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In London, Multicultural Start-Ups Shine

Ahluwalia, Labrum and Saul Nash’s collections — steeped in the Indian, West African and Caribbean heritage of their founders — stood out at the London fashion week that closed today.
Backstage at 180 The Strand, London, before the Ahluwalia show.
Backstage at 180 The Strand, London, before the Ahluwalia show. (Ahluwalia)

Key insights

  • Young labels with multicultural founders energised London Fashion Week this season.
  • Priya Ahluwalia, Saul Nash and Foday Dumbuya of Labrum are among the designers to watch.
  • Ahluwalia saw 70 percent growth in wholesale revenue in 2021, while Saul Nash sales were up 20 percent in the same period.

LONDON — London’s emerging menswear labels were brutally tested by the pandemic, but as England throws off coronavirus restrictions and one of the world’s most global cities comes back to life, young brands with multicultural founders are shining bright.

On Saturday, British Nigerian-Indian designer Priya Ahluwalia’s return to the runway, with her label’s first show since its 2018 debut, was a standout, featuring silk tops, T-shirts and wide-leg jeans with printed images of Bollywood and Nollywood film posters.

Ahluwalia faced an existential reckoning during the pandemic as she struggled to source enough upcycled material to match demand. But her business has emerged resilient. After a punishing 2020, wholesale revenue was up 70 percent last year as the label added key US retailers Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus to its list of stockists, which now tops 40 stores. Now, she’s targeting Japan and mainland China.

This season, the label also unveiled its first full womenswear collection alongside its menswear mainstays after piloting the category last season through a collaboration with Mulberry. Ahluwalia’s debut women’s assortment featured tailored pinstripe suits, loose-fitting tracksuits and party-ready pieces, interspersed with swirly panels of sharp orange, green and brown patchwork material.

Later on Saturday, designer Foday Dumbuya of Labrum London received a standing ovation after stunning the audience into silence — and some tears — with an emotional presentation that captured both the joys and the hardship of the West African experience, styled and directed by Ibrahim Kamara.

“I wanted my collection to tell the story of migration,” said Dumbuya, whose Sierra Leonean background was evident in the palette of his collection, which included an eye-catching blend of Sierra Leonean fabrics with classic British tailoring. “All my fabrics are made by artisans in Freetown, Sierra Leone, then shipped to London where they are crafted into garments to be worn by models from all over the world.”

Throughout the pandemic, Labrum turned to partnerships like its 2021 collaboration with Converse to help drive revenue and visibility. Labrum was also commissioned by the National Sports Association of Sierra Leone to design the official uniforms and activewear for the country’s athletes at the postponed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo last year.

“Labrum has all the ingredients necessary for wider recognition and success in this industry,” said Machine-A founder Stavros Karelis. “Foday is one of fashion’s rising stars, for sure.”

Runway shows are a ritual for me and so important to people’s understanding of my brand’s appeal.

The day before, British Guyanese designer Saul Nash layered references to community and cultural identity into his latest collection. Nash — a trained dancer and choreographer — opened his show with a short film set in a Guyanese barbershop in northwest London (barbershop waiting rooms are crucial social hubs and safe spaces in Black communities worldwide), followed by a choreographed dance by his cast, all donning the new collection.

The four-year-old brand grew its wholesale footprint and now counts Selfridges, Browns and Ssense among its stockists. Sales were up 20 percent in 2021. For Nash, physical shows are a must. “Runway shows are a ritual for me and so important to people’s understanding of my brand’s appeal,” said the designer. Standout pieces included Guyana print jacquard knits, merino wool suit jackets, colourful tracksuits and loose-fitting hoodies.

“These brands have a very clear perspective on who they are, and the cultures they represent, but also how to beautifully convey these things through their collections,” said Karelis. “What London does best, and has always done best, is creating an infrastructure for young designers and emerging brands to develop.”

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