Rahemur Rahman is always one step ahead. Both figuratively and in the literal sense. At the time of our phone call, he is a whole six hours deeper into the day than I am. The emerging designer is currently on a research trip to Bangladesh. The studio he is working with holds on to all scraps that are not put to use, and it’s these bags of trash that Rahman is turning into treasure. He is repurposing the excess fabric into intricate textiles he will interpolate into his next collection.
The British-Bangladeshi designer is part of the new slew of talent emerging from the capital who are putting a sustainable design outlook at the forefront of everything they do. One scroll through Rahman’s Instagram profile, and it’s easy to spot its duel purpose of formulating both a portfolio of his work as well as a digital lesson outlining the benefits of using natural dyes and upcycling abandoned materials. Many of his ethical contemporaries Rahman also counts dear friends, namechecking Paria Farzaneh and Richard Malone as particular people he admires. “I just really respect how they are going about it, like seeing how Richard has evolved because he has been sustainable from the beginning but obviously it hasn’t always been ‘cool’ to be sustainable,” he explains. “But I really respect Paria as well because of her focus – she is looking at the overconsumption side of it instead of really producing new stuff.”
Rahman hasn’t always chased sustainable sensibilities in his work. Nor has he always wanted to get into design at all. “Growing up in a massive family, and I grew up on a proper council estate, thinking about fashion was something that wasn’t even on my mind,” he explains. Despite trying to look as masc as possible while growing up – “wearing Lonsdale as if it was Gucci,” – it was when Rahman began regularly attending the A-Team Arts youth club in Whitechapel, a quick trip on the DLR from his home in Isle of Dogs, that an interest in clothes truly began to blossom.
“I was just faffing around there doing art stuff because a friend of mine’s sister was there,” he confesses. “it just kind of evolved and I started doing textiles.” Going on to study at Central Saint Martins, Rahman was exposed to the harsh realities of the industry during his year interning in Paris. “In the first, second, and third year, thinking about the world really wasn’t on my mind,” he explains. “I wasn’t really thinking about where my fabrics came from, I would just go down to Woolcrest on Mare Street.” It was in the French capital where Rahman saw first-hand dozens of lizard skins being burned to create samples for bags in which only one would be chosen, and a plethora of dead minx and fox laid out on a table – their fur merely used to coat tiny trinkets and key rings.
Since launching his label back in 2018, Rahman has grappled his main sources of inspiration from old family photos. He is equally inspired by his father’s admiration for pristine tailoring as he is by the swirls that adorned the walls of his family home. Now two collections in, the designer continues to chip away at the sartorial rules of menswear. “I think it just comes from myself, I like wearing tailoring but like I don’t like shoulder pads and I don’t like a fully lined suit,” he says. Growing up just a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, Rahman adored the spell of attractiveness a two-piece suit can cast over a man, yet loathed the restrictiveness of both wearing one and maintaining its form. “Clothing should be easy,” he explains. “Imagine that you could put a suit that you wear to work in the washing machine? You stick it in, take it out, dry it and it’s done. That’s really what I want to do.”
Key focal points on his SS20 moodboard were family snapshots of staycations to beaches across the south, including Brighton, back in the 1990s. “My aunts who would really overdress for the beach,” he explains. “Whereas traditional British culture is that you go quite underdressed because you are going to get undressed, but obviously because they were women who were quite religious, they would choose to wear really elaborate clothes and wedges.” His aunts would nab such technicolored fashions from charity shops, sporting fashions more aligned to the trends of the 1980s and 70s – “I just really love that about South Asians, they just don’t know so they don’t care.” Rahman was able to capture such vivid hues through using pomegranate seeds that produced a subdued taffy punk, in which he deliciously clashed against a more traditional grey. He then used the hues to douse a suit that within its twisted finish gives the illusion that it is tightly-fitted, where in actuality, it oozes with comfort.
Through a rather feminine palette, Rahman is able to peacock a fledging sense of hyper-masculinity; embedding a sense of queerness into a conversation South Asian men have usually excluded from. “I’m in Bangladesh and honestly the men here are very feminine and not sexualised – like a bromance is so fine. Men hold hands crossing the road, they’ll hug and hold each other’s necks and be really close,” the designer explains. “I was here and someone held my hand as I was crossing and even though I’m gay and I’m quite feminine, I was like, ‘Oh my God what’s he doing?’ I think it’s because there’s a much more of a toxic masculinity thing in the West, a lot of gay men also take on toxic masculinity, we’re not exempt from it. I really just hope that men can soften up, even just a little bit.”
The collection, entitled For the people who dream in colour, saw a cast of South Asian models lounged about around a 1970s-inspired decorum created by Streets of Growth: a Tower Hamlets charitable organisation Rahman works closely with, who gather disadvantaged youth from to upcycle furniture which is then sold to fund the charity. The garments that clad the boys looked as plush as they did sensual; their smouldering gazes accented with glittery turquoise rings. Traditional kurtas with the torso partially exposed via a keyhole peeping hole stood next to overcoats worn over skimpy briefs. Such garments were drenched in a gorgeous khadi print pulled straight from the V&A that bent around the form of the wearer with a heightened sense of romanticism.
Despite already juggling an eco-conscious design outlook and a deeply personal exploration of a duel-identity with a fluid aperçu surrounding queerness, Rahman has no plan of slowing things down. He is already well underway on a two-year documentary on the trans community in Bangladesh, as well as plotting innovative methods to advance his next presentation into a multidisciplinary experience. “Fashion can no longer belong to that one small little unit where it’s just about clothes selling,” he explains. “People invest and love the clothes even more if they can have a deeper meaning. Fashion is the future.”
by Paul Toner
All Images Courtesy of Rahemur Rahman.