The fashion agenda today is being set by a new generation of stars who are refreshing and reinventing their respective corners of the industry. In womenswear, there is Nensi Dojaka, last year’s LVMH Prize winner, who is redefining what sexy looks like.
Bianca Saunders, the 2021 recipient of the ANDAM Fashion Award, also casts a female gaze but on menswear—where she has created a distinctive look that is both off-kilter and graceful. And then there is Harris Reed, the non-binary designer pushing gender fluidity to its most expressive, extravagant heights with his demi-couture creations.
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Dojaka is currently the darling of the industry; her work beloved not just by the establishment (as evidenced by her LVMH Prize triumph), but also by some of the most photographed women in the world. Trendsetters such as Rihanna, Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa and Emily Ratajkowski have all been spotted in Dojaka’s signature lingerie-inspired looks—and for good reason. Soft but strong, say yet never trashy, the designer’s aesthetic dovetails perfectly with our current cultural moment—one in which sex has returned to the forefront of fashion and the pent-up demand for party dressing is close to boiling point.
With their delicate criss-crossing straps and cleverly placed French-seamed panels, Dojaka’s dresses brilliantly straddle the line between underwear and evening wear. The clothes are barely there, but what is there is impeccably constructed—engineered to caress the body in all the right places. In a concretion with Zadrian Smith for Harper’s BAZAAR UK, Dojaka said of her approach: “What I love is to make [women] feel empowered, but also to keep it very fragile because that’s what makes us women—we are strong, but there is also that lightness and fragility. Which is something really beautiful.” She explained further to Tamison O’Connor of Business of Fashion: “It’s about using the sexiness almost like a power play—it’s about the woman taking control of the faze. The clothes are sexy, but they’re for the [woman], about the [woman].”
The tension between strength and softness is also something that colours the work of Saunders. Her vision of menswear is undeniably masculine, but not in the traditional sense. There is something quiet but powerful in the way she reimagines foundational menswear garments such as tailoring, sportswear and workwear. There is nothing campy nor overwrought about her work, but it is strikingly singular nonetheless. Her prowess is in her patterns—a distortion here, a contortion there; a seam twisted here, a sleeve curved there; a shirt cinched, or a tee ruched just so. The result is clothing that looks like it has movement built into it, as though it were frozen mid-action.
In a separate conversation with Smith for Harper’s BAZAAR UK, Saunders shared that her starting point comes from “bridging the gap between the masculine and the feminine energies and gestures”. She also explained why she opts for subtle drama instead of flashy showpieces—in other words, clothing, not costume. “In fashion, we tend to think about the more stylistic people, but the consumer that’s buying the clothes is everybody else—I really want to make people like that feel comfortable [with] themselves and feel as though they can be a mixture of people. I think the modern man is more of a polymath. So even if the person is involved in finance, he’s going to an art show [at] the weekend or has an extensive music collection. It’s very much broadened.”
Perhaps no one is doing more to broaden fashion’s boundaries than Reed. He is no stranger to viral moments, having dressed the world’s biggest pop stars, including Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus and Solange. There is a reason why these flamboyant showmen are drawn to Reed. His work falls on the spectrum somewhere between club kid and glam rock, and its OTT opulence has more in common with the couture of the 1980s and the royal court fashions of the 1800s than the streetwear and athleisure that dominate the runways today.
Related article: Harris Reed Celebrates The Beauty Of Gender Fluidity
Reed explained the drive behind his unabashedly in-your-face designs in a self-penned essay for Harper’s BAZAAR UK: “So many of the people who wear my clothing aren’t gender fluid or queer, but they really believe in this idea that things shouldn’t be boxed in as ‘male’ or ‘female’— you should just put on something that makes you feel divine and confident.” He also hopes that his work is part of a larger movement “that makes people think and go, ‘Screw it. We’ve been through this pandemic—we don’t want to be boxed into our apartments or boxed into our bodies. We want to explode! We want to explode! We want to express and explore.’ People need to put things on their bodies that best represent who they are, how they identify, how they want to be seen. I want to be a fabulous fashion designer who fights for people to be who they are.”
The work of the designers spotlit here could not be any more different, but this underlying sentiment is something they all share: Be it a sexually empowered woman, a modern polymath gentleman or a fabulous being free of labels, the people who step into the worlds and the clothes of these designers are free to become their best, truest selves—and that is fashion’s most potent power.