In the status quo of fashion, the fact that male designers have a free pass to project their ideas on to the desires of women is such a given, so culturally embedded, that we barely think about it. But what happens when the tables are turned and women start looking at men in the same way? What revolutionary and boundary-breaking ideas – what emotions, sexualities, fantasies and political subtexts – are unleashed by the female gaze? Amazingly, it’s taken centuries of fashion for this breakthrough to arrive, largely due to the rise of a new generation of women designers in London.
Grace Wales Bonner, Lou Dalton, Priya Ahluwalia, Bianca Saunders and Martine Rose are heading up the phenomenon of girls who are choosing to look at boys, rather than designing (directly, at any rate) for themselves. “Growing up, I was essentially fascinated by what I saw around me – boys, cousins, boys I fancied. My references are very specific – archetypes, that person who has been in my life,” says Martine Rose, who began designing a decade ago. She says she has a litmus test to decide whether her designs are any good: “It’s really, ‘Do you want to hang out with that guy, have sex with that guy?’” she laughs. “You can’t pretend fashion is not about sex – it’s the unspoken in clothes. But,” she adds, “it’s important that it’s a broad range, not a narrow range of what sex is. I want it to be about sex appeal in all its wonderful array.”
Martine Rose: “You can’t pretend fashion is not about sex – it’s the unspoken in clothes.”
Grace Wales Bonner started studying womenswear, but her epiphany came when she was set a menswear project at Central Saint Martins. “Then it became way more personal and connected with the men in my life,” she says. “I realised there was a responsibility to acknowledge black male identity, to represent the connections through history; the myriad complexities, the diversity and the beauty that hadn’t been represented.” Her work, in changing perceptions, opening up and affirming a vast landscape of Afro-Caribbean history, began when she graduated, in 2014, with a collection that included embroidery-encrusted velvet jackets and crystal skullcaps.
Grace Wales Bonner: “I realised there was a responsibility to acknowledge black male identity, to represent the connections through history; the myriad complexities, the diversity and the beauty that hadn’t been represented.”
© Lucie Rox
This, remember, was going on at the height of urban streetwear being labelled as the only black influence on fashion. Wales Bonner’s paced-out imagery of black poets, princes, musicians and cultural theorists, the films she made in Senegal with Harley Weir, and the happenings she organised at the Serpentine Galleries, amounted to a historic intervention. The immaculate elegance, upright tailoring and a whole class of young black male models, such as Dennis Okwera and Wilson Oryema (now a poet) were thrust on to the scene. “I saw Wilson on the street when he was 18. I thought he was beautiful and asked him to be in my show. So my muses were right there in front of me during fittings. We had conversations about how clothes make them feel, how something changes the way you carry yourself,” she says. “My reference is always a real person. It has to be about people I know as my friends, my family – intellectual, beautiful people who’ve always been there in art, music, literature, politics, but weren’t represented in fashion.”
It’s a moot point how many male designers ask the opinions of women to shape their clothes – some may, others not so much. What’s certain is that few designers talk as freely about trying to bridge that gap as London’s young women. Bianca Saunders decided she should go into their bedrooms to ask. “I’m not naturally a boys’ girl,” she explains. “All my closest friends are women, so when I was finishing college, I asked some friends if I could film them talking about their clothes. It had to be in their homes, where they keep them, with me asking the questions. I thought they could be freer than in a pub or somewhere they felt they could be overheard.”
Bianca Saunders: “I’m not naturally a boys’ girl.”
© Lola and Pani
What Saunders learnt shaped her 2017 graduate collection, and has been a decisive influence on how she cuts, and factors in attitudes, ever since. “I picked up how guys were moving in their clothes, so I draped that into my tailoring,” she says. “Then there’s the whole sportswear thing. It must be active and functional. In womenswear, you could get away with making it just look. That’s the difference between men and women.” She adds, laughing, “Sounds awful when you say it out loud like that.”
Yes, men are particular about what they will and won’t wear. No one knows this better than Lou Dalton, from her studies of heterosexual men: “Oh, yes,” she exhales. “They’re peacocks. Every bit as vain as women.” But dealing with the nuances of dandyism – the strict male adherence to codified forms, labels and club-belonging signals – comes in many forms. It’s why her presentation in January comprised 14 guys sitting at a bus stop, outfitted in her British-made, outdoor-tooled collection from jackets to boots. “My husband, Justin, and I were walking in the Peak District last summer. You pass country bus stops, and all these guys are sitting there in their technical wear. I suddenly thought to myself, the bus stop’s their catwalk!”
Lou Dalton: “I realised everything had to have a purpose. It had to be good fabric, good quality.”
Dalton’s dudes at the bus stop were a gathering of her friends in their thirties and forties, a smattering of models, and her mentor Gordon Richardson, the silver-haired former creative director at Topman. “I want to be able to dress [everyone from] 20 year olds to my dad,” she says. More to the point, she’s a woman who designs for men who might (when they can) be in the hills and dales but are far more likely to be seen cycling through city traffic. She remembers the moment it dawned on her that her work should be about them – not some hypothetical catwalk projection. “Gordon once said, ‘Very nice, Lou, but is it addressing who we are?’ And so I started looking at the boys around me, asking them what they want. I realised everything had to have a purpose. It had to be good fabric, good quality. Then they’ll invest in it and keep coming back.”
A Shropshire lass who spent time on her grandmother’s farm growing up, Dalton’s first job after leaving school was for a traditional country tailor who made shooting jackets and breeches. “I wanted to learn so much about the engineering of it,” she says. There was also the other spark to ignite her interest: liking men. “Wanting to be with the cool guys,” she laughs, frankly. “You do when you’re young, don’t you?”
The point that all these women agree on: there’s much more creative freedom and excitement in pushing the limits in menswear than there is in womenswear. That’s something to stop and think about, especially at a time when women are increasingly ignoring the supposed demarcation lines of gendered clothing. Priya Ahluwalia, who works with upcycled materials, grew up an urban streetwear fanatic. “When I was at Westminster University, I liked researching men’s rules and rituals, like, what’s behind team badges, why you wear them over your heart, and all that,” she says. “From talking to my mates, I realised that if you design within the boundaries but keep something recognisable, you can actually do something quite bold.” As Rose observes, it’s harder to push against the ever-permeable boundaries of womenswear. “I mean, if you wear your clothes upside down, it doesn’t matter. But with men’s, if you put a frill on a shirt, it’s already wild. It’s less about fashion, for men. There has to be a familiarity to it. But it has to have a subversion of something new as well. And that appeals to my nature.” She laughs. “It’s the unspoken in clothes. It’s funny, and it’s fun – and that’s what fashion is.”
Priya Ahluwalia: “From talking to my mates, I realised that if you design within the boundaries but keep something recognisable, you can actually do something quite bold.”
© Ollie Adegboye, @ollie.ade
Rose says she baulked at stereotypical feminine fashion when she was growing up in the 1990s. “Oof, no. I thought, that’s not how I identify. When I look back, it’s semi-autobiographical. Then, it was more about boys’ clothes on women – as I dress myself.” Dalton hit upon her own style – trousers, a shirt, an intense slash of red lipstick – when she was apprenticed to a shirtmaker. “I’d wear the men’s shirts with the collar flipped up,” she says. “I always liked them so much more than women’s fitted ones. I’ve always had that androgynous look. I find the way women like Tilda Swinton dress so empowering and incredibly inspiring. For me, that’s glamour, that’s sexy.”
Meanwhile, the LGBTQI+ movement has been sweeping London fashion, shifting parameters to put “gender non-binary” into the language. Compared with young, queer menswear designers such as Charles Jeffrey and Art School, who’ve seized the right to wear ballgowns, tiaras and make-up, the gender politics of women appropriating men’s tailored suits, jeans and T-shirts has been non-controversial for decades (Yves Saint Laurent started normalising that in the 1970s, after all). Women designers for men haven’t gone into showing men in dresses. Instead, they’re working on another liberation front: opening up vast, rich, cultural territories through the creative consciousness of a young generation of black British women.
“I want to add layers,” says Saunders. “There are many sections to this conversation, and each person has their own stories. It’s very different for people whose families come from the Caribbean, or from African countries, or America. Because the African diaspora stretches so far, it’s growing. New genres are being created.” Saunders’s family background is Jamaican, as are Rose and Wales Bonner’s fathers’; Ahluwalia’s heritage is Nigerian and Indian, and all their presentations at January’s shows coincided in the unanimous desire to focus on joyful close-to-home celebrations of their London identities.
Ahluwalia made a set evoking a domestic suburban interior from 1965, the year her stepfather was born, bringing “a lot of research from my family’s culture, art and music from Nigeria, London, India and the Caribbean”. Saunders asked boys to dance in a set inspired by a vintage Jamaican dancehall video. “It was about what you’d wear in a club – relaxed suiting to have a good time in,” she explains. “The idea of having fun – that’s very me. I like dancing, and have a lot of parties.”
Rose, meanwhile, took the international fashion crowd to her four-year-old daughter’s school in north London to see her show. If you looked closely, you could see the words “Tottenham, Croydon, Clapham Junction, Tooting” woven into her pinstripes. “That’s everywhere I’ve lived,” she says, smiling. “It’s my love letter to London. I’m a real Londoner, and my experience was so rich growing up. It was really always about being fascinated by what we saw around us. I feel so privileged to have that.”
Wales Bonner, too, held London memories in a big embrace. She imagined a community dancehall, and invited people to celebrate the romantic “lovers rock” pop that sprang out of the London Jamaican scene in the 1970s. There was Red Stripe and a Caribbean buffet. She was influenced by her father, “A very private man, an intellectual, a lawyer. He grew up in Stockwell with six siblings in a house that was shared with other Jamaican families, and so I looked specifically at the 1970s – the images of that time were so interesting. Clothes were closer to the body; it’s what I always knew.”
And for the first time, Wales Bonner strongly presented women’s clothes beside menswear – a prim ivory windowpane-checked skirt suit, a box-pleated midi, a patchwork shirt and skirt in the colours of the Rastafari flag. Was that a glimpse of Grace herself? She demurs. “It was about women and men having such equal power in that time,” she says. “But the approach is still rooted in menswear, and it always will be.”
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