British Heritage Redefined
As a medium for cultural conversation and self-expression, fashion has always been a creative language for talking about our times. Here, writer and model Jess Cole explores the creators who are breathing new life into the tradition of British heritage in fashion, carrying our industry forward and embodying the contemporary values we want to see now.
To think of Britain, I think of drama. I think of our most famous export, Shakespeare; how his wit and contradictions underline Britain’s personality. I think of an island nation in a constant and flamboyant flux of Britishness; the theatrics of our subcultures. I think of how Britain is built on multicultural and post-colonial narratives; how this eclecticism makes up our inimitable creativity. I wonder, now, how the next generation of British designers are currently redefining our heritage, our fashion, in a world edging into post-Covid, a nation falling into post-Brexit.
Preservation for the future is JW Anderson’s approach, a designer whose latest collection was presented as an intricate chronicle to be rediscovered on a bookshelf and leafed through as a narrative of our quarantine months. Such innovation in storytelling is similarly the hallmark of Next Gen British fashion designers. From Rosh Mahtani’s, Alighieri, creating jewellery via the epic poetry of Dante’s Divine Comedy, to Grace Wales Bonner’s eponymous label’s excavation of Afro-Caribbean history. British Next Gen designers dramatically depart from linear senses of time, trend and space. This is the Next Gen novel of British fashion.
Thick Argyle sweaters contoured with leafy cutouts. Cloudy grey tweeds with swooping necklines, studded denims and brown thatchy prints. Stefan Cooke, directed by Cooke and his partner Jake Burt, creates seminal British styles re-distilled into a mix of glamour, mystery and practicality. Much like their previous collections which played with the optical illusions of trompe l’oeil-style prints, the duo have a knack for recasting what is familiar into something entirely different. There is an air of dandyism to their work, a humbled Oscar Wilde tickled with a contemporary, DIY sensibility. Not only that, the pair carry the legacy of a great purveyor of Britishness in fashion, Alexander McQueen, whose Sarabande Foundation provides the design duo's studio space.
Designer Priya Ahluwalia frequently accompanies her collections with photo projects to express her creative vision, recently releasing a new photography book to follow her debut 2019 photo collection Sweet Lassi.
If reworking and refabricating history lies at the core of expressing contemporary Britishness via clothes, then no label is more apt to discuss than menswear brand Ahluwalia. Incorporating a variety of techniques to slice and splice up pieces of old stock, Ahluwalia’s collection is a collage of vibrant pops of colour, geometric shapes and textures, inspired by her Indian-Nigerian ethnicity and upbringing as a 90s kid in London. Through her collections and their accompanying photography projects, she picks apart histories; unravelling, infusing and making something new - well-rounded, conscious and conspicuous.
"Some place special" is the tagline of designer Martine Rose, who presents her collections amongst the eclectic backdrops of real life London - from a Latino market to an indoor climbing centre (a show that I walked in) and even her son’s local primary school. As I have experienced and what translates through Martine’s clothing is a feeling of familiarity, a grounding of fashion into a place of genuine accessibility. Other designers such as Charles Jeffrey and Nicholas Daley also uplift their communities' stories, rather than a quickie cherry pick. Each label is a steady homage to the dynamic narratives that underline Britishness. Charles Jeffrey’s eponymous line preserves the eclectic stories of London’s queer nightlife scene, whilst Nicholas Daley’s menswear explores the subcultures that have punctuated his Scottish-Jamaican heritage.
Rubberized black leather midi skirts and sprightly orange pops of shirting. The namesake label of Supriya Lele broadens the narratives of Britishness through her own dual-cultural heritage: synthesizing 90’s Cool Britannia minimalism with classical Indian garment styles. Indian techniques such as the drapes of a dupatta are reworked into sensual sheer chiffon dresses and Madras checks pop in synthy neons. Lele’s creative intelligence crafts an oft-overlooked intersection between British and post-colonial Indian heritage into clean, sharp, articulate pieces that are just the right side of sexy.
The Ceremony collection by the British-Iranain designer, Paria Farzaneh recently transformed the concept of a runway into a wedding aisle; a backdrop to an Iranian couple’s wedding, conducted entirely in Farsi. At the heart of Farzaneh’s brand is the desire to invite people into her Iranian culture and to find commonality in the sharing of simple human values. This exploration, this revelation, in the duality of difference and sameness manifests in Farzaneh’s menswear aesthetic. Hoodies, tracksuit bottoms, the familiar and universal aesthetic of relaxed menswear softened with the Ancient Persian printing of Ghalamkar.
The bride at Paria Farzaneh's SS20 show, which was set against the scene of a traditional Iranian wedding.
The definition of heritage is something inherited. The question is what will fill the next chapter of a post-Brexit, post-Covid Britishness. From chronicling today’s extraordinary times to unpacking our multi-heritage histories and cross-country communities, the work of these designers is in finding method amongst the madness, growth within the contradictions. When a lone Britain re-emerges on the world stage, it is perhaps in this paradoxical space of familiarity/ uncertainty, that more of us can finally step up too.
Jess Cole is a writer and model based in London. Her work has appeared on The Guardian, Gal-Dem and Document Journal and she has fronted campaigns for the likes of Burberry and Celine.
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