The designer-rapper duo putting a political spin on menswear
Much has been made of the presentations delivered by the big fashion houses in the absence of physical shows. Burberry staged an art-meets-fashion spectacle within an ethereal forest deep in the British countryside for its SS21 collection, while Gucci hosted GucciFest, a seven-day film festival featuring a miniseries by director Gus Van Sant entitled Ouverture of Something that Never Ended.
But preceding the pandemic reset, a new generation of designers had already begun redefining the rhythm and form of how fashion collections are constructed and revealed. Bianca Saunders, founder and creative director of her eponymous label, is at the centre of a new vanguard that see collaboration as integral to their brand. “I always think about presentation – the designs come after,” says the 28-year-old British designer. “I start with the research, and sometimes in the studio create a playlist that conjures the sound and feelings I’m looking at.”
This process led her to south London-based rapper Benny Mails, a leading light of the scene whom she met at her studio. “Benny used to come in and we would get him to put on music – he had a really eclectic sound,” recalls Saunders, who attributes her own love of music to her childhood. “Being Caribbean – it’s such a big part of the culture,” she says. “My mum is a hairdresser, and growing up I spent most of my time in the salon listening to the albums they played. So, when it comes to my studio space, I always try to have some sort of vibe and energy.”
Saunders spends most days at the Sarabande Foundation in Haggerston. “I know people work in silence but that’s definitely not how I do it. There will be jazz or hip-hop or something really London, and then there will be garage,” she says. “But I think that’s how most people from London are, they listen to a lot of different things. It’s how Ben and I relate. You go through phases and trends of who you are and finding yourself, and that integrates into the work.”
The musical chemistry between Mails and Saunders was further explored when he DJ’d for her at a party. He then developed the sound for her SS21 film The Ideal Man, drawn from Hans Eijkelboom’s 1978 work. “I haven’t really put out a lot of my own personal production in terms of making instrumentals,” says Mails of the collaboration. “The majority of my music has been me as a vocalist. It was beautiful to see that Bianca could put that trust in me.”
Mails was brought in again to create the sound for The Pedestrian, a short film conceived for GucciFest, and part of an initiative to showcase young designers, in November 2020. Among a line-up that included a VR cartoon by Nigerian fashion designer Mowalola Ogunlesi and a video game by Hillary Taymour’s Collina Strada, Saunders’ film had a sense of old-school glamour. “It was probably the most challenging to put together due to the fact that there was dialogue in the film. I actually recorded the audio on set, which was super-difficult as there were trains going over and doors opening,” says Mails.
The genre was also a new terrain for the artist. “It was a John Coltrane reference – I love jazz, which is incorporated into my own personal music. But I’m not a musician by nature and I don’t play any instrument fluently, so I pulled favours and help and advice – all in a short timeframe.” Saunders agrees: “A lot of our presentations are delivered within a short timeframe.”
Saunders has fast established her career as a designer with a prolific and varied output. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in menswear design four years ago and her subsequent collections have woven an anthropological curiosity with shrewd commentary on popular culture. Her first collection, Personal Politics, was created in just five weeks after receiving the British Fashion Council’s NewGen sponsorship. A meditation on black masculinity and sexuality, it saw an all-black cast perform down the catwalk in a haze of pink light, ruffled collars, and rouge T-shirts and trousers – and the designer quickly garnered critical acclaim.
In addition to the show, she held a two-day exhibition, including a screening of the film Permission, made with filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr, where ideas of access and support for black men are reorganised. A research zine – also titled Personal Politics – further investigated the themes of masculinity and sexuality with a host of London writers, including Caleb Femi and James Massiah.
It was a clear statement of intent that effectively challenged tropes around the subject of the black male. It also laid the foundations of multidisciplinary practice, mixed with an unapologetic south London cultural flourish that Saunders and Mails share. “You see a lot of nightlife in Bianca’s visuals and I live for nightlife,” says Mails. “My whole career is based on how my music performs on a sound system. I don’t know if that is exclusively a south London thing, but it is a south London thing.”
Mails’s rise in the music industry followed an atypical trajectory that began with ballet dancing, a home full of funk, jazz and hip hop, and a rapping debut at a house party. “It was a strange dynamic, a strange juxtaposition,” he says of his time at the Trinity Laban contemporary dance centre in Deptford, the largest purpose-built facility of its kind in the world, where he was once a student. “It influenced me massively, because when I’m making music I often find that if I’m not dancing to it, it’s never going to come out.
“When I think of my own music, the first word that comes into my head is ‘patchwork’ because there are so many influences. It stretches over so many genres, cultures and subjects,” he explains.
The range of sounds is an important feature of the work Saunders and Mails produce together, though he points specifically to garage music as being inherent to the sonic landscapes he has constructed for the brand. “I’m reminiscing. I see the garage era as a renaissance,” he concludes. “The people were so dressed up and they cared a lot about how the music sounded. That’s kind of what we are doing now.”