The Tribute: 10 Black Style Icons Who Changed British Menswear
From left: Mr Don Letts in the basement of Acme Attractions, Kings Road, London, 1976. Photograph by Ms Sheila Rock. Three men at the Port of Tilbury, Essex, 22 June 1948. Photograph by Mr Douglas Miller/Getty Images. Mr Andrew Ramroop in his workshop at Maurice Sedwell on Savile Row, London, 2009. Photograph by Mr Andreas Hofer
For as long as Black people have immigrated to the UK from its former colonies, Black culture has woven itself into the nation’s fabric. And no doubt that Britain is many times richer, thanks to the literature of Ms Zadie Smith, the music of Ms Sade Adu and the films of Sir Steve McQueen, to name a few. British fashion is no different, although whether those contributions have been rightfully acknowledged is another question. To readdress that, The Missing Thread: Untold Stories Of Black British Fashion, an exhibition at Somerset House in London, has set out to showcase the work of Black designers from the 1970s to the present day.
Specifically, when it comes to menswear, the role that Black designers and cultural figures have played over the past 70 or so years cannot be overstated. The youngest tailor to set up shop on Savile Row? A Black man. The most exciting name in contemporary British menswear? Arguably a Black woman. For UK Black History Month, MR PORTER is paying homage to 10 Black British style-makers who have helped shape the fashion landscape and the way we dress – from the impeccably tailored gentlemen of the Windrush era to the menswear designers of today.
01. The Windrush generation
Three men at the Port of Tilbury, Essex, 22 June 1948. Photograph by Mr Douglas Miller/Getty Images
Looking at photographs of the HMT Empire Windrush’s arrival in 1948, it is hard not to be struck by the impeccable style and poise of those who stepped off the ship. The historic moment, which kicked off a wave of post-war migration from the Caribbean to the UK, saw Port of Tilbury was awash with trilby hats, patterned ties and tailored suits. At the time, Caribbean men mostly took their style cues from African-American performers and the passengers’ suits speak to US menswear trends at the time (most notably the zoot suit). Trousers were typically high-waisted and wide-legged, while jackets ran long and came with generous lapels.
In their refined attire, the Windrush passengers exuded both a pride in themselves and a desire to put their best foot forward in their new home. The passenger records, meanwhile, reveal a proud tradition of clothes-making in the Caribbean at the time. On board were 10 shoemakers, 11 dressmakers, 34 tailors and a hat-maker, each bringing their skills to the “motherland”. Among them was Mr Clifford Fullerton, who began working as a tailor in North Kensington. He went on to break new ground in the industry, becoming the first Black associate member of the City of London Master and Foreman Tailors Society.
02. Mr Desmond Dekker
Mr Desmond Dekker on stage, c.1976. Photograph by Alamy
He may have been born and raised in Jamaica, but the musician Mr Desmond Dekker’s influence extended to British shores before he moved here. Along with Mr Jimmy Cliff, he was one of the biggest exporters of ska, which emerged in Jamaica in the late 1950s and paved the way for reggae. Dekker achieved his first UK number one in 1969 with “Israelites” and other hits soon followed. Around 1970, he settled in Britain. He signed with a UK record label and called the country home until his death in 2006.
Dekker wasn’t just a genre-defining musician. He was a famously snazzy dresser. At the height of his career, he favoured pale suits, bow ties and ruffled shirts in the Jamaican “rude boy” tradition that were adopted by Black Brits. In later years he swapped tailoring for a look that was more laid-back but nonetheless rife with symbolism. He often paired black leather jackets with sunglasses, pendant necklaces and a black beret (complete with brooch) that evoked Black revolutionaries. His clothes echoed the themes of struggle and resistance in his music.
03. Mr Andrew Ramroop
Mr Andrew Ramroop in his workshop at Maurice Sedwell on Savile Row, London, 2009. Photograph by Mr Andreas Hofer
A childhood passion for clothes-making brought Trinidad-born Mr Andrew Ramroop to the UK aged 17 in 1970. Having served an apprenticeship back home with a local tailor, he enrolled at the London College of Fashion. By 1974, Ramroop was working on Savile Row, home to the most distinguished and highly trained British tailors. He started out at Huntsman & Son before joining Maurice Sedwell. In 1988, when Sedwell retired, Ramroop acquired the brand and become the first Black person to own a shop on the street.
As Maurice Sedwell’s master tailor, Ramroop has dressed a long list of celebrities. The actor Mr Samuel L Jackson is a fan and the cashmere blazer that Diana, Princess of Wales wore for her Panorama interview with Mr Martin Bashir was his creation. His greatest legacy is the Savile Row Academy, which was founded to train the next generation of cutters and keep British tailoring traditions alive.
04. Mr Don Letts
Mr Don Letts in the basement of Acme Attractions, Kings Road, London, 1976. Photograph by Ms Sheila Rock
The British-Jamaican musician, DJ and filmmaker Mr Don Letts seems to have a had a hand in almost every major music moment of the 1970s and 1980s, most notably directing videos for everyone from The Pretenders to Mr Bob Marley and The Clash. One of his most iconic gigs was as a Chelsea shopkeeper. In 1975, he opened Acme Attractions on the King’s Road (not far from Dame Vivienne Westwood and Mr Malcolm McLaren’s boutique, Sex), which was patronised by an array of stars, including Marley. Its aim was “to sell cool shit that we wore to like-minded people”.
Letts has always had a distinct dress sense, accented by his resplendent dreadlocks. He is a longtime Stüssy collector and has professed to being a fan of John Smedley, Carhartt, Noah and YMC. In the past decade, he has appeared in campaigns for Cutler and Gross and Nicholas Daley, with whom he worked on his 2015 collections. Now 67, he is still one of the coolest men in the country – and a reminder that great style only gets better with age.
Goldie in Park Village, Wolverhampton, July 1986. Photograph by Mr Martin Jones, Zulu Dawn Collection based at Dudley Archive
As the cofounder of the Metalheadz record label, Goldie was a pioneer of UK drum and bass and one of the leading music figures in the 1990s. Recognisable as much for his distinct sound as his irreverent style – most notably his gold teeth and chains – the music producer, DJ and graffiti artist was flying the flag for streetwear long before hoodies and tracksuits hit the runways.
His streetwear brand of choice? Stüssy. On any given day, Goldie would be decked out in the label and its logoed caps are still part of his uniform. He has gradually amassed what must be one of the world’s biggest vintage collections of its pieces (which he showed off to i-D in 2021) and has since collaborated with the brand on capsules and limited editions. Fortunately, his contributions to fashion have not been overlooked by today’s tastemakers. In 2021, he featured in and provided the soundtrack for Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer campaign.
06. Mr Ozwald Boateng
Mr Ozwald Boateng at the Givenchy SS07 menswear show, Paris, 4 July 2006. Photograph by Mr Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images
While Mr Virgil Abloh’s appointment as the creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear in 2018 was celebrated as a watershed moment, the Illinois-born designer was not the first Black person to head up a major Paris fashion house. That title belongs to the British-Ghanaian trailblazer Mr Ozwald Boateng, who a decade and a half earlier was hired by Givenchy to create its first ready-to-wear menswear line and worked at the maison from 2004 to 2007.
A self-taught tailor, Boateng first made a splash in his native London in 1995 when he became the youngest person to open his own a shop on Savile Row at just 28. He soon became a household name and was credited with modernising bespoke British tailoring. He was even the subject of a retrospective at the V&A museum in 2005. Almost 30 years later, Boateng is a stalwart of British menswear and offers everything from kaftans and sneakers to classic made-to-measure tailoring. He has dressed everyone from the singer Sir Mick Jagger to the actor Mr Jamie Foxx and is roundly acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in British fashion.
07. Messrs Joe and Charlie Casely-Hayford
Messrs Charlie Casely-Hayford and Joe Casely-Hayford at a Details x Casely-Hayford event for London Collections, 11 January 2015. Photograph by Mr David M Benett/Getty Images for Details
This autumn, the Missing Thread exhibition at Somerset House presents Mr Joe Casely-Hayford’s archive to the public for the first time. Widely considered one of Britain’s most impactful yet underrated designers, Casely-Hayford, who is of West African heritage, trained as a tailor before setting up his own label in 1983. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he dressed a roll call of rockstars, most famously the U2 frontman Bono for his 1992 Vogue cover, and collaborated with high-street labels such as Topman and John Lewis to bring his designs to a wider audience.
Casely-Hayford eventually shut down his own labels when he was named creative director of the British bespoke tailoring house Gieves & Hawkes in 2005. However in 2009, he launched his eponymous label with his son, Charlie, who studied at Central Saint Martins in London and worked briefly as a stylist. Blending a Savile Row sensibility with an east London edge and Japanese manufacturing, Casely-Hayford established itself one of most exciting tailors in the UK, finely attuned to contemporary culture yet never succumbing to trends. And although Casely-Hayford sadly passed away in 2019, his legacy lives on through his son, who continues to run the brand from its smart shop on Chiltern Street and outfits some of the most discerning dressers on the planet.
08. Ms Grace Wales Bonner
Ms Grace Wales Bonner at the Young Fashion Designer Prize at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 16 June 2016. Photograph by Mr Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Over the course of a decade, the London-born fashion designer Ms Grace Wales Bonner has risen from promising Central Saint Martins alumna to respected designer. Along the way, she has racked up some impressive plaudits, among them the LVMH Young Designer Prize in 2016 and the CFDA International Men’s Designer Of The Year in 2021. Starting out in menswear (she now does womenswear, too), Wales Bonner has established an easy elegance that takes shape in retro sportswear silhouettes reimagined with luxe details, refined knits and laid-back tailoring. Devoted fans include Messrs Lewis Hamilton, Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator, who all attended her AW23 show in Paris.
Wales Bonner crafts collections that are rich with references to Black history and culture, from the work of the writers Mr James Baldwin and Mr Ismael Reed and the artist Ms Lubaina Himid to lover’s rock reggae and the distance-running traditions of East Africa. She has also curated an exhibition at MoMA in New York and designed costumes for one of Mr Wayne McGregor’s dance productions. However, she is perhaps best known for her collaboration with adidas, which has resulted in some of the most coveted, impossible-to-cop sneakers of the past couple years.
Skepta at the Met Gala celebrating “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line Of Beauty”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1 May 2023. Photograph by Mr Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Mr Joseph “Skepta” Adenuga is more than just a rapper (and a Mercury Prize-winning one at that). As an elder of the grime genre and a founder of the Boy Better Know record label, he is one of the country’s most influential cultural figures and is credited with helping export UK rap to a global audience via collaborations with Drake and A$AP Rocky. He’s also emerged as a poster boy for British fashion and a London Fashion Week regular, and he’s regularly lauded as one of the best-dressed men in Britain.
Though he’s a fashion chameleon, stepping out in everything from supersized Moncler coats to tartan trousers, Skepta has particularly close ties to Burberry. In February 2023, he became one of the faces of the British brand and was dressed by creative director Mr Daniel for the Met Gala. Earlier this year, Skepta made his own foray into fashion design with his brand-new ready-to-wear line, Mains London. Debuted at London Fashion Week in September, the first collection riffed on streetwear and sportswear, with sophisticated flourishes and earned top reviews from critics.
10. Mr Nicholas Daley
Mr Nicholas Daley in his studio, London, 2022. Photo Mr Ollie Adegboye, courtesy of Nicholas Daley
Mr Nicholas Daley’s Jamaican-Scottish heritage is integral to his work, which “explores the interplay of fashion, music and culture”. “Fashion designer” doesn’t do him justice. He has emerged as a cultural curator and archivist whose creative vision spills into all media. He has his own magazine, for example, and shares eclectic mixtapes on his website. He has also spotlighted up-and-coming Black musicians in his campaigns, set up a music grant with Fred Perry for unsigned artists and most recently staged Woven Rhythms, a one-night takeover of the Southbank Centre in London dedicated to jazz, reggae and electronic music.
When it comes to his clothes, it’s all about craftsmanship. Think handwoven jute crochet hats and quilted jackets. His pieces often nod to his Caribbean roots, whether through the warm colour palette or bold prints. He has forged partnerships with Mulberry and adidas and his designs featured in the V&A’s Fashioning Masculinities exhibition in 2022, which traced the history of menswear. Last year, he was awarded the BFC/GQ Designer Fashion Fund prize, which cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting designers in menswear.
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