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Nasir Mazhar, SS16, LCM, Menswear
Backstage at Nasir MazharPhotography Chloé Le Drezen

Nasir Mazhar on fighting for diversity and pressing reset

‘It was the end of a chapter’ – the London designer talks creating a sorrowful all black collection for SS16 – and why runways of ‘skinny white people’ aren’t healthy

“To be honest I felt completely empty this season,” admitted designer Nasir Mazhar backstage at his SS16 show, speaking candidly about creating a collection in the shadow of the recent loss of his father. “I felt so numb. I don’t even know how this collection happened.” But somehow, with the support of a team that looked more like a family as they embraced each other backstage, he managed it: sending a procession of models down the runway to the sounds of next-gen grime producer Preditah.

The cast, both male and female, were dressed almost entirely in mournful black. For the boys, their uniform was a series of Mazhar classics (the Bully cap, track pants, the classic logo) that were more considered and conceptualised than before, pared back. As for his womenswear – gone were the swirls of colour that dominated his last collection – these girls were 90s R’n’B princesses turned to the dark side; Aaliyah gone goth. Glossy lips were jet black, bodies wrapped in in tie-around bandana crop tops and sportswear that had been upscaled with structure and volume. 

“In many ways it was a ‘closing,’” Mazhar – this year shortlisted for the LVMH Award – explained. “We’ve done a lot of repeats of things we’ve done before, adapted and changed them a bit and created new versions and variations.” All in all, it felt like a purification, ditching the gold jacquards or surprise grime MC appearances of the past two seasons to strip back and reassess what there is to Mazhar’s work behind that ubiquitous logo that marks out his gang of fans – many of whom waited outside, cramming into the showspace for a coveted glimpse at the runway.

“All in all, it felt like a purification, ditching the gold jacquards or surprise grime MC appearances of the past two seasons to strip back and reassess”

Since his first show in 2013, Mazhar has established himself as a key name on the London show schedule. Born and bred in Leytonstone, his first foray into design came after he started making hats while working at a Brick Lane salon. While many designers still lag behind in terms of diversifying their runways, Mazhar has always led the charge, often including considerably more models of colour than white models – something that remains a rarity on the catwalk. The casting for SS16 was especially notable – he put out a call on social media for models of all ethnicities to apply, and the resulting street cast gang were in turns statuesque and stocky, with tattoos and shaved heads and braided hair, but all beautiful in a distinctly individual way – it was a line up that rejected homogeniety.

For the designer, his life informs his art when it comes to show diversity. “We live in London, we’re surrounded by so many different people, that’s the reality,” he said. “I think it’s important for younger children – for them to see the show and think ‘Oh yeah I could be a model, I might be from South America or India or wherever, but I think I could do that,’ rather than what they’re used to seeing – skinny white people – that’s not healthy, mentally or physically I think.” It’s a sentiment that, thankfully, the industry seems to be slowly waking up to. But they’re still miles behind Mazhar.

Discussions on London menswear have circled recently on ideas of working class fetishisation and appropriation – the problems of taking sportswear and elements of dress usually associated with negative class stereotypes and rendering them anew – just making them expensive. Writing on the subject for Highsnobiety, AJ Gwilliam argues, “In its insistence on reinventing everything from snapbacks to sweats in a more ‘premium’ format, the fashion industry sends the message, ‘we will take your ideas, but make them ours before they’re good enough.’” While that may be true for others, that sentiment is far removed from what drives Mazhar’s work. And although, in his own words, SS16 marked “the end of a chapter,” it’s clear this is far from the end of the book.