people feel that you have to be that part of yourself during the nighttime, whereas I want people to feel comfortable to wear what they want, and still be both sides during the day as well.
Dylan: I’d like to touch on that performative aspect a bit more. Many of your previous bodies of work have been extremely performative and have had a focus on movement in their representation and presentation. Being Afro-Caribbean myself, I know firsthand how important movement and performance is within the culture and it is a constant reference point and form of grounding balance for me within my work. Where does this interest and rich sense of performance derive from for you? Is it something that you think of solely in terms of a means of representation in order to bring your collections to life and give the work context? Or is movement also a part of your research and development process?
Bianca: I think what’s quite interesting about my design process is that whenever I start creating the collection and the research, I think about how the person is going to be displayed. And previously, when I hadn’t thought about that process, I felt like it just sucked the life out of it and you actually can’t imagine it in the real world, because you’re just thinking of it just as a static mannequin. When I first started, it was all about creating a presentation, but giving someone a reason to stick around and actually think differently. And I feel like that’s usually done by giving the model or the person a means to kind of exist and feel real – a bit relatable but aspirational as well. You want people to imagine. The last few seasons have always been about imagining the show in a certain way, and how the person will stand so that you can see the clothes from a particular angle, and that’s how I want the images to look. I don’t know if you notice that a lot of the photography of my clothes is from the side. The person is standing as a profile, because it’s often based around the side details of the garment. That kind of comes from subtle movement, which really interests me when I’m designing and when it comes to performance.
“The question is: how does he create a path for himself to exist? It’s about questioning the thought process behind the work and the trajectory.” – Bianca Saunders
Dylan: I think that’s really interesting, because just in terms of menswear design, it’s really based on archetypes, and within the Bianca Saunders universe it feels about the elevation of those archetypes. The details are what make it really interesting and insane, those minor details and the elevation of the proportions or how something is sitting on the body. That isn’t something that I picked up on before, the positioning of the models. As a Black designer in this industry who rather than trying to get seat at the table, successfully created her own table and creates work in reference to and directly addressing intercontinental Black culture and the elevation of it – is there any sort of pressure or duty that you feel in regard to the education and elevation of the people experiencing your work? The young, talented people of colour that look up to you who may now have more opportunities within their own careers due to the path and legacy that you are paving for future generations.
Bianca: I was speaking about this yesterday actually with people I work with, and how there are not that many designers out there that are like me, in terms of how I choose to present myself and the subtle nuances of Jamaican culture that come into the work. I think the most important thing that I’ve learned from my own journey is how much it needs to be about myself, in terms of authenticity. Because it is creating a new path for designers who come after me, for somebody to have a benchmark. At the time when Alexander McQueen was coming about, he was from a working class background, which has its own culture and representation, but he made such beautiful dresses. So the question is: how does he create a path for himself to exist? It’s about questioning the thought process behind the work and the trajectory. I see myself on a similar path, where it’s about creating something that reflects feeling strong in who you are. Of course it’s taken a while, because the collections have progressed and you see more of how I want to present the brand, how I want people to take my culture and background. It’s a process!
“There’s not just one way of doing things and not one way of presenting luxury. It’s all about the finish of the clothes at the end of the day, rather than to appear as being very prim and proper. Especially as a Black person, there’s a lot of pressure to be that way, and being palatable.” – Bianca Saunders
Dylan: It’s so important to see and to experience, especially for me as a Black Afro-Caribbean man in the industry. And I’ve had influences that include big names, but the designers who I could connect with on a deeper level are people like you and similar designers. It’s about how you situate yourselves within the industry and how you articulate the ideas and the work. And a lot of that has to do with everything that happens outside of the current representation: the food, the performance, the small nuances. It’s also just Caribbean culture, just the sense of community and connection and playfulness. It really shapes your brand and your identity and clearly just puts everything out on display for everybody that’s experiencing the work, and I think that’s so important.
Bianca: I think it diversifies what it means to be a luxury fashion designer. There’s not just one way of doing things and not one way of presenting luxury. It’s all about the finish of the clothes at the end of the day, rather than to appear as being very prim and proper. Especially as a Black person, there’s a lot of pressure to be that way, and being palatable. Whereas I feel now it’s just all about making things that people want to feel good in, sexy, or attractive. That’s what I take away, because I feel like that’s how Caribbean people dress, in terms of attracting people and making sure people think they’re presentable. So those takeaways I use to design and think about the work process. It’s an interesting time to be a designer, I would say.
“I think what’s quite interesting within my brand is that I work with a lot of women. It’s kind of thinking more about attraction when designing, and also thinking about: is my brother gonna wear this?” – Bianca Saunders
Dylan: Most definitely. And I feel just the state of the world in itself and how we relate to one another: everything’s just being laid out in the open. And many people, especially younger generations, are realising that there’s no reason to do anything if it isn’t completely 100% authentic. For me, everything I do is autobiographical and autoethnographic; I can’t do work if it isn’t referencing experience and emotion and connection. As a successful Black woman in this industry, from your time as a student at the RCA, through the earlier stages of your career to now, what unfortunate hardships or pressures have you experienced due to your racial identity? And what advice would you give to other young Black women and femmes looking to follow in your footsteps in establishing themselves as potential game changing forces within the industry’s zeitgeist despite all of the inevitable racism and sexism?
Bianca: It is quite a lot actually. Every now and then I have conversations about: “Why do I name the brand my name?” It’s a woman’s name for a menswear brand. Then there’s the pressure of doing womenswear as well, but you don’t really get that with menswear designers. They don’t ask male designers: “When are you going to do menswear?” or vice versa. Because it’s always considered a normality. I’m determined to make sure I claim my spot within menswear and show the possibility of men finding women designing menswear as desirable as someone else finding that. It’s so normalised for people who aren’t Black to do menswear and for it to not be questioned. But when it’s a Black girl from South London, it’s like: “Where does this all come from?” It’s just about creating a means to be strong in that, but also the confidence of being yourself. As hard as it sounds and the worst advice ever, “just be yourself”, what does that even mean? It’s not a straightforward thing, but it’s the most common advice I would give to somebody like me. And also to find your own voice too, because there’s not one way of presenting Black people. We’re so multifaceted. That’s the main reason why I was so interested in masculinity, because there’s no one way of presenting a man for him to exist with a softness or a feminine energy. I think what’s quite interesting within my brand is that I work with a lot of women. It’s kind of thinking more about attraction when designing, and also thinking about: is my brother gonna wear this?
Dylan: The fact that you work with a lot of women is really interesting, and the context that it sets the clothing into. Because in the industry, most of the designers are white men, and for the most part it’s womenswear, so it’s the male gaze all over again. Whereas in this instance, it’s sort of the reverse. That’s really interesting and cool, especially contextualising it within a Black and Caribbean setting in which you create clothes to attract people. But then also using those archetypes to then elevate this idea of a Black man and also looking to create things that your grandpa would also wear – I think that’s amazing.
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.