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Bianca Saunders SS23
Photography Christina Fragkou

Bianca Saunders is softening the ridges of masculinity like boiled yam

In the hours after her second-ever Paris runway, the London designer talks Jamaican hard food, her love of Martine Rose, and the beautiful mistakes that made her SS23 collection

Bianca Saunders has just debuted the most impressive collection of her career, but as she gathers herself in a nearby apartment, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another day on the job. In a crumpled shirt of her own making, she describes the aftermath of her second-ever outing in Paris as somewhat anticlimactic. “I’m still learning to mentally prepare myself for those kinds of moments,” she says. “It’s just such a rollercoaster in the days leading up to a show and my favourite moments are always just before the models go out, when we’re waiting for kick-off. I actually only saw how packed the venue was when I came out to bow. It was pretty amazing.” 

That Saunders is one of the most talented designers to have come from London is not just fluff. Last summer, she became the 32nd winner of the ANDAM prize, selected by a jury of industry bigwigs, among them Phoebe Philo, Kerby Jean-Raymond, and Balenciaga’s CEO Cédric Charbit. “Oh I was so starstruck! I died inside when I saw Phoebe’s face on Zoom and Cédric has been so supportive of me. I think he really sees the longevity in my work. He’s made me realise that people do want to know who I am and that I have a unique selling point, balancing masculinity with touches of my own culture.” And though Saunders has always abstracted her own experiences onto clothing, this season was perhaps the most sensitive articulation of those points.

Drawing inspiration from the Jamaican concept of hard food, the designer played with the essence of how starchy sides like yam, green banana, and potatoes soften at the boil. As such, stiff pockets jutted from sculptural outwear, their backs left to hang in liquid drapes as if to mimic the stirring of a saucepan, while the collection’s colour palette referenced the metallic tarnishes dutch pots acquire over time. Alongside the sliced jeans and peak-shoulder bombers that have fast become her signature, the collection twisted the traditional proportions of sportswear, denim, and tailoring with gentle manipulations of the body. Aqueous shirts came pinched at the sternum, blazers were shrunken at the shoulders, and sloping inseams managed to smooth the hard-edged contours of the male physique. 

With Saunders just teetering on the wrong side of right, it’s these nips and tugs that give real feeling to the clothing. “There’s a beauty in something being both familiar and unfamiliar at once,” she says, recalling all the moments she’s caught models and stylists trying to straighten out a deliberate fold. “I haven’t spent as much time in development since I was at the Royal College of Art, and I really leaned into the idea of making mistakes this season, like when toiles fit incorrectly, because they can be beautiful.” She won’t say how, but one of these errors resulted in SS23’s soft-backed suit jackets, which were some of the most ingenious examples of tailoring she has shown, climaxing in a rough-hewn trench that was almost inside-out in its construction. “I can’t wait to put that into development so I can get one myself,” she says.

When the work is as cunning as this, knowing when to stop designing is a skill unto itself, with Saunders stepping into every single piece as the final part of her process. “I ask myself, ‘how do I fit in this?’, ‘do I feel good?’ because if I feel good then someone else will, too.“ Perhaps it’s this sense of intimacy that has won the designer such a loyal fanbase, a fact made apparent by the unexpected emergence of fashion journalist Pierre A M'Pelé, on the catwalk. “The casting just gave more context about who the customer is, from Pierre to Kai (Isaiah Jamal) it felt like everyone was wearing something they’d actually want to buy. It’s so important that everyone can see themselves in my collections.“

“Her clothes are innovative and fresh, and she’s clearly very focused on building a real business. Considering she’s the only Black woman on the official Paris men’s calendar, that experience meant a lot to me,“ M'Pelé says. And, as Saunders name continues to be connected to prestige, obvious questions arise. Will she do womenswear? Yes – but not anytime soon, “I’m still enjoying the women’s perspective on menswear.” Would she like to take the helm at another brand? Yes – should the offer arise. Was she approached by Louis Vuitton? No – but she would like to see Martine Rose take over. “That’s the name on everyone’s lips. I love her journey, she’s worked so hard and her brand is fully developed so she’d kill it. It would be amazing to see a woman in that position.”

Before she heads off to cheers her team, Saunders takes a moment to reflect on her journey so far: “I’m growing in confidence and getting more comfortable with how I design. I take it slow, and being at such an early stage, it still feels like there is a mountain to climb,” she says, pausing a while, ”but every time we make the impossible possible, it just pushes me even further”.