Pin It
Nasir Mazhar I Always Wanted To Show You Mine art show
Courtesy of Nasir Mazhar

How leaving London set Nasir Mazhar free

As the trailblazing artist debuts new Margate exhibition I Always Wanted To Show You Mine, he discusses fashion pigeonholing, celebrating the process, and wanting to run away to the woods if he could

If Nasir Mazhar had the chance – and possessed the driving licence that might actually make it feasible – he would move his studio from Doncaster to somewhere in the deepest depths of the countryside. “I’m obsessed with this idea of shutting yourself off from reality,” he explains over Zoom. “As much as you can, I still need to live, you know?” 

The London-raised artist, who until 2021 was working out of a railway arch in Forest Gate [it also doubled as the base for Fantastic Toiles, the fashion boutique with a communal sensibility Mazhar devised in 2019], is about to open his first exhibition and has been contemplating the practicalities of making properly great art. “I kind of fantasise about way back, when you could just live hidden away. That's when we got incredible pieces of artwork, sculptures…” he says. Aside from the questionable politics of for whom and for why such work was commissioned, what Mazhar has ultimately established is that time and space are fundamental.

Previously a highlight of the London Fashion Week schedule, having established his namesake label in 2008, Mazhar’s specific brand of menswear blazed a trail for what contemporary fashion could be. He used his presentations to highlight his community, bringing grime and dancehall to the fore, collaborated with Skepta, Shystie, and Darq E Freaker, and cast his shows to represent his east London neighbourhood long before street-casting was the norm. But his particular appointment of ‘streetwear’ aesthetics meant his work was quickly pigeonholed, and so he began distancing himself from the industry in 2017. 

His subsequent founding of Fantastic Toiles and corresponding publication Offerings has seen Mazhar explore alternatives to mass production, while also dipping his toe into film, opera, and ballet projects: there was a  collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans for the English National Opera in 2018,  flat caps for Mary Poppins Returns, and most recently he’s been working on costumes with Newcastle dance company Ballet Lorent. Mazhar was also the person called upon by Maximilian Davis to create headpieces for his show-stopping Fashion East showcase. 

Now, Mazhar debuts a new exhibition unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. With I Always Wanted To Show You Mine, which opens at 243 Lux gallery in Margate from July 30 to August 30, he hopes to build on the practices he’s established with Fantastic Toiles. Bringing together two decades of work and around 500 self-portraits, largely shot by phone, he invites fans to examine the development of his headwear pieces and consider the possibilities of something less polished.

Hi Nasir! Can you tell me how the new exhibition came about, was it something you’d had in mind for a while? 

Nasir Mazahr: It’s based on all these pictures – not really selfies, they were never taken with the aim of posting – it's just documentation on myself. I've got 1000s of images, and I always thought they’d make a good book. It's mainly headwear, or hats, masks, eyewear, things balanced on the head, and it’s 20 years worth of work. Hopefully there is gonna be a book in September, but when Ed [Leeson, gallerist] offered me the space I thought it was a perfect opportunity.

So it’s predominantly photographs captured on your phone right?

Nasir Mazhar: There's four or 500 images and about six to eight pieces. It's loads of different angles, and some show the sections taken apart. Another point of the exhibition is looking at design. We sometimes focus only on the final, polished image, which has taken ages to get to – loads of money, editing, and photoshopping – what about all the moments before that? Which links to Fantastic Toiles and what I do with that. There's so many stages where that piece could have taken a completely different life, or it could actually be finished loads of stages before, but we dismiss that because it’s not polished.

There’s a sustainability element within that, as well as an aesthetic component.

Nasir Mazhar:  We talk about trying to be more environmentally conscious, but things have to change for that to happen; you can’t keep buying mass produced things that are churned out. It is looking at a different aesthetic, most of the pieces I've shown were made from stuff just laying around the studio, or leftovers from other pieces of work. If we're not thinking about just product, if we’re talking about style and aesthetic, it can be really unique and a lot more attainable. It’s a new thing for me, an exploration of that aesthetic, that way of designing and thinking about what’s sustainable. That’s a word people throw around, but with Fantastic Toiles, ultimately it is to make a change, where people can actually participate and feel they're doing something. You can't do mass production and say you're sustainable, it just does not work. 

Would it be fair to say the show – and eventually the book – exist in the same realm as Offerings, albeit from a more personal perspective?

Nasir Mazhar: Offerings is a bit different, it’s cataloguing work, archiving it, but we also have styled looks in there, and all the designers have a couple of pages. But what Fantastic Toiles stands for, and I guess part of what this exhibition and the pieces are, do marry up. It's the beginning of ideas – not always the beginning, sometimes there's the end product – but it is that. Again it’s that aesthetic of a bit raw, a bit more unusual. 

You stepped away from fashion week and the traditional fashion industry set-up in 2017, opening Fantastic Toiles in 2019 as well as doing costumes for film, ballet, and opera. Can you speak on this move and how it’s impacted your creativity, and the type of work you make today?

Nasir Mazhar: I guess it made me work more like an artist – I don't have a schedule, I don't have to worry about making things that can be manufactured, so it’s freed me up. When you work in that business model of wholesale and mass production, it's really restricting. It’s such a huge conversation, but the whole process of it is completely different. Now, I can literally make something today and try to sell it, I can take on projects. One thing about being a label or a brand, because you do get branded as that, even if you're not doing branding, is that you get pigeonholed and known for a style or aesthetic. The minute you steer away from that stores freak out, customers freak out, and it’s really debilitating. This way I can play with any genre, any aesthetic, and I always have to be honest. From the very beginning I had really broad style, but I started to get known just for streetwear. That’s one of the reasons I pulled away, because I was like well, before this I was actually doing some really weird shit. 

You’re now based in Doncaster too, while the exhibition is obviously in Margate. How has moving away from London shaped your current work and the environment in which you produce?

Nasir Mazhar: In London there's always this stress of rent. That, and being stuck in a railway arch with curved walls, no windows, no toilet, it was really, seriously depressing. Being away from that now, having lower rent, a much bigger studio… I feel blessed, honestly I feel really lucky and much happier. More peaceful and calm. A lot of it is about freedom. The other thing about London, you're distracted constantly: people coming round, parties or things on your doorstep. Here it’s quite reclusive, I only know one person who I rarely see because he's not here much. But I'm into that, if I could I’d take it further, but I can’t drive. I’m obsessed with this idea of shutting yourself off from reality – as much as you can, I still need to live, you know? But building this world for yourself, surrounding yourself in whatever you're obsessing over and interested in, losing yourself in that world. There are so many distractions halting the flow of creativity and ideas. I kind of fantasise about way back, when we didn't have these distractions, didn’t have to have international relationships, when you could just live hidden away. That's when we got incredible pieces of artwork, sculptures and paintings, clothes and costume. Okay, a lot of it was to do with money and it was made for aristocracy and rulers, but they had time. So I'm curious.

Perhaps contrastingly, collaboration has been a constant in your work, from your fashion shows to working with Wolfgang Tillmans for the English National Opera, and Maximillian Davis when he showed with Fashion East. How has it been working with the guys at 243 Luz? Ed walked in your shows back in the day right? 

Nasir Mazhar: Ed did walk in a couple of shows actually yeah! It's been honestly gorgeous. I feel really privileged to have this opportunity, I never got to in London – I'm from London and I've been doing this forever – but I never had that chance. I've never really stepped over into the art world. Obviously, I worked with Wolfgang on the opera – he shot a lookbook for me before that as well – but I've never dealt with curators or gallerists, or any writers in the art world, so it's nice to be seen in that way. Nice is a crap word, but it's been pleasant? That’s also a crap word! But it's been so nice to see the difference and also have someone else's eye on your work. Since I did step away from all of that I've worked predominantly on my own, so it's been good for that.

How did you land on the title, I Always Wanted To Show You Mine?

Nasir Mazhar: I’ve never showed this stuff, my Instagram’s always finished work. I've got some pictures on my headwear Instagram of me wearing stuff, but I've got 1000s of images. So it’s really just because I've never shown anyone – it's a bit cheeky as well, bit of a cheeky name. And it makes sense – I have always wanted to show people, but I'm not that kind of person, glorifying or promoting myself in that way.

Finally, has there been a particular highlight you’d like to share? 

Nasir Mazhar: I got quite emotional in the beginning, when I was hanging it all up. You're looking back at 20 years – there's images from when I was in Hackney Wick, where I first lived when I moved out of home, 2003 and I was still playing around with hair – it conjured up all sorts. But I don't know if there's been any highlights, I need to stop and think. It's nice to get it out there, not that I'm trying to close the chapter, but to get all of that into one place and know that it's going to be documented. 

I Always Wanted To Show You Mine is at 243 Luz in Margate from July 30 until August 30.