The new exhibition celebrates the untold stories of Black British designers who have come to shape the industry today.
London’s Somerset House’s latest exhibition places Black creativity at the center of British fashion and innovation. Examining the evolution of Black British culture through the lens of fashion and style, The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion aims to “initiate an ongoing conversation, one that includes names which we hope will never again be ignored or forgotten,” shares one of the exhibition’s curators, Harris Elliott. And despite the entrenched racism and cultural prejudices Black creatives have to endure, the exhibition presents a rousing story of those who overcame all odds and successfully forged a strong sense of self and vision—a story that will most definitely galvanize future Black designers and creatives who stumble into its historied exhibition halls.
Curated by Harris Elliott, Andrew Ibi, and Jason Jules of the Black Orientated Legacy Development (BOLD) agency, the collective charts the shifting landscape of Black British culture and the invaluable contribution it has made to Britain’s rich fashion design history. As Harris explains to Mission, he and Ibi had been discussing an exhibition like this for years, but it wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd in 2020 that they became more determined to make it a reality.
“This [exhibition] looks afresh at Black British fashion’s cultures and subcultures, its designers and icons, its famous and infamous figures,” says Elliot.
“This [exhibition] looks afresh at Black British fashion’s cultures and subcultures, its designers and icons, its famous and infamous figures,” continues Elliot. “It also provides the opportunity to interrogate the published version of events, allowing for new additions to and a greater understanding of Black culture’s impact on the fashion industry against a sociopolitical backdrop.”
Instead of approaching fashion in isolation, the curators place the work of these creatives in the broader British socio-political context where their work resides in. Widely recognized garments, like Princess Diana’s red beaded gown she wore on a state visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986 and Bono’s red devil ears he wore on the cover of Arena magazine in 1993, are placed alongside photographs, music, and historical artifacts. This cultural pollination is further emphasized in the exhibition’s organization, which flows through four sections—Home, Tailoring, Performance, and Nightlife—each referencing the spaces that inspired and allowed the culture of Black British fashion to develop.
“The first suit I ever bought was a Joe Casely-Hayford suit,” Harris laughs. “I wasn’t doing it for the culture per se, but I liked it for the design–it spoke to me. But ten years later, in 2011 or 2012, he was doing a collection that referenced skate culture and we ended up collaborating on a skateboard, which you can see in the exhibition.”
At the heart of The Missing Thread is a sprawling homage to the illustrious Joe Casely-Hayford, who revolutionized menswear almost four decades ago. Here, the Somerset House presents the first-ever major staging of pieces from the designer’s extensive archive, working closely with the Casely-Hayford family. Spanning his four-decade career, this section of the exhibition brings to life almost thirty looks from the designer’s archives, some of which are just seeing the light of day.
“The first suit I ever bought was a Joe Casely-Hayford suit,” Harris laughs. “I wasn’t doing it for the culture per se, but I liked it for the design–it spoke to me. But ten years later, in 2011 or 2012, he was doing a collection that referenced skate culture and we ended up collaborating on a skateboard, which you can see in the exhibition. What I love most about Joe’s work is that even amongst everything that was going on, he was always still able to be really noble, really elegant, and a bit anarchic.”
And while the exhibition certainly honors the past and the storied icons who made it, it is also thoroughly grounded in the present moment with a thoughtful eye toward the future. The Missing Thread showcases the work of industry icons Ozwald Boateng and Bruce Oldfield, two creatives who largely shaped British fashion in the last century. There is also the inclusion of couturier Ninivah Khomo and patternmaker Monisola Omotoso, which add to this rich scope of fashion.
Delightfully so, the exhibition also puts these historied designers in conversation with their contemporary counterparts. Through newly commissioned works that respond to the themes explored in this show, Bianca Saunders, Saul Nash, and Nicholas Daley continue this legacy and lineage while also crafting their own unique vision of British fashion today.
“We all hope that by revealing some of the untold stories of Black British fashion, we will help bring knowledge and understanding, and accelerate change,” says Jonathan Reekie.
“With the projects that accompany the exhibition, they are designed to give opportunities to young people and to help develop creative talent,” reflects Jonathan Reekie, director of the Somerset House Trust. “We all hope that by revealing some of the untold stories of Black British fashion, we will help bring knowledge and understanding, and accelerate change.”
And unlike conventional museum experiences, visitors of The Missing Thread are encouraged to interact with the exhibition’s components, having their own hand at the very visceral history of fashion. They are encouraged to sit in Daley’s installation, Knitted Roots, and listen to a curated playlist (which includes Can and other legends in the British music scene) or step into the exhibition’s provisional nail salon and take a moment to unwind with a quick manicure.
“Our goal has been to illustrate how these creatives—including everyday people as well as stars–have provided a powerful but until now largely unacknowledged thread of cultural influence,” Harris continues. “This has not only shaped what it means to be Black and British but also what it means to be British overall.”
The Missing Thread is on view until January 7, 2024. For more information, click here.
Homepage banner image by Bianca Saunders ‘YELLOW’ SS20 campaign, shot and Styled by Ronan McKenzie. Black and white front page image of Coxsone Outernational Sound System, 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez and Urbanimage TV. Above image of Nicholas Daley by Anne Tetzlaff