Taken from the summer 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
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Bree Runway has been hiding something. Her trademark oversized Gucci sunglasses have long snapped in half, a confession she relays to her 266,000 followers on Instagram hours before we speak. “Listen... Bye!” Bree laughs, snapping her fingers with a delightfully camp energy when I quiz her about the famous lenses. It’s been a profound source of distress that she’d kept in the dark since 2021 – “I couldn’t even admit to anyone that those glasses were no longer with us because they are literally Bree Runway. I remember I picked them up one day, I think I was going to Lady Gaga’s launch for House of Gucci, and I put them on, did nothing crazy, and the arm just snapped off! My heart was torn to shreds because they’ve been essential. If a pair of glasses could sum up Bree Runway, it would be them.” As though the pair had a sentient life, she recalls how they’ve been around “like a whore” at different repair shops to be fixed without any luck. Fortunately, her team managed to source a pair from a seller through Vestiaire Collective, an eCommerce platform for sourcing pre-loved and archival fashion. “I’m so happy; I feel complete again.”
Bree is recounting her woes poolside in California, wearing the star-studded sunglasses in question teamed with a black bikini while waiting for her hotel room to be ready. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she is in Palm Springs for the first weekend of Coachella. This year, though, she’s not performing at the festival but as part of Soho Desert House, a pop-up experience in La Quinta, a desert oasis six miles from the main Coachella site. “I wish I could give the Bree Runway maximum today,” she begins, citing the limited production capacity of the Desert House stage. “I wish I could bring wind machines to blow my hair and shit, like how it is at a normal Bree Runway show. But I’m still gonna give it to people – energy!” Her ambition is clear – this is a pit-stop, not the destination – and upon releasing her debut album, she’ll hit the Coachella main stage in full riotous Runway fashion. “I think I will genuinely come from the sky; I will have enough budget by then. If I could shoot out with some kind of firework situation, pop up in the middle... wait, actually! I’m spilling all my ideas!” Though her Breechella moment may be pending, her growing American audience can look forward to the full- scale production in her three-leg US tour of Los Angeles and New York. Unsurprisingly, all three dates sold out within minutes.
Bree is driven by self-belief and an unshakeable faith; she is God-fearing and feels divine forces guide her career. The scale of her imagination and voyage into the multiverse of genres feels genuinely rare and once-in-a-generation. Her 2020 debut mix- tape, 2000AND4EVA, broke her to new audiences and showcased her versatility, from trap-pop hit “Gucci”, sonically transporting you to the heyday of Dalston’s notorious Visions Video Bar, to the more sorrowful sounds of “4 Nicole Thea Baby Reign”, written in memory of her friend who tragically passed away in July 2020. As she says, while Black female singers of her vocal strength are often expected to box themselves in, she is only interested in constant reinvention. “I’m like a pick-and-mix. My formula is do whatever the fuck you want,” she says. Indeed, the rapper and singer’s habit of referring to ‘Bree Runway’ in the third person is instructive of how she views her persona as something shifting, not a figure set in stone, but spoken into existence, meaning something different every time. It’s a mentality partly down to her being of the music-video generation, bearing witness to musicians constantly disrupting the conventions of pop and its spectacular performance. As a nine-year-old girl, she mapped the blueprint for becoming a global pop star, referencing Britney Spears’ iconic snake-charming “I'm a Slave 4U” at the 2001 VMAs. She remembers thinking, “This is a pop star; this is what a pop star should be like.” Artists like Kelis and Gwen Stefani were kindred spirits who she equally grew to feel an affinity with. “There was something I saw in myself with them. Like, get up and dye my hair whatever colour, dress how I want to dress, pull up and just be fab wherever I go.”
At first, Bree had to rely on resourcefulness to achieve her maximalist vision. Her first music was recorded on studio equipment bought for £200 “from some random website”, and Bree taught herself to mix and master through YouTube, which she describes as essential to defining her sound: “It made me know what I want musically.” Her early music videos required a similarly DIY approach; they would typically set her back around £200, £150 of which was for hair and clothing. Working at Louboutin in Harrods meant she could purchase discounted shoes, while the outfits would be cut-and-sliced-up garments from Pretty Little Thing. She takes a deep breath before reliving how she would fashion a wig: “I’d get little cheap streaks and put it in with some crazy, synthetic hard-ass hair, but I had to make it work!” One of those early videos, “Designer Hooker”, is evidence of this resourcefulness. “I hired a projector and two wind fans,” says Bree. “And then I put it together on different iMovie clips of Grace Jones, clips from Chanel runway shows in the 90s – just anything in that same world, same feel, same aesthetic.” Her childhood friend, the model Leomie Anderson, had $10,000 which she donated to Bree to use as a prop in the video. “It was so cool, I was so proud of my mind and ambition at the time. Because [the song] sold exactly what it needed to sell.” Her budget may have increased since then, but she has retained that resourcefulness. “Every single Bree Runway music video you see starts with a moodboard on my iPad. I’m still involved exactly how I was from the beginning; that hasn’t changed.”
“In east London, if you’re on some different shit, you’ve got to have the confidence to stand by it” - Bree Runway
As her star ascends, Bree has commanded the attention of the icons she grew up listening to and watching on MTV. When Lady Gaga’s music video for “LoveGame” premiered in March 2009, 16-year-old Bree thought, ‘Oh, this is my bitch, I love her,’ noting that the styling within the video played around with leather, denim and vintage Chanel, which she had gravitated towards. So when the star’s producer, BloodPop, contacted Bree about hopping on Dawn of Chromatica, a remix album of Gaga’s 2020 LP Chromatica, she was like, “What? What’s going on?!” She picked the track “Babylon” but delayed writing her verse for weeks due to fear of disappointing her idol. “I didn’t want to let her down!” she laughs. “But in the end, it worked out perfectly, and they loved it.” When she @-ed Missy Elliott on Twitter in March 2020 saying “come and collect me mommy! Hop on the remix 4 me”, after her track “APESHIT” drew comparisons with the hip-hop legend (Missy responded with “keep shin- ing mama”) she couldn’t have imagined that just ten months later Missy would end up being the missing puzzle-piece for her track “ATM”: “I remember I dropped ‘Gucci’ and her team reached out and was like, ‘Yeah, she wants to do something with [you],’ and ‘ATM’ was the song of mine that felt incomplete. And I was like, please send this to her, Jordan – Jordan is the A&R – and see if she likes it. She liked it, and then we got cracking!”
Bree’s blossoming friendship with Foxy Brown is most special to her. She is one of only eight people the legendary Brooklyn rapper follows on Instagram. “She’s probably going to die with laughter when I say this, but she’s my best friend in my head,” says Bree. “Every time I get a notification from her, I’m like, ‘Do you know who the fuck you are and what you’ve created? The doors you’ve opened? What you mean for fashion and music?’ Those crazy iconic crossovers!”
As the self-proclaimed “dark-skinned Christian Dior poster girl” of the early 00s, Brown is also a one-time muse to John Galliano. His AW00 collection for Dior drew inspiration from the hip-hop high life, and its ‘Super Fly Girls’ submerged in fur and the iconic (and heavily referenced) newspaper print were an identity-defining moment for young Bree. “When I was a kid, I begged my mum for the pink monogram purse. I ended up getting it, I don’t know how, but she made it happen. That was my first Dior piece, and I just love what Foxy and that whole Galliano link-up brought to fashion for me as a dark-skin girl.” Clearly, Bree never let go of these early fashion obsessions. “I don’t even like shopping in-store, I always shop backwards,” says the singer, whose closet is reportedly full of archive pieces. “I said as soon as I get more money, that’s what I’m gonna do, and that’s what I do!”
With Galliano having Foxy and both Marc Jacobs and Donatella Versace having Lil Kim, Bree had her heart set on a muse-like relationship of her own. “I really wanted to be Karl Lagerfeld’s muse one day; that was a goal of mine. I was like, God, I really hope we form a close relationship and do something crazy with Chanel,” she says. “But there are so many new designers we could eventually link up with and do something crazy. Demna [Gvasalia] for Balenciaga would be cool because I love the spirit of Balenciaga; it could go anywhere at any time, and that’s my spirit.” She recently acquired a pair of furry black Balenciaga sunglasses, the latest Bree Runway staple, which she set her sights on after a Twitter user quote-tweeted a picture of them with the comment, “Don’t let Bree Runway see these.” Bree remembers thinking, “Hang on a second... furry glasses? That is a bit of me, mate! And they’re Balenciaga? Forget about it!” The glasses, which were sold out, were sourced after a 24-hour search aided by fans working in Balenciaga stores from Miami to Paris.
Today, Bree usually collaborates with her costume design team to make custom outfits – the baby-blue fluffy bikini worn in her “ATM” video was the result of an “embarrassing” sketch of hers that her team brought to life. “I pull together inspiration from so many themes,” she explains. “I like how palm trees look, for example; I’m in front of a palm tree right now and it reminds me of this synthetic hair we made as a fringe for the arms of my gloves for my live shows. And with that, I think, ‘OK, there’s a fan on when the picture’s being taken. How can we maximise movement in absolutely everything?’ The hair, the hair on the gloves, everything. I want everything to look like an absolute movie.”
A born-and-raised east Londoner, Bree’s instincts for risk-taking stylistic choices were nurtured in the city’s eclectic streets. “Growing up in east, I saw freedom,” says the artist, born Brenda Wireko Mensah to Ghanaian parents. Her mum would make costumes for her and her school friends at home. “She was like our Tina Knowles. I remember the first costume she made for us – we went fabric shopping, and I really wanted something snake- skin. We made this snakeskin zig-zag shirt and this one-armed thing – that was our performance outfit. I wore these chunky Demonia-style boots; I don’t know where the hell I got those from.” Out on the streets, Bree found inspiration in the many different subcultures that call Hackney home. “People were trying different shit. My neighbour would go out with pink hair one day, blue hair [another] day, and I just loved that. There were so many different cliques. There were the lot dressed in the punk stuff, the more street Nike squad, the more preppy girls and the Colombian girls. There was so much differ- ent shit I could pull from. The Colombian girls gave me the kick up the ass to wear Von Dutch low-rise jeans. I still have all my Von Dutch shit right now!” It’s no coincidence that the east London girl has a global appeal, and even as her star ascends, she feels that the vibrancy of her hometown can be found in her music. “There’s a grittiness to my music, a cockiness that’s so east London. In east London, if you’re on some different shit, you’ve got to have the confidence to stand by it.”
“I really wanted to be Karl Lagerfeld’s muse one day; that was a goal of mine” - Bree Runway
Recently, Bree has been writing and recording her forthcoming debut album across various studios in Los Angeles. It’s an intentional setting for this process – on her first recording trip to LA in summer 2021, she met up with former Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money member Dawn Richard, another genre-defying artist whose catalogue is as eclectic as Bree’s own. She recalls having “one of the most important conversations of [her] life”. “She put a red-underline under how blessed I am, as a dark-skin girl, to be doing what I’m doing and for it to be received the way it’s been received,” says Bree. “Because it’s not common for us to be doing the things we do and for it to cross over the way it’s crossing over. Slowly but surely, Bree Runway is becoming global.” Among the global connections she’s establishing, Bree is making the best use of LA as she feels that her collaborators stateside simply get it. “My collaborators here speak the language that I want to put into the music. They just get it.” She cites Benny Cassette and Glasgow-born Hudson Mohawke, who both worked on Kanye West’s Yeezus and The Life of Pablo albums, and Charli XCX producer EASYFUN as some of the people bringing her work to life. She’s tight-lipped on the exact contents of the album but says audiences should “expect to hear Bree Runway in a way you’ve never [heard her] before. Everything you love? Expect it times ten. It’s just going to be so elevated.” She in- tends to dovetail her signature boss-bitch anthems with more pensive, meditative moments. New sounds and visuals but with the distinct familiarity of her brand: “The vocal range is going to be on full display in a way you haven’t heard before – it’s just gonna feel like fashion, emotion, a party, a cry with your girls, everything Bree Runway is.”
This is certainly true of the two tracks I’m sent through to preview, which I’m told will not appear on the album, though they may feature in the setlist for Bree’s shows in New York and LA. The first is “Just Fine”, in which Bree’s smooth vocals glide over spacey 80s-style synth bass and 808s, reminiscent of soulful and funky tracks like Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King’s “Love Come Down” and Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”. While she did not have a direct inspiration for the track, Bree tells me, “I do love songs from the 80s and the feeling it [gives you], just those songs you can play at the cookout and we all dance to it. That’s what ‘Just Fine’ reminds me of.” The track sees Bree celebrating a post-breakup glow-up and finding power in choosing herself: “Now that I’m letting you go / got them rich bitch fancy clothes.” “I wanted to do an anthem, in the most joyful way, [that was like], ‘Listen, you can get over that man, pack his shit up and throw it all out!’” she explains. The second track I previewed, “That Girl”, is an entirely different sound, still taking on those themes of self-confidence and self-assertion, but with a deep house beat which takes you to the ballroom. It rockets between tempos as Bree sings, “Get the cash, get the money, better spend that, girl / If you bad and you know it, better show out girl.”
Bree’s Ghanaian heritage has left a strong imprint on her visuals and sound. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of attending Ghanaian hall parties, she says: “That was my shit. I used to love going; I loved the aunties with the epic fake Gucci, the overlined lips, the make-up, the cool hair, the dance moves, the semi-competitiveness between outfits. I found it so fun and so funny.” And she regularly listens to throwback Ghanaian tunes, citing a group called City Boys. “I love their leader, The Black Chinese, and they've got really cool melodies. The instrumentation is amazing." She also mentions the music of Congolese songwriter Koffi Olomidé, which she loves for its guitar sound – “I’m a guitar girl,” she says, a fact you could probably glean from the opening electric guitar lick of “APESHIT”. She says that the music she has created and what’s still to come on her upcoming album are inseparable from this Ghanaian identity: “The pockets I hit melody-wise are different, and that comes from me being a Ghanaian girl, 100%. Like, there’s a sort of pizzazz that I deliver, and if you know me and how silly I am when I dance to African music, it’s literally that in a musical form.”
”I’m like a pick-and-mix. My formula is do whatever the fuck you want” - Bree Runway
Bree is often one of those artists who is spoken of as just shy of her destination. I suppose performing at Soho Desert House, six miles from Coachella, is quite emblematic, so I ask her what success really looks like for her. If she feels like she’s becoming the pop princess she envisioned when she was a child with her eyes glued to the television watching the greats. “I think success looks like me wrapping up an album that I’m really happy with, and whatever happens, happens,” she answers. She wants to remain grounded, too, no matter her success, and family is everything to her – her mother is still a point of call for last-minute costume alterations. She laughs about how her once-tricky relationship with her younger sibling, Nathan, has mellowed, as she “partially raised him” and helped “shape his style and confidence”. There’s a beautiful photo of the two of them on her Instagram in matching Miu Miu gloves – she had bought him a black pair then realised she wanted a pair of her own so she grabbed them in baby blue. But being grounded is compatible with starry ambi- tion, even essential to it, as she continues to pursue her own definition of success. What does the future look like? “It looks like me getting to that inevitable top destination that I’m going to get to and being happy and feeling balanced and at peace inside. That’s very important. I don’t want to lose myself to some flashing lights. I’m not that sort of girl.”
Hair EVANIE FRAUSTO at STREETERS using REDKEN, make-up MARCELO GUTIERREZ at BRYANT ARTISTS using M.A.C, nails DAWN STERLING, set design HEATH MATTIOLI at FRANK REPS, photographic assistants STEPHEN WORDIE, JACK BUSTER, DOMINIQUE ELLI, styling assistants ALI CLAIRE MARINO, LAUREN BENSKY, PATRICK LOPAZE, BOTA ABDUL, hair assistant MARIN MULLEN, make-up assistant CHRISTOPHER FINLEY, set design assistants DEVIN TOLENDANO, digital operator BENOIST LECHEVALLIER, production DANA BROCKMAN at VIEWFINDERS, production coordinator MOLLY O’BRIEN, production assistant DIN MORRIS