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The Designer Subverting the Gender Binary Through Men's Fashion

By Terence Poh

The designer Bianca Saunders.
 
Matchesfashion
The designer Bianca Saunders.

Within a space converted from former Victorian-era stables, Bianca Saunders sits at her desk to edit a short film for the Spring/Summer ’21 presentation of her eponymous label. It is a day in late September, and the English designer has just moved into the ground-floor studio as a select beneficiary of the late Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation. There, she is tying up loose ends of her collection, its unrevealed pieces crowding a single clothes rack against a white wall. An adjacent plastered brick wall is collaged with images of model fittings, old runway shows and street style moodboards on paper. In a corner, a white cotton vest, its scoop neck cut to appear slightly pulled, hugs a single black mannequin.

Saunders has been part of the British Fashion Council’s prestigious Ones to Watch programme and is currently backed by the council’s NewGen sponsorship. Her label, which debuted in 2017, explores Black male identity and pays tribute to her West Indian heritage through menswear, a focus she decided on when pursuing a master’s degree at The Royal College of Art.

Despite her relatively brief time in fashion, the 27-year-old designer has won numerous accolades, among them a 2020 listing on Forbes’s 30 Under 30, for changing the perspective on contemporary notions of masculinity. She has also earned a place on Matchesfashion’s The Innovators Programme this year, an achievement she credits to Charlie Porter, the menswear critic of The Financial Times, whose coverage of her label at Pitti Uomo drew the attention of the top e-tailer. “It’s great to have a machine like Matchesfashion getting my message out there, to be highlighted alongside other designers that I really admire on one of the biggest multi-brand luxury retailers in the UK,” she says.

Bianca SaundersBianca Saunders's Fall/Winter ’20 collection, unveiled through a dance performance where each model improvised to songs in satin-curtained partitions.
Bianca Saunders's Fall/Winter ’20 collection, unveiled through a dance performance where each model improvised to songs in satin-curtained partitions.

Born in Catford, South London to British-Jamaican parents, Saunders recalls her childhood as “well-balanced,” spent around people who hardly went to London’s epicentre. “Instead, they go to Bromley or the local shopping centre,” she says. Freed from high-pressure city preoccupations, her parents constantly encouraged her passion in art. At around 14 years old, she decided she wanted to do fashion.

Saunders’s inspirations include Phoebe Philo, Craig Green and, in particular, Oswald Boateng. “It was the first time I’d seen a Black designer making such power moves in the industry,” she says. In her own work, Saunders dwells in the in-between, realising intersections of the gender binary through men’s fashion. “I found that menswear generally tends to be one extreme or the other — very ‘out there’ directional pieces, or really classic,” she says.

As a young designer, she concedes that her success boils down to practical markers like sales and media exposure volumes. “But on an emotional level, I feel that it’s a success when I want to wear the pieces myself,” she says. “That’s when I know I’ve been true to what I set out to achieve.”

Bianca SaundersThe designer has recently relocated her work studio, moving into the Sarabande Foundation as a select beneficiary in 2020. In one corner, a white vest, with a scoop neck cut to appear pulled, hugs a black mannequin.
The designer has recently relocated her work studio, moving into the Sarabande Foundation as a select beneficiary in 2020. In one corner, a white vest, with a scoop neck cut to appear pulled, hugs a black mannequin.

Using denim as her usual starting point, she creates pieces with unexpected washes and silhouettes using the staple fabric — and keeps the process sustainable while doing so. Other pieces exhibit her affinity to common fabrics as well. Using cuts that partially expose skin or conventionally feminine texturising techniques — creasing and shirring, for instance — she expertly manipulates cotton or nylon or leather to explore the struggles of male sexual identity.

For Fall/Winter ’20, Saunders partnered with the sustainable denim manufacturer ISKO to produce her denim pieces. Her favourite look, a denim jacket and matching pants with slit hems, was discoloured and speckled using a light bleach spray during the design stage but used a more sustainable technique to achieve the same effect during production. In the padded jackets, wiring runs through horizontal seams to create stiff shapes, as if freezing movement in time. Her signature scrunching of fabric is seen on long sleeve T-shirts, which have their shoulders folded and gathered; on sweatpants with elastic, double waistbands ruched to create ripples in the fabric that cascade down from the waist; and on shirts flanked with ruching, so the tucked out hem is perpetually risen and crumpled even when a wearer’s hand isn’t in his pant pocket.

Inspired by old VHS dancehall footage, Saunders worked with the choreographer (and fellow emerging British designer) Saul Nash to present the collection through a dance performance: Each model improvised to songs in solitary, satin-curtained partitions — dancing like no one was watching to recreate the uninhibitedness of dancehall parties. “I wanted guests to have a reason to stick around and really be immersed in the mood of my collection, beyond just looking at some models standing on boxes,” says Saunders.

Bianca SaundersWithin the ground-floor studio space, a plastered brick wall is collaged with the 27-year-old’s inspirations and the brand's model fittings.
Within the ground-floor studio space, a plastered brick wall is collaged with the 27-year-old’s inspirations and the brand's model fittings.

Her most challenging — and most memorable — project is the latest Spring/Summer ’21 collection created during the lockdown period. “I feel that it’s my best collection yet,” she says. Inspired by Hans Eijkelboom asking women to describe their ideal man in his 1978 work “The Ideal Man,” Saunders shows her collection through a five-part film, directed by the German photographer Daniel Sannwald. Each part is evocatively titled to illustrate her take on the ideal man: “Man Going to his First Ball in Heels,” “Gangsta Pretending to be Corporate,” “Super Nerd at Dancehall Concert,” “College Grad with a Diploma,” and “Gully Queen at his Engagement Party.” She upcycled old pieces from the jeans specialist brand Wrangler and avoided toxic processes — such as stonewashing and laser scoring — when altering them. Her signature motifs are all present — padded shoulders, narrow shoulder points, ruched or gathered fabrics; while a new product — vegan leather — appears in the form of tote bags lined with wire, allowing you to squeeze and crumple them as you wish.

Looking back at her journey thus far, Saunders is shocked at how much has happened. “But that’s because I’m always focused on the future,” she says. In three years, Saunders’s business has grown rapidly in scale and diversified beyond fashion, though her team remains unchanged in size. And in this year alone, she has created two collections, participated in three London Fashion Weeks, printed her own ’zine, and collaborated with Wrangler. She considers that “being artistic both in and outside of fashion is always how I’ve done things. If I hadn’t been a designer, I think I would have been an artist, so straddling the two worlds seems to come naturally.”

For the future, Saunders dreams big, hoping to become a household name not just in fashion, but in interiors, furniture design, and so on. “I want to create my own world that people can step into,” she says.