This month, the London fashion crowd shall go to the ball. On Monday 29 November, the Fashion Awards will make their IRL return, after taking a year’s break from the physical ceremony at its suitably iconic home, the Royal Albert Hall. In partnership with TikTok, we’ll see performances and showcases of cultural highlights from the past year, with awards going to those who have made positive change in three central areas: environment, people and creativity.
Returning alongside the Designer of the Year Award will be the BFC Foundation Award, an accolade that recognises the outstanding achievements of emerging design talent already receiving funding and support from the BFC. This year’s award will celebrate the work of nominees Bethany Williams, Bianca Saunders, Nensi Dojaka, Ahluwalia and Richard Quinn, who have not only grappled with the immense challenges of working as fashion designers throughout the pandemic, but thrived in spite of them. Ahead of the big night, ES Magazine meets them all.
For menswear designer Bianca Saunders, receiving her nomination has been a career milestone, even during a year that has been filled with amazing achievements. (Just a few months ago, Saunders took home fashion’s Andam prize, as well as being shortlisted for the BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund.) ‘It’s always been a dream of mine to be nominated for a BFC award, even before I was studying fashion and started my brand,’ she says. ‘It’s also so exciting to have the awards back, as a review of the year in British fashion and to celebrate those special moments.’
Born in Catford, Saunders debuted her first collection in June 2018 after graduating from the Royal College of Art. She immediately garnered global attention for her work that draws inspiration from her dual British and West Indian background, and puts clever twists on sportswear to challenge notions of masculinity and gender. ‘I’m constantly looking to elevate the brand and make it better; I’m rethinking things all the time,’ she says. This includes collaborations with some of London’s most talented black creatives, including film-makers and photographers such as Akinola Davies Jr and Ronan McKenzie. Saunders is currently working on her next collection, while organising her new studio space in east London. ‘I really need to get more storage!’ she says, laughing. ‘But I feel settled here already — it’s somewhere I can call my own.’
So what is Saunders’ advice to young designers who are looking to follow in her footsteps? ‘Dream big and have direct goals of what you want to achieve,’ she says. ‘This nomination for the BFC Foundation Award started as just a thought in my head one day and now it’s actually happened. Things are more attainable than you think they are. Just make sure you have an individual voice and focus on the work at hand.’
Eltham’s Richard Quinn graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2016, founding his own label later that year. Since then, he has shown at London Fashion Week and even hit the high street with a 12-piece collection for Debenhams (a collaboration that cemented Quinn in the public’s consciousness as a designer
to watch). In 2018, he was presented with the first Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design by none other than the Queen herself. But it’s his AW21 ready-to-wear collection and accompanying 25-minute film starring another queen, Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK favourite Bimini Bon-Boulash, that has, in part, earned him a nomination for this year’s BFC Foundation Award.
It’s a collection that Quinn spent most of the lockdowns working on. ‘This nomination means so much to us as we’ve worked so hard this year,’ he says. ‘We always see our company on a global platform, and I think that we’ve really achieved that with the people that we’ve dressed and who we’ve worked with.’ Richard Quinn will always be recognised for its camp floral and faunal patterns and surreal silhouettes (that simultaneously nod to S&M leather subcultures and the chintzy veneer of twitching net curtains in British suburbia). ‘But our latest ready-to-wear collection really branched into different territories,’ explains Quinn. ‘So it’s amazing to be recognised for this, too.’
‘It’s just a great moment to be nominated for this award, as fashion is returning to physical shows,’ the designer continues. With several new launches in the pipeline, Quinn has plans to move to a larger studio space to accommodate his future ambitions ‘We’ll be staying in south-east London though — but we’re definitely on the hunt.’
Priya Ahluwalia is no stranger to the British Fashion Awards, having been twice before. ‘I was saying to my team this morning that the first time I went, I was sitting really high up in the gods; and then the next time I was in a box. And this time I’ll be sitting there as a nominee! It really feels like I’ve got a seat at the table — it’s a huge honour,’ she says. Born in south London, Ahluwalia studied for an MA in menswear at the University of Westminster and since graduating has been the recipient of both the prestigious LVMH Prize, the H&M Design Award and the BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund. Her studio is currently based at 180 The Strand, a creative hub that now draws in people from all over the world. ‘I’m pretty sure will.i.am turned up there the other day!’ she says.
The designer’s work blends the smart lines and structures of classical men’s tailoring with a vibrant sportswear edge, colours and prints. At a time when the environmental and social ills of fast fashion are very much in the spotlight, her pieces have an emphasis on sustainability, often using recycled materials and deadstock clothing to create pieces that are made for and inspired by multicultural London and her own mixed heritage (her father is Nigerian and her mother, Indian).
In 2021, Ahluwalia branched away from menswear. She collaborated on a collection of totes and scarves with British heritage brand Mulberry, and produced alongside it a series of films called Tools of Expression, celebrating Afro-Caribbean hair. Directed by Ahluwalia, the films featured model and activist Munroe Bergdorf; rapper Enny of Peng Black Girls fame; and rising east London musician Lancey Foux. In addition to this, her first womenswear collection proper was released in collaboration with Danish fashion brand Ganni, which featured gorgeous muted hues and prints, all reworked from Ganni’s 2020 collections. As for the upcoming awards show, is there anything about it being in-person that Ahluwalia is particularly looking forward to? ‘The dancing! We’re working on doing a custom look for me — I love dressing up, so it’s going to be a fun night.’
‘This year has been really special,’ says Nensi Dojaka. And it’s not difficult to see why the womenswear designer has reason to celebrate: not only did she take home the 2021 LVMH prize but she staged her first solo show outside of talent incubator Fashion East just a few months ago. ‘The collection in September felt very rounded for the first time — there were more designs, more colours… big changes,’ she explains of her departure from the monochromatic colour palette that became her signature.
Born in Albania, Dojaka moved to London to study when she was only 17, graduating from the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion course. She also holds a degree in lingerie technology from London College of Fashion, which accounts for the diaphanous and erotic codes of her now cult label, which is worn by the likes of Emma Corrin, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid. Despite her status as a rising star, Dojaka is yet to attend a British Fashion Awards ceremony — and this year, she goes as a BFA Foundation Award nominee. ‘I really can’t wait,’ she says, ‘particularly to see people wearing beautiful things again — we haven’t had too much of that lately. And also to be around all the creatives in the industry again in real life.’
Dojaka is keen to highlight the diversity of the work of the nominees this year: ‘I love all of the brands I’m nominated with and I know a few of them personally. It’s inspiring for me as they are all doing something totally different from what I’m doing.’ As for her own work? ‘I’m currently working towards the next show. The brand is still shaping itself a lot along the way, so a lot of things are changing. Every collection is different and special to me in its own way.’
Having received a BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund prize earlier this year, Bethany Williams is looking forward to making a comeback as a BFC Foundation Award nominee. This time, she’s eager for a party. ‘Last year it was all digital,’ she says. ‘We had to celebrate over video. I can’t wait to go back to the real event. It’s so exciting.’ The designer, who grew up on the Isle of Man and now lives and works in London, holds a BA in critical fine art practice from Brighton University and an MA in menswear from the London College of Fashion. She founded her namesake label in 2017 with the belief that social and environmental issues are inseparable, seeing (as her brand’s Instagram bio reads) ‘fashion as a force for change’.
Alongside using waste, recycled and deadstock materials in her work, Bethany Williams’ seasonal collections are created via a network of social enterprises, including a partnership with Making for Change, a project that began seven years ago in HMP Downview to teach women fashion and textile skills. ‘We’ve just moved into our new studio space in Poplar alongside our manufacturer, Making for Change,’ she says. ‘This is now the secondary site for the women, who will work in paid employment after they are released.’ Recognisable for its sportswear-inspired silhouettes, painterly use of colour and texture, and hand-crafted techniques, the Bethany Williams brand stands out for its innovation in both style and substance.
‘I was so honoured to be included with them,’ the designer says of her fellow nominees for the BFC Foundation Award.
‘I feel like we’ve almost all grown up together and this is a fantastic moment to celebrate together.’ While she’s enjoying the present, Williams is busy planning for the future: a debut exhibition at the Design Museum, set to launch in February. ‘This will be tied to my new collection and free for the general public to see, as part of the Crafts Council’s 50th anniversary,’ she explains. ‘I’m really excited to contextualise my practice; when we present our work through films or shows, it feels instantaneous. I’m so excited to really have a chance to show the depth of what we do at Bethany Williams.’