• Kenya Smith
  • Tytiah Blake
  • Lara Angelil

The next generation of designers is determined to subvert the industry status quo. Meet the up-and-coming talents tackling fashion's most pressing issues. Photography JACQ HARRIET Styling LEE TRIGG Casting TYTIAH BLAKE Hair JAMES OXLEY using FUDGE Make-up BOBANA PAROJCIC using SKYN ICELAND Photography Assistant LARA ANGELIL Casting Assistant CHARLIE BENJAMIN Make-up Assistant LOWRI JONES Words Trisha Balster


After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2017, Tolu Coker went to work for a global high-street brand—a tenure that, although turning out to be rather tiring, ultimately set the designer on the path she is still following today. “I felt so silenced and defeated,” she recalls. “From racial discrimination and being literally the only black woman in a company of hundreds of employees, to plagiarism and just a general lack of regard for working conditions in factories. I felt a huge sense of guilt for being part of the problem, as well as responsibility to do something about it.”

So she returned to London, establishing her eponymous label with exactly this outrage still as a driving force. “Ironically, ‘identity’ is the core identity of the brand,” Coker explains. “I explore everything, from race, culture and politics, to sustainability and environmental impact, and my work is heavily inspired by people I meet and what they have to say. I use a lot of documentary and spend time building relationships with people as part of my process. I’ve always said I want to tell real stories about real people, and use clothing to have meaningful conversations about society and the world around us. Challenging, exploring and questioning norms and addressing a lot of the conditioning we’ve been subject to as people is something I’m really passionate about.”

For her graduate collection, Coker looked to diasporic black identity, using the clothes as both a journal and way of exploring her own British-Nigerian heritage. “Nowadays it seems like everyone is trying to scream ‘LOOK HOW INCLUSIVE I AM,’ and often, it seemingly falls short of genuine when you look at the small, finer details. Diversity is so much deeper than aesthetics and technicalities—it’s bigger than the new ‘ethnic minority’ hire, or adding a few black, Asian, and LGBTQ faces on a cover shoot. It’s about no longer trying to control the entire narrative, and empowering people to show and tell you who they are for themselves.”

Coker is doing so not only with her clothes, many of which are handcrafted, but also through illustrations, documentaries, and fashion films. This multifaceted approach scored her three prizes at 2018’s International Talent Award—and it allows her to dissect the industry from a plethora of starting points. “Our clothes leave footprints and I always imagine, years from now, people looking back and seeing our ‘now’ as their history, and that’s important.”



When asked about the starting point for his eponymous label, Patrick McDowell is refreshingly honest and straight to the point: “My graduate collection received a lot of press and it got to the point where I thought: you need to ride this wave.”

It was this no-nonsense approach, as well as the themes of sustainability and upcycling, that drew through the designer’s initial offering in 2018, which meant he quickly became one to watch. McDowell began exploring alternative ways of working with material and fabric during his time studying on the womenswear BA at Central Saint Martins—leading to his graduate collection being based on discarded fabrics from major fashion houses, Christopher Bailey’s Burberry scraps included.

Though McDowell’s sustainable approach still lies at the core of the brand, the Liverpool native isn’t one to simply use it as a marketing tool. “Sustainability is engrained in the business at all points, but I think it’s important to make it so engrained that it doesn’t become a trend,” he says. “Thinking sustainably allows you to redesign all points of your business from design to retail. I work through using up different luxury fashion houses’ waste fabric and unsellable Swarovski crystals. I am also taking apart pieces from my first collection to remake them for the second.”

Instead of producing for the masses, McDowell is embracing the notion of ‘made to order,’ crafting the pieces around his customers. “We need to stop guessing what people want. If we moved to a model that paid fairly and used mindful fabrics, we might start to see some positive change.”



For Ester Manas and Balthazar Delepierre, the duo behind Ester Manas, fashion is about one thing: “We, as young fashion designers and citizens, have the duty to work and produce differently than our predecessors.” They don’t see this as a burden, though, but rather as a chance to push for change right from the core of the industry. And the industry seems to be listening: in 2018, Manas and Delepierre won the Galeries Lafayette Dotation at the prestigious Hyères Festival for their inclusive and one-size-fits-all designs.

“This means that two girls with opposite bodies can wear the exact same piece of clothing,” they say of their approach. “Our brand spreads joy and empowerment, offering solutions to young women who thought they had little. We would like Ester Manas to help see fashion in another light; a more accepting and endearing one.” The duo’s designs are also adaptable, a way of fighting against mass production and fast fashion. “Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world,” they affirm.

Having both studied at La Cambre in Brussels, Manas is now primarily focussing on designing, while Delepierre oversees the creative direction of the brand—which is very much linked to general, current societal and political changes: “Our designs must reflect society. We can no longer close our eyes.”

But the message they want to send is far from pessimistic. “It encourages all generations of women to accept themselves while buying a sustainable piece of clothing. When talking with fellow young designers around us, we find that they all try to offer both desirable and intelligent solutions. A lot of innovation is coming out of these troubled times.” Still, they feel like the fashion industry hasn’t fully grasped their concept yet—which would require not just media coverage but a universal change of mind-set.



“The driving force behind my work, to date, has always been a struggle with my own body dysmorphia,” says Sinéad O’Dwyer. “In some ways, a sort of tug of war with myself. It felt natural to do this through making work that reflected my love for the female-identifying body.” So, as part of her studies at the Royal College of Art, the designer began to turn her friends’ body shapes into fibreglass moulds, separating the body from the self, and putting a distinct emphasis on the still questionable expectations of perfection engrained in fashion and society. For her graduate collection 23:19:26 in 2018, O’Dwyer solely focussed on the body of her best friend, naming the offering after her measurements.

“The lack of consideration for the female body is very apparent in the outcome of a lot of brands’ products,” she continues. “I have seen this disregard cause practically every woman I have ever known to comment negatively on their body consistently due to poor fit of garments or comparison with the imagery we are surrounded with daily.”
That’s why it’s especially important to O’Dwyer to use her experiences and innovative technique as starting points for pushing for a wider shift in fashion, particularly when it comes to sizing and self-reflection. “I hope that the current generation of young people will grow up seeing much more diversity in the imagery that surrounds them. It’s what makes my work meaningful and motivates me to do it at all. It can’t just be about my personal narrative or aesthetics or a means for survival; I need it to be something more or I wouldn’t be in this industry.”


“At the moment, it is a challenge to design in this way because the system isn’t ready for it,” says Priya Ahluwalia, referring to her new-school approach of using second-hand and dead-stock clothing to create collections inside an industry with a feverishly ‘more is more’ mentality.

After visiting Panipat, the global capital of garment recycling, and being overwhelmed by the scale of clothing, Ahluwalia was moved. “I just knew that it would be an interesting and positive thing to utilise this ‘waste’.” The London-based designer soon began to collect and explore vintage clothing and fabric waste, setting up her own eponymous label straight after graduating from the University of Westminster MA Menswear in 2018. Ahluwalia’s determination quickly struck a cord: her graduate collection was shown at London Fashion Week: Men’s. Shortly after, she won the H&M Design Award 2019.

Since then, the young designer has continued to evolve, looking at how garments are passed through generations or within groups of friends, especially in the context of her own Indian-Nigerian heritage. “I want to show people, in a new way, how a mix of cultures can inspire,” she emphasises. “I’d also like people to see the brand as a positive example of how we can design in ways that are kinder to the planet.” And though Ahluwalia fervently believes in a fashion industry that is more diverse, less wasteful and slowed down, she makes it clear that these changes need to start from the top. “I think the onus is too often put on the designer, when in fact these issues need to be looked at by the fabric mills, manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike,” she explains. “It’s going to take a societal change to force people to wake up and see that the current system isn’t actually good for anyone, but it is hard to change something we are so used to.” It helps, though, when change is pushed for in such a decisive and considerately designed way.



Renaissance’s name could hardly be more fitting. Translating to ‘rebirth’ or ‘revival,’ the noun describes an embrace of previous aesthetics, particularly those of the antique. For Cynthia Merhej it meant following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother who founded a couture atelier in the ‘20s. About 100 years later, Merhej decided to launch her own brand. She is working out of that same atelier in Beirut, which is now overseen by her mother. “Notions of quality, craftsmanship and detail are instilled in me—that’s my DNA,” Merhej says of her approach to heritage. “Having grown up around female couture designers ingrained that in me as being true luxury.”

The brand’s aesthetic is built on a distinct exploration of opposites—baroque and sex, control and freedom—and precisely this cultivation of craftsmanship. “I would like to see a return to making, not producing,” the designer explains. “And most importantly: trying, even when there is no blueprint. I had to find my own path into fashion rather than follow anything that was already preconceived.” Having studied visual communication at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins in London before returning to Lebanon in 2016 to establish Renaissance, Merhej never had a formal fashion education but learned cutting and sewing by assisting in her mother’s atelier.

Given this intimate immediate surrounding as well as the one outside the atelier’s doors, it’s no surprise that Merhej’s main goal for the brand is to resist. “Being from this region of the world, everything is political and it’s constantly about pushing or fighting for change,” she says. “Having been part of constant revolutions, political upheaval, and instability, I have become hyperaware of how real change happens. I don’t see pushing for these changes as a responsibility; it’s just naturally a part of me.”