While the upcoming Alexander McQueen-sponsored REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion will receive deserved attention, we’re more excited by The Missing Thread.
Why? Because it’s time to see the unseen and engage with the untold.
From the hearts, minds, and souls of Black Oriented Legacy Development Agency – a growing team of visionaries co-founded by a trio of our multidisciplinary friends in Harris Elliott, Andrew Ibi and Jason Jules – this Somerset House-located exhibition documents the shifting landscape of Black British culture, while highlighting the struggle, agility, ingenuity and sheer creativity that black creativity has made, and continues to make, to Britain’s rich cultural past, present, and future.
Ahead of the opening, our very own Leila Fataar invited content and brand consultant Steve Salter to Platform13 HQ as they sat down with Andrew, Jason, and Harris for an honest conversation that examined how their shared lived experiences have shaped their careers and what they hope you’ll take away from the exhibition.
Leila Fataar: Thank you so much for taking the time out at such a busy time.
Steve Salter: We know you well, but could you start by introducing yourself? Tell us who you are, what you do, and why you do it.
Andrew Ibi: I'm Andrew Ibi, a co-curator of The Missing Thread and founding member of BOLD. I'm still a designer and all those other things that go along with design. I'm also a cultural commentator and educator too.
Harris Elliott: I'm Harris Elliot, I'm an interdisciplinary creative and academic, and someone that believes in shifting culture.
Jason Jules: I'm Jason Jules and I'm from Norwich [laughs]. I'm a writer, creative director and Londoner.
LF: Jason, we love that you added at least three things under your name because Andrew Ibi killed us all. We get it, you’re multi-talented.. [laughs]
AI: That was part of the journey.
LF: Oh, it really is.
Andrew Ibi: That's the irony of all of this. I mean, I even forgot the whole section about being a retail connoisseur. That's part of the journey, a common feature of The Missing Thread experience. We weren't allowed to do a kind of a vertical climb, we'd be zigzagging all over the place!
Steve Salter: You had to make your own entry points.
Andrew Ibi: We had to hammer doors and break the walls down. I opened the shop because after working in the industry, I couldn't get the job I was supposed to get. So I was like, 'What am I gonna do then?' Most people just update their CV, but I tried that approach and it didn't work out. So fuck that, I opened a store! What did I have in the store? I had the best brands in the world, of course. But it wasn't intentional.
Then after that, you're like, 'Oh, what will I do now'. Well, I'll go and run an MA in Fashion at Middlesex because actually, when I was knocking on the doors of the retailers and saying, 'Hey, I'm a pretty good buyer', I wasn't even getting any response.
So you end up defining multiple layers to your personality that are not necessarily intended, but it's quite nice at a dinner party to talk through what you've done [laugh]. I actually have two CVs that run in parallel. People are shocked by my two careers and they question how and why. It's because I'm a black creative, and it's not that easy to just have one. Anyway, that's the backstory to all of the bloody aliases.
LF: Ok, so we can take that question off the list then [laughs]. I'm joking, I love that! I think we can all relate to literally creating your path, because you don't know what else you're going to do.
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. When we started The Watchmen in the late 80s, we realised that in order to stay in employment, we had to do two things. One was to be as diverse as possible, but also not tell people what we were doing. So very much like Andrew said, you had multiple CVs at the same time. On one side, we did lots of music, PR consultancy and so on.
On the other side we did fashion. At the time, it was kind of unheard of. People thought there was a contradiction in terms because music people didn't like being styled and fashion people thought music people were kind of unintelligent, unsophisticated. So, we didn't tell people we were doing both.
But the only way to survive in that game of media and culture was to combine the two at times. We've basically done that ever since.
“What I've realised is that most black people in the creative industries have had to mix and manoeuvre around genres and disciplines in order to survive, and in order to express themselves too because there are certain things that they want to say that no one else is going to say for them.
You have to learn how to write, how to take pictures or style, how to be a creative director, how to publish your own book, or whatever it is, in order to communicate those things. Because until you've done it, no one's going to really back you or believe in you.
So for a lot of people, it seems like doing a ton of things is a master of none. For us, the only way to master our own destiny is to do a ton of things. It's a prerequisite.” – Jason Jules
LF: We know Harris has a similar story.
HE: It echoes both Jason and Andrew’s but through different genres. I trained as an interior architect and couldn't get a job when I graduated, so I started making window displays. Judy Blame gave me an opportunity to start creating headdresses and I then had a foray into fashion but I still couldn't secure a role assisting anyone in fashion, so ended up being taken under the wing of Nigel Melville, Walé Adeyemi and Frank Akinsete.
Without them, I wouldn't have been able to make that transition.
I always had a leaning towards fashion, but then always needed to pay the bills, which was in music. I then spent many years working as a stylist and traveling a lot to Japan and trying to do what it is that I do.
But then again, you knock on doors, your face doesn't fit, even though people don't tell you that it doesn't fit, but after it happens time and time again, you realise that there's something that's not right. It's not my ability, because the results are in the work that you create, and so you end up creating your own narratives.
H by Harris, the luxury luggage brand I built was because I wasn't happy with what I was seeing produced by existing brands. That pushed me more into doing more art direction and that developed Return of the Rudeboy. But all of these things were always with a view of either being pigeonholed or put in a box and people not allowing you to be able to tell your story your way.
Until you've done it yourself and presented yourself in a way, no one gives you the opportunity. Even if I turned up as a stylist slickly dressed to PR agencies – apart from Spin – people assumed that I'm the courier. Whether in a three-piece suit or finest Japanese designs, I was met with 'you can put your bags at the other desk'. Never mind that I'm coming in to see the boss of the company! I was always up against that pigeonholing or referencing that no matter how you looked in terms of how I presented myself.
I'm still never seemingly good enough or even acceptable and that narrative has never really changed. But yes, my background has varied from architecture to styling into art direction, curation, running a brand, more recently launching a platform, Le Tings. I created Le Tings a few years ago in order to explore diaspora references, using the market as a muse to be able to start looking at the kind of things that would always be discarded, things that we were never taught to preserve or treasure. Whether it’s through language or visual ephemera, it's about showcasing their value. It's about bringing those things together and bringing people together to be able to smile, The term itself is an oxymoron. It's French and Jamaican but Jamaicans don't speak French, and neither vice versa.
It's that idea of this hybrid way of having to be and having to live, which kind of speaks to all of the lifestyles and work profiles that we've all had. It's like being able to eat plantain or drink Milo and all those kinds of things that you would kind of hide away because you were not brought up to value those things in your upbringing because they weren't regarded with any kind of refinery, but actually, there's so much nourishment and growth.
The ability to tell stories about who we are through the things that helped form us in our formative years. It's really important to make the most of those things and there's a universal commonality with those things, which we can all kind of engage with.
LF: I grew up on Milo in South Africa, that's all I drank. It has such a strong connection to my life, I can't even tell you, Milo is just what we all drank. I actually have a really strong connection to Le Tings just in terms of coming from, and being from, Africa.
I understand that ephemera really, really well. It's just never been something that we've truly celebrated. It should be the focus that it is, as opposed to all this other stuff that we aspire to in a different way.
HE: We're always taught that aspiration, treating what's in the West as the Holy Grail. Actually, we carry holiness around with us all the time, but we've just never been taught that we have those gifts in our communities. They should be shared and celebrated and made the most of.
LF: They should!
SS: Now you've worked in and around one another for multiple decades now, but what was the catalyst that brought you together to work under the umbrella of BOLD?
AI: BOLD came about because of our conversations about the show. While we were talking about the project, it was Jason Harris and Andrew which is fine, but quite complex as we've already gathered. So it was about having one flexible umbrella that captured us all.
BOLD is a concept, it's an idea that came about after this discussion, and recognising the need for BOLD. It then meant it was kind of practical for us to pitch an approach and kind of join forces and expertise. It's a bit like The Avengers...
AI: Like Brazil 1982, it doesn't matter [laughs]. What does matter is how we came together. So suddenly, you've got everything under one space that you can talk to organisations as well in a different way.
SS: Who kickstarted those first conversations?
HE: Three to four years before BOLD, the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, we started developing an idea for an exhibition that focussed on diaspora designers because we have long been aware of them coming through but there wasn't really a platform to showcase their work.
SS: What were each of your starting points in terms of curation? It's a monumental task to try to condense more than 60 years of history, so how did you even begin to approach that?
HE: The great arc was Joe Casely-Hayford. For me, Joe was a central figure to each of us, individually and collectively. In the way that Joe created his own path and his own way through the industry for four decades, with an elegant anarchy. We've all intersected with the house of Casey Hayford, independently, pre-coming together as BOLD.
“It was important to each of us to be able to tell the story of this design luminary that should be as renowned as Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Jasper Conran because the level of output was always there, but it was never really recognised in that way, Joe became the central pivot point with which we could start to begin to tell that story from a timeline perspective from the early 70s, when he and Maria met at St. Martin's, and then through to what him and Charlie, were doing up until the time when he passed, which, again, always trying to recreate, remold or redefine what design should mean in Britain.” – Harris Elliott
LF: Of course. Did Joe's approach then link to the exhibition's main themes of Home, Tailoring, Performance and Nighlife?
AI: Joe was very observant of what was going on around him and always had a very complex pot boiling on the stove that would include those elements of home, tailoring nightlife and performance. His moodboard would have an image of Venus winning Wimbledon, alongside visuals from some new nightclub. The brilliance of his design brain was one big mix, including the traditional elements of cloth, cuts, and classic patterns, alongside so much more.
It's kind of the same ingredients that any designer or any kind of interesting musician, stylist, or architect would probably be pulling from. That's where these themes and different zones permeated from. They were never literal and always flexible.
When we say tailoring, we're not necessarily talking about the tailored jacket, we're talking about the sense of protection, of how our culture elevates itself, or how it presents itself, so that leads into performance. So all of the spaces are quite interlinked.
We had a lot of discussions around what each meant. What is home? We all have a definition of home that's central to our existence as black Britons because our parents – my father's from Nigeria – would always talk about home. The UK was a temporary shelter, home was in Nigeria, it wasn't Dulwich and there was no intention to stay in Dulwich. It has transpired that we stayed, partly because he passed away but that state of mind meant that we weren't transitioning from one geographic space or cultural space to another, but rather, we were just adapting.
So talking about food again, I had plantain with my English breakfast. It was that mash up that made our identities way more complex. We stepped out, not as a Nigerian, but as a young black Brit with this kind of distinct vibe.
JJ: We had some very intense, very long conversations, kind of carving out and mining into our own pasts as to what these things meant to us. Essentially, the themes are a combination of those discussions.
Like Andrew said, they're not literal, they are much deeper than that and hopefully they resonate with people who kind of pass through as well on different levels.
AI: It's interesting that many of our original ideas stayed. Tailoring is probably the one that most people think they really understand because they assume it's just going to be Oswald Boateng, but of course it's so much more.
The whole exhibition is an examination of culture but that part is a real examination of the psyche of tailoring; why did our parents adopt tailoring and why did someone like Joe subsequently deconstruct it?
So you get this whole new meaning that is about us, our experience, our aspirations, and, you know, but now we're at a point where we might not care so much anymore. Young designers don't need to have that same presence that perhaps we had.
“I always talk about culture as the stuff of life, which is all of these things. People just go 'culture is fashion' but it's really the stuff of life, a reflection of reality. So it's all of those things and more things too. It's that intersectionality that I think is really interesting and I know that that's something that runs through all of us.” – Leila Fataar
AI: When you do go in and you really understand the foundations of black style and culture, it can't really be the fashion that the white western world created because it's not coming from the same place. It was never about runways. So it is weird that you were then measured by those rules and those same measurement sticks.
The black experience was never about tall white women wearing strange clothes. That was never going to be our experience as black people in Britain, so trying to be part of that system was jarring and grating anyway. The only problem was that people kind of objectified and fetishized some of the style and culture that was coming through, then it ended up on the runway but people were still kept out of those spaces.
However, in a sense, it allowed us to really incubate and grow black culture, and that's why I guess it's so powerful now and so prominent because it's just been growing in its own space. Going back to that conversation earlier about our multiple personalities through all this, that's just extreme creativity that you go from studying fashion design, being a designer, being a fashion forecaster, being a retailer, being an educator, being a curator, and everything in between.
It’s bonkers but that's the creative agility that you needed.
This is why some of our peers have gone on to do wonderful things. I'm guessing Virgil's experience was probably quite similar. The music, the fashion, the street culture, the branding and the graphics. As Jason said, you learn all these areas and I think we became very good at that and it's been a process of pulling all that together, reflecting on it and saying, 'this is what you all missed'.
SS: As the industry has started to acknowledge black creativity in recent years, it has too often attempted to see it, and make sense of it, through its own hegemonic, white gaze. And I think what's exciting about this exhibition is that you're taking control of that narrative, and being able to tell it, how it should be told. What were some of the challenges?
AI: The fashion elements were the toughest part because we have a strange relationship with the term and I think a lot of people do.. Within the context of blackness, the runway was played out in things like a cricket match.
You saw the style and swagger on the BBC because that was the performance. It was Viv Richards not wearing a helmet, how he held the bats and the strokes he made. We were picking up on that flamboyant and exported it to the streets. We wanted to move like Viv Richards. Using that as a starting point meant we were able to explore different cultural avenues and recreate a more complex and authentic version of what fashion probably is, anyway. To everybody.
If you spoke to Vivienne Westwood, McQueen, Rick Owens or Rei Kawakubo, they would talk about how a much more complex order of content and inspiration creates fashion.
PULL QUOTE “When you tell people you’re putting on a fashion exhibition, people just expect a fashion exhibition but we wanted to talk about politics. Once we acknowledged that and started opening up genres, everything really slid into place.” – Andrew Ibi
SS: How cathartic has this curation process been?
JJ: It was cathartic but traumatic as well. From our parents to our professional lives, this is our lived history. Looking at the people that we've seen, worked alongside, and the talents who we’ve supported and who have supported us, inspired us, but then seeing a lot of talent wasted, or unfulfilled.
So a lot of it has been cathartic and pleasurable, but a lot of it has been very traumatic by reliving some of these realities and unrealised potential.
AI: There was an actual realisation that we’ve been stitched up. I’ve recently been doing media interviews and was asked, who’s missing? I am. I mean, I was graduate of the year, I worked with Joe. At the time, I accepted it and moved on to other things. I opened a shop, created a brand and so on. That was the hustle.
Jason is right, it was cathartic but there was trauma too. While the ending has been good, the mid-process involved a realisation that on mass, we were stitched up. At one point, the show was quite dark..
JJ: You have to go through this journey throughout the exhibition. It confronts you with the horror of this reality that we have been stitched up. That your parents were promised this land of milk and honey and they had no clue what they were arriving into.
This cycle of being betrayed by people who promised to look after you is something that has continually repeated itself, promises to support you if you supported them. But that darkness can be resolved. The following generation, guys like Nicholas Daley and Bianca Saunders, are the products and beneficiaries of the labour of designers like Joe and ourselves, but they are also fulfilling our hopes.
I think the most important thing is that even during those dark times, we created really beautiful things, incredibly beautiful things, from music, to clothing, to language, to style, to clubs, to relationships and those things stand the test of time, even override the horror that we were confronted with.
SS: It's all too easy for retrospectives to be purely celebratory. You haven’t shirked from the realities.
AI: The experience of blackness is more dark than light, when I think about how we were forged. It certainly wasn't much fun for our parents. But they managed to create worlds that didn’t exist before them, away from the hardship, straight up racism and violence.
SS: What would you say was like the biggest truth that The Missing Thread highlights? And the biggest misconception that it sets straight?
AA: The singularity of identity is one of the things we really wanted to challenge. This singular presentation of black culture that revolved around black men, masculinity, violence, danger, strength.
That’s in the show, but there’s a softness too.
It’s interesting that the likes of Grace Wales Bonner and Bianca Saunders have been sharing different truths recently that people are interested in, but that’s always existed.
For me, the truth is presenting numerous voices. One of my biggest concerns was the balance of gender because where were the female designers? It’s a difficult question to answer. It certainly wasn’t that black women weren’t interested in clothes, style, or fashion, on the contrary.
Where were the black women stylists and photographers of the time? It was about finding that truth. Someone like Maud Sulter for instance, studied fashion at London College of Fashion in the late 70s but then went on to become a fine art photographer. That reveals the truth about access and that’s the same story that we have. This process has bee about representing everyone's story together, and holistically and filling in some of those blanks.
How all of these missing narratives fit together in this kind of complex puzzle? And in my speculation it's essentially a renaissance like the Harlem Renaissance, this is a black renascence where everybody's responding to culture, to society to politics, and they're all pushing and pulling. Of course, the biggest truth is being able to articulate your story and to push back against the system.
That’s why the timeline is important, highlighting the socio-politics of the time and demonstrating that the playing field was far from level.
SS: What do you hope that the effects of the exhibition will be?
AI: Sharing these stories is really important because it allows new black designers to understand that firstly they’re not alone. The reality of being a pioneer is not that fun and it’s much better knowing that there is somebody for you to lean on.
By piecing it all together, we can reclaim some of those spaces that were ours and begin to cultivate new ones too, but there are gaps too because the history isn’t singular or linear and everyone hasn’t been represented.
“I want the exhibition to provoke a visceral, emotional effect on the people who go there. This isn’t a museum, it's about collapsing a number of linked ideas, which is why we tried to involve as many artists as possible.
We hope this is an on-going conversation and that the narrative of black culture is more complex, more nuanced than it has been in the past. That this can be a window for people to look back, to understand what’s coming through now, but also begin to gauge what’s coming next.” – Andrew Ibi
The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion will run from 21 September 2023 — 07 January 2024 at Somerset House. Book your tickets here.