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New exhibition shines a light on the forgotten Black British voices of fashion

By Funmi Fetto, CNN

London (CNN) — A young, elegantly dressed Black woman wears a small but determined smile on her face. Graffiti on the door next to her reads “KEEP BRITAIN WHITE”. The photograph, taken by Jamaican-born photographer Neil Kenlock forms an arresting part of a new exhibition at “The Missing Thread, Untold Stories of Black Fashion,” London’s Somerset House.

Almost three years in the making, it has been curated by the Black Orientated Legacy Development Agency (BOLD, run by designers and academics Andrew Ibi, Harris Elliot and Jason Jules) and looks at how Black British culture from the 1970’s to the present day has contributed to the wider fashion landscape.

“There’s a resilience that has had to be forged in the community,” said Andrew Ibi in an interview with CNN, of the woman in Kenlock’s photo. “In the face of this, people would expect her to be wearing riot clothes, but she looks immaculate: Her hair’s done, she has jewelry on… It’s like a uniform of resilience.”

“We (Black creatives) had long questioned why we were not able to access the fashion industry in the same way as our white counterparts,” continued Ibi. “There have always been disparities in our journeys. I remember having to get out a student loan to buy my mother a gas fire because we were cold. My peers were not operating in that way. It came to a point where I thought this can’t all be rotten luck, there is something else stacked against us.”

These experiences inform the background to the show, said Ibi, noting that while the last decade has seen a rise in Black creatives and designers gaining recognition, there was a feeling “those stories were still being told out of context and not being totally honest. So we wanted to tell those stories.”

Stories like that of Black British designer Joe Casely-Hayford, who died in 2019 but, in the eyes of many, never received the acknowledgments his talents deserved. “So many people still don’t know who Joe is,” said Jules of the designer who was nominated for Womenswear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 1989 and Innovative Designer of the Year in 1991. “But Joe Casely-Hayford and Comme Des Garcons were running at the same time. The difference is, Comme got the backing and endorsement from the fashion establishment and Joe didn’t.”

Although the premise of The Missing Thread delves into just how instrumental Black creatives — like Casely-Hayford, tailor Ozwald Boateng, couturier Bruce Oldfield (who designed Queen Camilla’s coronation dress) and younger counterparts such as Bianca Saunders, Saul Nash and Nicolas Daley — have been at shaping British fashion, the show is far more complex. “This goes way beyond fashion,” Jules told CNN in an interview. “Fashion is the trojan horse.”

The exhibition’s curators also consciously sought out Black female voices for the show. “We realized how much Black women were missing from the conversation. It wasn’t enough to have Black women in photographs. We wanted photographers, creatives, designers…” said Jules but admitted: “We struggled to find many. Where were they? Is it because they don’t exist? Were they not good enough? Again, it comes down to many of them not having their story told.”

Ibi terms these the “erased” stories and they are what co-curator Elliott admitted to finding the most challenging aspect of curating the exhibition.

“Charlie Allen (a third-generation Black tailor) told me that at one point whilst he was working at an establishment on London’s Regent Street in the 1990s, the racism was so bad, he had to recite the 23rd Psalm when he got into the lift every morning,” Elliott said with visible emotion. “It was the only thing that got him through the day.”

The story of 1990s designer Wayne Pinnock is also told, whose specially commissioned left-of-center pieces are a glorious ode to the ultimate white shirt. Though Pinnock graduated with a Masters in fashion from the prestigious Royal College of Art, was featured in the New York Times and had a stint working with Gianfranco Ferre and Moschino in Milan, his career never quite took off. While he continues to design his own clothes (“He is the best dressed man I know,” said Ibi) his days are spent working in a supermarket.

The Missing Thead connects all these dots — whether that be through a nail bar installation that nods to the influence of nail art, prevalent in dancehall fashion, now co-opted by white celebrities and popular culture; Photographs by Ajamu X depicting the Black queer men of the “Glamour Posse”, who defied the openly homophobic culture of the 1990’s or art by the likes of Chris Ofili, Zac Ove and Robi Walters that speak to the immigrant experience.

“I remember speaking to Charlie (Joe Casely-Hayford’s son) who had tears in his eyes when he told me that he didn’t think his father’s story was ever going to be told because his dad predates the internet,” said co-curator Elliott. “How do you turn some of that pain into something yes, challenging, but also something of beauty? While I’d love people to leave with a little more of an understanding of what our experiences as Black designers have been, amidst all that, I would love people to see and acknowledge the beauty in what we do.”

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Update: This story has been updated.

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