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‘We’re showing the next generation there’s a place to exist’: the documentary celebrating Black British fashion

<span>Black British fashion is enjoying its moment in the sun … Clint419, the founder of the cult London streetwear label Corteiz</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
Black British fashion is enjoying its moment in the sun … Clint419, the founder of the cult London streetwear label CorteizPhotograph: PR

As the female face of the early 00s garage collective So Solid Crew, Lisa Maffia felt a need to transition her style from tomboyish tracksuits to a more feminine look. She recruited the help of 90s designer Walé Adeyemi to produce the black leather dress she wore in the 2001 music video for the group’s most enduring hit, 21 Seconds. It was a recreation of a Christian Dior dress designed by John Galliano that she had spotted but couldn’t afford. Maffia, whose story is just one of the pop culture moments retold in Garms, a new documentary about Black British fashion, quickly became an icon and inspiration for a generation of Black British women and girls.

In the film, host Ayishat Akanbi gives viewers an education in legacy Black fashion designers and stylists who have dressed Black Britons for generations, in tandem with the histories of migration, resistance and raving. From the pioneering Trinidadian textile designer Althea McNish to Nigerian Amechi Ihenacho, owner of The Original Pattern, a vintage fashion emporium in London, the documentary brings the names and voices of those who have been innovators in fashion to the fore.

It arrives not a moment too soon, as Black British fashion is enjoying its moment in the sun, the landscape having transformed in recent years. Both the London-based streetwear designer Clint419 and menswear designer Martine Rose have collaborated with Nike on collections that sold out within seconds. Maximilian Davis, who was born into a Trinidadian-Jamaican family in Manchester, was named creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo in 2022 at just 26 years old. While most recently the stylist and editor Ib Kamara dressed Usher for the Super Bowl in Off-White, the label where Kamara has been art and image director since 2022, following the death of its founder Virgil Abloh in 2021.

“What is amazing about fashion now [is that] as designers we’re showing the next generation that there is a place to exist,” says Bianca Saunders, 30, who launched her eponymous menswear brand in 2017 and also dressed Usher for the 2023 Met Gala. “When I first started out I was taking a creative path that wasn’t necessarily there. We had people like Ozwald Boateng,” she says, namechecking the designer of Ghanaian heritage known for his eclectic bespoke suits, “but there wasn’t many examples of a woman who had a menswear brand.”

What Saunders finds most powerful about Black British designers is the “storytelling” weaved into their fabrics. Garms tracks much of that, exploring everything from the maximalist prints of west African migrants to the polished, immaculate tailoring of Windrush gentlemen. It makes for a rich visual historical narrative.

Saunders, who grew up in Catford, south-east London, and is of Jamaican descent, cites her heritage as a big influence on her unique style of tailoring, which involves technical, asymmetric cuts, avant garde twists and ruched fabrics. “The balance of masculinity and femininity in Caribbean culture is interesting. Men are very well-kept and women are sexy in the front, so I thought it would be interesting to flip that narrative a bit.”

The importance of such influences are shared by Labrum London’s Foday Dumbuya, who last year won the Queen Elizabeth II award for British design and whose most recent collection, shown at Tate Britain as part of London fashion week, was titled “Designed By An Immigrant: Journey of Colours”. The Sierra Leone-born designer incorporates the dynamic prints of everyday life in the capital Freetown and imagery of west African masks with classic, bespoke tailoring. His influences are as African and Black as they are British: “My upbringing in a household where my parents blended British tailoring with African flair has deeply impacted my design sensibilities,” he says. “Witnessing the fusion of these two distinct sartorial traditions has instilled in me a deep appreciation for the power of fashion as a form of self-expression and cultural identity.” In Garms, Dumbuya shows off his range of T-shirts, speaking of his pride and enthusiasm to “celebrate the work that immigrants do”.

Dumbuya’s autumn/winter 2023 collection, From Greener Pastures, was an ode to the hope and promise of west African migration. It was showcased in a location chosen for its symbolic importance to African and African-Caribbean migrants: “With its bustling stalls and diverse mix of people, the atmosphere of Brixton Village taps into a sense of nostalgia and connection to one’s roots for many members of the African diaspora. The vibrant energy of the market, filled with familiar smells, sounds and languages, creates a familiar and welcoming setting that resonates with the theme of longing for home amid the challenges.”

Black British designers are also relishing the opportunity to connect with the Black British icons they have admired. Dumbuya included the footballer Ian Wright in his spring/summer 2024 showcase. “Wright represents a source of inspiration and relatability, especially as a Black footballer from London,” he says. Meanwhile, the designer Nicholas Daley, who has Scottish and Jamaican roots, is a long-term collaborator with Don Letts – the director and musician even walked in Daley’s graduate show in 2013. Letts talks in Garms about the emergence of a Black British identity out of the dislocation of coming from two different lands, and how his embrace of Rastafarianism and anti-establishment politics informed his punk styles and rasta caps.

What is most evident in Garms, and in the investigation of the scale and evolution of the Black British fashion industry, is just how indebted it is to the past and its trailblazers. Last year, The Missing Thread, an exhibition at Somerset House, celebrated the best of Black British design alongside honouring Joe Casely-Hayford, the “forefather of Black British design”, who died in January 2019. In the documentary, the author Jason Jules speaks about the curation of the exhibition being beyond the constraints of linearity: “This was a timeline between the 70s and the early 00s but it wasn’t chronological or necessarily sequential – time collapsed into itself.” The timelessness of Casely-Hayford’s designs has much in common with the referential nature of contemporary collections that fuse the past and present – Black British garms aren’t only about specific moments of innovation, but about the thread that runs through all of us.

• Garms: Black Culture’s Influence on British Fashion, a BET UK original documentary is available on My5.