The first thing you notice about Bianca Saunders is her presence—you feel her before you see her. But she sees you, she’s observant like that.
I’m in Peckham, Southwest London to meet the 25-year old RCA grad whose name has been buzzing around my head for a while, carried on the shoulders of conversation among colleagues, friends, and kids out Hackney way that are much cooler than I am.
It’s hot and sunny when we meet, unseasonably so for London. I’m sweating—a combination of weather and nerves—and she notices, but not in a way that makes me feel self-conscious. Pulling off plastic black cat-eyes, she reveals highlighted cheekbones and a milky smile. She’s decked in all black—an oversized silk blouse and biker shorts—yet not much beyond her monochrome pairing is as subdued. Her tone is soft and sweet but I get the feeling she has much more to say than she lets on.
Saunders is one in a wave of new designers taking over the London style scene. Having been declared ‘one to watch’ on the BFC’s prestigious NEWGEN roster, her star has certainly begun its meteoric rise. But this, among a long list of other accolades, comes as no surprise.
It’s her modesty, really, that shocks me. She’s just come from participating in an installation in the store windows of Selfridges—one of the biggest department stores in London, on one of the most heavily trafficked streets—mentioning the ordeal with the nonchalance of someone who maybe hasn’t realized just how big she’s about to be. The installation, a collaboration with poet Caleb Femi, was an audiovisual deep dive into the social construct of masculinity, a familiar concept in Saunder’s design. Her menswear is thick with references to bisexuality and the Carribean culture in which she was raised.
“Do you have any of your pieces here?”
My question hangs in the air, swirling around like the tiny specks of dust illuminated by the studio’s skylight. She doesn’t, at least not at the moment, and not currently in the making. I quickly realize that the wealth of the collection is yes, in the clothes, but just as much in the woman sitting across from me.
Saunder’s Jamaican roots are not uncommon for someone with a South London upbringing. A sense of place has certainly shaped her identity, but it doesn’t define it. She’s aware of how fashion wants to write her narrative—the POC identity in a primarily white creative space—and so she works to rewrite it. Her work seeks to explore origin of self, piecing apart the social codes that have defined masculinity, have bound sexuality, have drawn a line between what is black and what is white.
Because Saunders “[doesn’t] want to be known as just another black designer.” And she isn’t. As a white woman, it’s with privilege that I struggle to understand this sentiment—and I likely never will. Without the depth of experience, it’s nearly impossible to wade through the mud at the intersection of race and identity. I can feel Saunder’s hesitation of being labeled; of becoming a fashionable apperception of wokeness. In an industry that has always edged out black creatives in spite of their ‘blackness’, I can’t help but wonder if this recent wave of inclusion is because of it. It’s a thought we both share, that the boxes she’s been put in to have the same exact sides as the ones she’s breaking down.
And such is the ethos of Bianca Saunders, not the woman, but the brand. Like a game of Gen Z jeopardy, questioning society and race and gender in one fell swoop. Through visual interpretations of the black male experience, she has created a space for self-definition in an ever-evolving performance of fashion design that oscillates between question and answer.
In a way, her design process is pretty meta. Her research refuses to stop at surface level, responding to society with, ‘yeah, but why?’ exploring the concrete codes of an identity that the fashion world has seen very little of. Gendered garments may feel anomalous in today’s fluid fashion world, but they are still very much prevalent in Saunders’.
Caribbean culture is seldom touched upon in fashion—at least not without being appropriated far from its reality. In Jamaican society specifically, homophobia runs rampant and leaves little room for anything but traditional hetero roles. Her designs protest the dominant narrative through riffs on familiar masculine dress. The top, bottom, shoes and socks, the same old construct of ‘man’ is challenged with purposeful design, making room for discussion. Ideas of exploration are nuanced; the familiar shape of a ribbed tank is changed by gentle ruching, a pleated trouser done up in waxy nylon. Each piece has the low, quiet battle cry of change—of confusion, discomfort, challenge—a meticulously designed test of trust.
The democratic wearability of her collection is yet another statement, and retailers are picking up on this—already, she’s stocked in London at Machine-A and L’Echoppe in Japan, trendy Tabi-trod havens for cool kids and fashion enthusiasts alike. But, make no mistake: Saunders is not simply a designer of concept. “At the end of the day, I do make clothes,” she starts, “and clothes are for everyone.”