Designer Bianca Saunders mixes playfulness with rigorous formal exploration
It is a very sunny afternoon in June at the Sarabande Foundation in Dalston and Bianca Saunders shows me around his studio. Her assistants are working hard on her SS22 collection. Patterns litter his desk. Pinned to the wall are a few images of bodybuilders she’s researched for inspiration for the upcoming season. “I’m obsessed with the way the clothes move around their muscles,” she says, pointing to their mountainous biceps. “The way their muscles themselves change the pattern of clothing.”
This fascination is indicative of Bianca’s approach to fashion. It combines play and curiosity with rigorous formal exploration and technical excellence. There is a confident and a little restless creativity running through everything she does. “I get bored easily,” she said. “Or maybe, more accurately, I like to do everything. I like to do all of these different things in the studio – cut patterns, do research, design. Fashion has always been my light. I know it makes my teeth cringe, but it was always what I wanted to do when I was younger.
Bianca grew up in Lewisham. She still lives there. Her mother is a hairdresser, her father is a plasterer, and she credits the two for encouraging her to do what makes her happy and boost her creativity. She went to Kingston to do a BA, then the Royal College of Art for her Masters, and started designing and thinking correctly about men’s fashion there. She then launched her brand, under her own name, as soon as she graduated “because it was the easiest way to have a job that didn’t feel like you had a job.”
She is one of those rare designers who seem to come to life both aesthetically and conceptually fully formed. From the start, you could tell how talented she was. There was already a world around these clothes, and characters who inhabited this world. Just look at her first two collections – her AW18 graduation collection and her debut at London Fashion Week SS19 – and you can see that almost everything she was about to say about masculinity, race and fashion was already in the process of being sketched.
Take SS19, for example. Shirts are cinched at the waist or cut a little too high; they are gathered and asymmetrical. The pants are split in the front and slightly twisted. Her silhouettes appear to have been cut to the body to mimic the way clothes are actually worn. It all comes from careful, curious, studied observation. Her clothes are confident, clear, beautiful, with elegance and strength and pride in themselves. They seem to offer new ways of looking at masculinity, or offer new possibilities and ways of standing as a man, or even how you, as a man, could wear clothes that don’t match the rigidity of hegemonic masculinity. It is not only a question of softness, or of the vagueness of a binary dressing, but more of an overall attitude, a position, a pose.
While studying at RCA and Kingston, the menswear scene in London was by far the most exciting and avant-garde of major fashion cities. Bianca was shaped by this scene and was inspired by designers like Jonathan Anderson and Craig Green. She cites both as influences, although you may feel their influence more than you can directly see it. Aesthetically they aren’t similar, but it’s in the way she approaches gendered clothing with freedom, and the way she turns to basic menswear clothing and finds new ways to see and wear it. wear them; it’s there in the mix of formal intricacies of tailoring with the attitude of streetwear.
“We used some really weird models in the beginning,” she explains of her process and how it evolved. “And there were mistakes too, but the mistakes led to some interesting discoveries. We adapted when the fittings were slightly offset or we modified the seams directly around the body. A lot of it comes from experimentation, from creating things that I might hate at first or revisiting things later and trying to see them in a different light. Like this jacket, ”she said, pointing to a picture from her AW21 collection. “It’s a new take on an old jacket that we made, and we took the padding out, the padding out, made it move a little bit and feel different. Or those pants, ”she said, pointing to the aforementioned pants with the slit in the middle seam. “I keep trying to get rid of the collections but people love them.”
Movement is one thing at the heart of what she does. Her clothes appear to be taken in action or cheering her on. They have a clumsy grace, contorted and wriggling. You want to determine how they’re made, their angles appeal to you. Much of this comes from observing how men wear clothes or behave when wearing clothes, how they change the clothes themselves, or how their bodies behave. Two things indicative of this influence of movement and observation, which Bianca was looking at recently, were the works of Hans Eijkelboom and Erwin Wurm. With Hans Eijkelboom, it was her work An Ideal Man that she watched, a photographic series in which the artist interviewed women about their ideal boyfriends, then transformed into them – using clothes and of make-up – in a retooling of the woman / male gaze. In Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, participants followed his instructions and created sculptures from their bodies and everyday objects, such as clothing, fruit and furniture. “I wanted it to sound a little surreal,” she says, of how these influences found their way into her work. “I wanted to tweak things that seemed familiar to people, to play with ideas of tactility.”
In a project for GucciFest, initiated and designed during the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, this mode of observation was applied to the display of clothing in a short fashion film titled The pedestrian, directed with BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Akinola Davies. The film featured the models, usually so incredibly quiet, joking and talking, describing themselves, their ideal dates, their ideal partners. It was a playful and sweet and tender take on masculinity and romance. “It was really fun doing the auditions for that,” she says, “and the show where the models were dancing too,” she says, referring to her AW20 show. “I’m really interested in breaking this fourth wall that exists in fashion. I think we have to create new ways of showing and presenting. I don’t think what I will do next will be a classic parade, it might sound a bit disappointing. “
It’s been a loaded lockdown for Bianca in other ways as well. She is currently working on a few collaborations, expanding the accessory offering in her line – including a bag that is influenced by how a large file or wallet of art crumples and moves when held under the bras, due to her bulky size – and was busy in Paris with prizes and an art exhibition, where she created a sculpture with threads and clothes.
This year, she once again made the final of the LVMH Prize, the winner of which will be announced during Paris Fashion Week in September. When I interviewed her, she was about to return to Paris. She was also nominated for the ANDAM Fashion Award, one of the most prestigious. She won it a few days later, joining the other winners Martin Margiela, Anthony Vaccarello and Christophe Lemaire.
It was perhaps a little unexpected, but not undeserved. And despite the growth and accolades, you don’t feel like things are going to change too much. Bianca’s is a project that feels grounded in herself, her interests and her expertise, rather than something cynical. She simply remains an incredibly talented designer from Lewisham with a mission to observe, interpret and define the way men dress in the 2020s.
Photography James Brodribb
Fashion Milton Dixon III
Hair Tomo Jidai at Streeters using Oribe.
Scenography Hans Maharawal at The Wall Group.
Styling assistance DeVante Rollins.
Ann Gior hair aid. Ayaka Nihei makeup aid.
Production Bonnie Osborn at Bonnie Charm Inc.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Casting assistance Alexandra Antonova.
Models Dwyer at Ricky Michiels, Kyle Dopgima at Next, Duot Ajang at Muse NYC, Michael Martin at DNA, Ali Ba and Benzo Perryman.
All BIANCA SAUNDERS clothing.