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By Isobel Van Dyke
ast week, London-based designer Bianca Saunders was awarded the prestigious ANDAM fashion award in Paris, becoming the first Black British designer to win the accolade. As a result, the designer will recieve 300,000 euros and a year of coaching from Cédric Charbit, CEO of Balenciaga.
The first winner of this award was Martin Margiela in 1989, who today – alongside other recipients – has an empire of collections, a cult-like following, books, films and exhibitions under his belt.
If Saunders continues on her current trajectory of success, we may one day look back on her career like we do those of the greats. At only 27, her journey is only just beginning. For now, we reflect on what may be her first chapter and the decade that has got her to where she is today.
The Early Years
Bianca Saunders was a baby of the early ’90s, born and raised in Catford, south London, alongside her five siblings. Located in the London borough of Lewisham, Catford was so far south that it didn’t feel to Saunders like growing up in the city. It was a suburban neighbourhood and Saunders rarely made it into Central London, usually heading further south to Bromley for day trips to shopping centres with friends and family – the majority of whom lived in the same area.
Saunders grew up with parents who encouraged her artistic side. Her mother a hairdresser and her father a plasterer, they urged her to follow her dreams rather than bow down to any sort of norm – a sentiment that seems somewhat rare among parents of fashion designers. Before she discovered fashion, Saunders had wanted to be an artist but was soon discouraged by an uncle who told her artists only make money when they die.
Ironically, this led Saunders to pursue fashion – an industry where there is equally as little money for fledgling designers from working-class backgrounds as there is in the art world. Her creativity was obvious from an early age, her obsession with arts and crafts was proof enough that she was set to be the creator of something, though she often danced between art, fashion and graphic design (a possibility she still toys with today).
Her interest in graphic design may have been sparked by the same uncle who advised her against the art world – he himself is a creative graphic designer. Saunders has always been heavily influenced by her family and upbringing, evidenced in her collections. Saunders’ admiration for the men in her family has had a huge impact on her overall aesthetic and her interest in Black masculinity. One of her earliest collections, created while completing her BA, was based on the men in her family who were part of a funk-band.
Saunders is of West-Indian heritage and has extended family in America and the Caribbean. Visiting family across the Atlantic sparked Saunders’ wishes to travel, yet also led her to discover old VHS recordings of her family in Jamaica at dancehall parties – a key inspiration that has appeared in her collections since.
“She was accepted by the Royal College of Art to study an MA in Menswear but, at the time she received her offer, there was no way Saunders could afford it.”
For any young person struggling to narrow down which creative pathway to take, an art foundation course is helpful… and is exactly what Saunders did. After leaving school in her late teens, Saunders bagged herself a place on the foundation course at Ravensbourne where she was able to dabble with different mediums.
Staying true to London and having settled on fashion, following Ravensbourne University, she headed to Kingston University to complete her BA in Fashion Design. During her three years here, she won a £1,000 cash prize in a competition held by French lacemaker Sophie Hallette. University Design Challenge was held on June 3 2015, with 22 students battling it out for the prize. Each student was tasked with creating garments from lace and tulle, with Saunders taking inspiration from the integration of the West Indies into Britain.
Once again, her family served as inspiration for her work. Her great-aunt had owned a stall in Deptford market, not far from where Saunders grew up, selling lace curtains for a living. Her aunt had five sons, and each son was paid tribute to in Saunders’ winning designs.
At Kingston, Saunders learnt the techniques she needed to execute her creative visions. She studied pattern cutting, styling, and tailoring, which would eventually become the core of all her collections to follow.
After completing her BA, Saunders followed the traditional fashion route once again with an MA. This time, narrowing her pathway down even further to menswear. She was accepted by the Royal College of Art to study an MA in Menswear but, at the time she received her offer, there was no way Saunders could afford it.
As a result, she set up a funding page to help her pay for the tuition, which was heavily backed and supported by her community at home. Being a young Black woman and the only person of colour on both her BA and MA courses made Saunders more aware of her own identity and realise that she would have to work harder than her white peers to get noticed.
During her time at the RCA, Saunders was taught by Zowie Broach, whose teachings will stick with Saunders for the rest of her career. Saunders remembers one time that her class came back from half-term and hadn’t made a thing during their time off, to which Broach’s response was that they should be constantly creating – especially outside and away from people seeing it.
In June 2017, Bianca Saunders graduated from the RCA with a collection titled ‘Personal Politics’ that played with masculinity through its soft ruching, mesh vests and cinched, belted waists, contrasted with sharp tailoring. The collection was received with critical acclaim.
“The designer’s name seems as though it has been part of the fashion week schedule for a decade when, in fact, it has been less than half of one.”
The Graduate and Beyond
The four years that have followed Saunders’ graduate collection have been a whirlwind. Shortly after graduating, she launched a ‘Personal Politics’ zine to accompany her graduate collection – giving her an outlet for her interest in graphic design.
Not only was her zine stocked at the ICA and LN-CC, she was also invited to show her collection as part of several exhibitions, and asked back to the RCA to give lectures to other MA students.
In April 2018, not even a year after graduating, the British Fashion Council announced that Saunders was a “One to Watch” and, just three months later (in June 2018), she showed her first solo show as part of London Fashion Week. Her SS19 collection, ‘Gestures’, saw the same intricate pleating and ruching as her graduate collection – these creases were said to resemble becoming comfortable in clothes we wear.
This sentiment seems metaphorical now that I think back to meeting Saunders in March. These shirt creases have made a regular appearance in her collections over the past years, and knowing now that they signify comfort through their awkwardness, makes it seem romantic that Saunders arrived in Piccadilly Circus wearing one when we met (as pictured in the above image, photographed by Heather Glazzard).
I hope that she is not only comforted by the clothes on her back, but what they have meant for her career and the direction her life is heading in. There is a very bright light shining on Bianca Saunders and winning the ANDAM prize will expand her desires to even greater possibilities.
It feels as though Saunders has been achieving for far longer than just four years since her graduation. The designer’s name seems as though it has been part of the fashion week schedule for a decade when, in fact, it has been less than half of one.
In the past two years alone, Saunders moved from “One to Watch” to NEWGEN, as picked by the British Fashion Council. She was listed as one of Forbes’ annual 30 Under in the category for Arts and Culture, has produced multiple collections, films, collaborated with Wrangler and Gucci, and now she adds the ANDAM prize to her belt.
Saunders is no longer one to watch, but one to admire for what she has achieved at such a young age. The next instalment of her story is promising, for now, we eagerly await chapter two.
Header image taken by Quil Lemons
Bianca Saunders, the young designer from Catford, has just added another award to her collection. Establishing a stellar career in fashion, you’ll want to follow her designs closely.
By Isobel Van Dyke