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SWAMP81: Fashion inspired by the Birmingham riots and Black Lives Matter

03 Jan 2017

When we caught up with Nottingham Trent fashion graduate, Alexandria Chantiluke, her personal passion for her graduate collection, entitled SWAMP81, was clearly very strong. This is understandable considering the menswear designer researched the material for her collection over a number of years, taking inspiration from the Brixton riots but more predominately from the riots in Handsworth, Birmingham in the 1980s. Her city has a history that she wasn’t going to let people forget too quickly.

Discussing her inspiration further, Chantiluke explains, “when we think of black Britishness, the focus is often on London. I think that it’s really important to concentrate on the unique histories of British regions outside of the capital, especially where blackness is concerned. Birmingham was and is a hugely important region when it comes to black British history and the 1980s Handsworth riots are just one aspect of this. For me, the riots were a painful confrontation between Birmingham’s black population and its racist police forces.”

It’s evident in Chantiluke’s collection that there were many elements and boundaries she wanted to cross in order to get Birmingham’s sidestepped history across in a fashionable and honest way. As we browse through SWAMP81 there’s a clear military message being shown. From bullet proof vests, shields with “Babylon is Burning” printed across it to trench coats with Birmingham’s central areas where many black people resided being displayed in map-like form. Having grown up in Birmingham herself, the messages that her collection unveils remain close to Chantiluke’s heart.

Inspired by designers such as Shayne Oliver, founder of Hood by Air, and Kerby-Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss, Chantiluke understands the necessity of how designing clothes for men can question how far we allow our minds and imagination to take us as consumers. “[Oliver] has made waves in the world of menswear over the past three years with his concept of formalising sloppiness… His designs have helped to challenge common perceptions of masculinity and sexuality.”

With regards to her inspiration from Kerby-Jean Raymond, there’s a political connection that hits home, particularly from his SS16 collection that was a firm nod at the police brutality in America against black men and women – as well as mental health issues for black men. The courage that a collection like this took for Raymond, despite negativity from his previous buyers, is what resonated with Chantiluke when preparing for her own collection.

“As a fashion design undergraduate, deciding to base a collection on black power, political unrest and societal injustice was in no way an easy task. I found that my collection was often completely misunderstood by my colleagues and tutors. The fashion industry is white-dominated and European aesthetics and world-views are considered the norm. Collections like mine are not meant to prosper in the current fashion world.” Chantiluke may have a point. When it comes to black fashion with a political message, suddenly it is too much for people to comprehend – the same people who have been celebrating Vivienne Westwood and her politically punk collections for years which are proudly defined as “British”. Surely it’s important that we celebrate and own up to our pasts, good or bad, especially if we see that history is being repeated on a rising scale?

Chantiluke wasn’t the only person that recognised Birmingham’s extensive and important history in regards to black lives, which is how Chantiluke’s collection partnered up with Herstory Live by Artivists UK. Chantiluke explains, “the event was to be the launch of the #BlackLivesMatterBrum exhibition and it sounded like the perfect event for my collection, so I contacted the exhibition curator and it progressed from there…it was amazing to see my collection displayed alongside images from the protests that took place during the summer for #BlackLivesMatterBrum. I went to the protests and I remember the power that I felt from marching alongside hundreds of people fighting for the same cause. I felt that same power at Herstory Live 2016, but in a different way: the event was an inspirational celebration of blackness and black female solidarity in particular.”

#BlackLivesMatterBrum is on display in Birmingham at P Café: Stirchley from December 13th- 2016 to January 14th. 2017.