In Paris, Bianca Saunders Targets Next Stage

A Paris catwalk debut is a rite of passage for many young British designers targeting growth. Today, buzzy London menswear talent Bianca Saunders is doing just that with an outing at the Palais de Tokyo which aims to “consolidate the language of her label,” according to her show notes.

“It’s pretty out of this world, it’s going to be a massive turning point,” said the 28-year-old South London native, who has made a name for herself in the city’s fashion scene and beyond for subverting familiar menswear tropes with collections that propose an alternative vision of masculinity, peppered with references to her family, her British upbringing and her Jamaican heritage.

It’s been quite a year for Saunders. On the back of being shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund, and spotlighted by Gucci designer Alessandro Michele as part of the brand’s GucciFest, in July 2021, she became the first Black woman to win the prestigious Andam prize, earning her €300,000 and a year-long mentorship from Balenciaga chief executive Cédric Charbit.

Now, she’s aiming to take her fledgling business to the next level with a growth plan rooted in honing her brand identity, widening international distribution, and introducing new product categories. It won’t be easy.

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While Saunders has grand ambitions to become a “global brand,” her four-year-old, self-funded label has just three full-time employees working out of a Hackney studio and limited sales revenue at a time when wholesale, her primary distribution channel, is in structural decline and many emerging labels are still struggling to rebound from the pandemic.

After completing her MA at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, Saunders quickly established herself as one of the city’s hottest up-and-coming talents, starting with her debut at London Fashion Week Men’s in 2018. She was soon picked up by influential stockists like London boutique Machine-A and e-tailer Matchesfashion.

“Her elevated edge to menswear design plays with proportions of garments, extending, accentuating and twisting traditional silhouettes to bring a new form to what would otherwise be considered a classical menswear piece,” said Matchesfashion’s head of menswear Damien Paul, who first picked up the brand for its Spring/Summer 2019 season. “Her collections always have strong, deep-rooted relationships to her British and West Indian background, which further elevates her label and identity of the brand outside of just great design.”

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But close watchers of the brand say Saunders has recently reached a new level of maturity. “We had been looking at Bianca’s work for quite a long time, but it felt especially last season and AW21 collection, that just something clicked in Bianca’s collection, where you could really see that it was more rounded, it was easier to navigate, and the quality also stepped up,” said Marco Vianello, vice president of sales and business development at showroom-turned-brand accelerator Tomorrow, which, starting last season, inked a partnership with Saunders to help her scale her wholesale business globally, with a focus on Asia and Europe. (The UK currently accounts for 35 percent of sales.)

Saunders is also betting on shoes and accessories, competitive but often lucrative categories, which she plans to add to her offering later this year as she continues to build her presence in denim, knitwear and outerwear where she hopes consumers will increasingly see a unique brand signature.

“I want them to understand that it is a Bianca Saunders piece,” she said. “I feel like I’m at a point where these signatures that I’ve created this season are something that I’ll continue for all seasons,” she continued, pointing to styling details like outward-turned seams, curved arms, split-hem trousers and shoulder seams that are further towards the neckline.

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A new e-commerce website, which relaunches today, is designed to articulate a clear brand message as much as drive sales, which she admits will take time to become a meaningful contributor to revenue.

Showing in Paris, the “pinnacle” of the fashion schedule, is another key element of the new strategy, said Saunders, who hopes exposure to international press and buyers, plus the kudos showing in the big leagues, will help drive results.

There are certainly those rooting for her approach to menswear. “It’s this sort of dance between subtlety, and pushing [the fashion factor] just enough,” said Jian DeLeon, men’s fashion and editorial director at US department store chain Nordstrom. “That’s what Bianca does, really, really well.”

Still, Saunders is cautious. “I think sometimes brands can expand too quickly and become inauthentic,” Saunders said. “I’d rather have slower growth.”

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