Seeing Is Believing: Visual Language And Aesthetics
At its core, fashion is all about imagination. Having the vision to design a collection and produce campaign imagery around it all relies on that critical faculty to be able to see things that are not yet there and pull them into existence. The Browns Focus designers know the value of imagination well, and communicate this through the imagery they create.
For Feben Vemmenby, an alumna of Central Saint Martins, her 2020 MA collection It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay, was her method of “reclaiming displacement in a surrealistic approach to Black identity.” Her choice of collaborators is indicative of her commitment to precise and plural visions of Black identity – the campaign is shot by Ghanaian-Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur, who is renowned for her photojournalism chronicling the vibrancy and diversity of the Black diaspora. The images are styled by Ib Kamara, famed for his razor sharp evocations of the fluidity and beauty of Black aesthetics. Kamara is also a CSM alumnus, emphasising the legacy of the institution as not only a fashion school, but ground zero for long-standing collaborative partnerships and creative communities.
Images from FEBEN’s 2020 MA collection, titled It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay, shot by Liz Johnson Artur.
Exquisite imagery is also synonymous with the work of British-Jamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner. For her SS21 adidas collaboration, she chose Jeano Edwards, the Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-raised photographer whose images focus on dislocation from one’s homeland and the preservation of cultural identity. As such, the campaign imagery captures the fashion and streets of 1980s Jamaica, and the collection is filled with soulful, throwback looks evoking scenes of the 1980s. Copper, ruby and emerald colours blend into a knitted jacquard vest, and the images depict young Black boys hoop trundling in the grass.
For Wales Bonner, this synergy with photography is a hallmark of her practice. Her foray into the visuals of West African Nightlife for her SS22 Volta Jazz collection emphasises a deep appreciation for how photography can create time capsules for different eras, drawing inspiration from the Burkinabé photographer Sanlé Sory, renowned for his 1970s portraits of Burkina Faso’s youth. Meanwhile, the studio portraits of Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso have long influenced the framing, composition and styling of Wales Bonner’s collections and their accompanying visuals. The flamboyant dressing of Sidibé and Fosso’s subjects are evidenced in the fancy flared trousers, wigs, and jewellery donned by the models in Wales Bonner’s contemporary images.
An image from Wales Bonner’s 2021 adidas collaboration, shot on location in Jamaica by Jeano Edwards.
An image from the brand’s “Volta Jazz” collection, shot by Joshua Woods.
Equally, Priya Ahluwalia draws on her Nigerian-Indian dual heritage through her work. Most explicitly, her AW22 Nollywood vs. Bollywood collection saw her take inspiration from film industry posters, with graphic designs of 00s Nollywood and Bollywood royalty printed onto viscose shirts and multi-layer skirts. Her early “Sweet Lassi” project comprised a photo book showing images of stockpiles of richly coloured clothes, emphasising the negative impact clothing waste has on Indian communities, and highlighting the importance of repurposing materials. Like a photographic manifesto for her subsequent fashion collections, Ahluwalia’s position on sustainability can be seen in her commitment to using deadstock fabrics, and the patchworked designs which appear frequently in her collections.
For Browns Focus designer Nicholas Daley, photography serves a multisensory purpose. He uses photographs of musicians playing drums, tuning guitars, and blowing saxophones to clearly visualise the sonic influences of his collections. For his SS22 launch, he worked with the musician Caleb Kunle, referencing his Nigerian heritage and Irish residence, as well as his Gaelic tongue, and how it fuses into his folky R&B tunes – a delight for the ears as well as the eyes.
Ahluwalia’s AW22 Nollywood vs. Bollywood collection saw the designer taking inspiration from film industry posters, reworked here for the brand’s campaign.
Nicholas Daley’s SS22 campaign, featuring musician Caleb Kunle.
Much like this, Ronan Mckenzie’s SELASI brings together friends of the brand in its creation of imagery, with photography by Nadine Ijewere and Bibi Abdulkadir - whose “Bibi’s Books” initiative commands the literary curation at HOME - standing in as a model. Mckenzie’s space ‘HOME’ is a literal home for artists such as Bernice Mulenga, Chris Bramble and Freya Bramble-Carter, and has also housed her own self-portraits. With SELASI, meaning “God Hears Me” in Ewe, a Ghanaian language, the dramatic voluminous shapes, asymmetric hems, textured materials and neutral-toned colours in her SS22 collection fuse both the loudness of worship and the quietness of prayer. These images straddle movement and stillness in a way that is simple, yet devotional and intense.
SELASI’s first campaign, shot by Nadine Ijewere.
An early SELASI image featuring model Bibi Abdulkadir and shot by Ronan Mckenzie.
Assessing the imagery employed by the Browns Focus designers emphasises how much visual culture and creative imagination is key to the communication of fashion, with these designers building visual worlds which spotlight diasporic histories, heritage, language and community. To wear is to feel, and to see is to believe; these young designers clearly understand the power in combining the two.
Words by Jason Okundaye
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