Jawara Alleyne is a designer and artist from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and the engineer behind that Rihanna-worn blunt dress. Having developed his craft by examining topics of cultural relevance, such as historical and modern perceptions of masculinity, Alleyne’s work finds its footing by pushing these topics through a web of contextual references.
Having graduated from London College of Fashion in 2016, Jawara has since co-founded Nii Agency (a model agency in London dedicated to diversity), before graduating with a Masters in Fashion from Central Saint Martins in 2020. The designer has been snapped up by Lulu Kennedy’s talent incubator Fashion East, and showed his collection in September 2021 during London Fashion Week.
He has gone on to delve into the digital world, too, releasing an NFT of the ‘blunt dress’. Speaking about the iconic design, Jawara expressed that it was “an exciting project to work on…I can’t take all the credit for the dress as Ib (Kamara) and Gareth (Wrighton) were the masterminds who dared to think of the concept. They came to me as they knew that the conversations I have in my own work and research aligned with the thoughts they conceived for the shoot so I’m very grateful for them giving me the opportunity to create”.
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It seems that tapping into and fostering a sense of shared understanding around the internal ‘conversations’ that permeate Jawara’s work has constituted the key to success for the designer in his collaborations, including his ongoing mentoring collaboration with Fashion East. When asked about the collective, he described being with Fashion East as “great”, citing Lulu’s own empathy and understanding as a crucial component of the pairing. “One of the challenges as a young designer, and particularly a black one, is remembering that your point of view is valuable and being able to step into yourself to be in charge of the conversations you’re having with your work. Lulu is great at fostering this – I think she’s one of those rare people whose level of empathy allows her to see through the exterior that you present to see true value and this truly makes you believe in yourself, because while you might think you’re great, there’s a whole industry and world who’s ready to pick you apart”.
When asked about his the biggest takeaway from the pairing, Alleyne remains humble and focussed on his own vision; “while the platform is great, and I’m so grateful to be presenting under Fashion East, what I’ve gained most from Lulu and Raph is the reminder that as a designer and person really you have to trust your instinct because this is what makes a designer great. To be confident in my point of view and to not shy away from telling my story”.
To have such a command of personal and brand identity only a year after graduating a masters is impressive, and the designer is clear in situating these as distinct identities, separating his work from himself. “I describe myself as a designer and artist, as my work often sits between these two worlds. The work itself on the other hand is a bit more complex, as my research is quite expansive. I’ve been designing since I was a teen, having done my first show at 16 in the Cayman Islands and since then each collection and project served as the manifestation of constantly progressing thoughts on fashion, clothing and identity”.
One of the progressing threads in Jawara’s work is masculinity, explored through historical and modern lenses throughout the designer’s early collections and traceable in his most recent SS22 offering. “My research into masculinity, having previously placed history and modernity alongside each other as contrasts, has always fascinated me” Jawara explained. “With each project the research becomes more defined. While history and modernity still plays an important role in my work, it doesn’t need to be explored the way I explored it previously. It’s still there but it becomes more subtle”.
Masculinity as a concept for aesthetic leverage has become something of an established pillar for Jawara – and the designer finds inspiration in being able to manipulate the concept further with each new collection. “The good thing about pillars is that once they’ve been established you’re free to explore however you see it. They don’t always have to appear the same within every collection. It also makes it exciting for the viewer as there’s more there to read into”. This certainly rings true when reading into his last collection specifically, the intricacies of which suggest that he is in tune with the finer details of his designs, as well as producing a cohesive, larger body of work. In particular, he noted that from the last collection, “all red Oracle looks are my favorite because I think they illustrate my skill of draping the most. It also makes it clear that within the chaos there’s a definitive approach to the way fabric moves around the body and that to me is quite important”.
Another important source of inspiration and a design-informing aspect is Jawara’s personal identity, and cultural connection to the Caribbean. When asked how his heritage has influenced his work, Jawara noted that his Jamaican/Caymanian background “seeps into many different aspects of my work. I’ve always had an interest in fashion and style since I was a kid and was known in school (both in Jamaica and Cayman) to walk around with a sketchbook as I was always drawing people. As I got older and started exploring my own identity and personal style I became very interested in the different approaches to fashion between my two homes”.
Speaking further about these considerations, Jawara reflects on how his work and design process was informed by all aspects of the countries – even drawing inspiration from their differences in attitudes towards fashion. “In Jamaica there’s a sense of freedom with how you express yourself through clothes. The point is not what you wear, but how you wear” he explained. “In Cayman however, the rules are quite rigid as society functions in a much more linear way, so it’s much harder to take risks and break rules. I can remember distinctly never fitting in in Cayman specifically because of my sense of style. I always stuck out like a sore thumb and they just couldn’t hack it. I think these experiences definitely forced me to find my own voice”.
He elaborates, “the relationship that I’ve always had with clothes and the struggles of expressing myself within the spaces I grew up in forced me to dream and to look at the magical things around me for inspiration. In Cayman we have very rich pirate folklores that run through society. We even have a Mardi-Gras like festival called Pirates Week. I was always fascinated with seeing men in the parades in these beautiful silk shirts and loose billowing trousers and I always wondered why such items were reserved only for our mythologies. I think experiencing these things from a young age are what led me to a practice heavily rooted in the research of identity and masculinity. Growing up between two societies and seeing how they thought about and approached fashion made me realise from a very young age that it’s all a matter of perspective”.
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As well as the rich cultural history and inspiration that Jawara’s Jamaican / Caymanian culture provides to his work, the Caribbean ethos of sustainability also comes into play. Jawara describes this manifesting as a “dedication to conscious design and sustainability”, explaining that he “wouldn’t consider myself a sustainable designer, but as a designer coming from the Caribbean, sustainability is something that comes naturally to us as growing up within that society, reusing, repurposing, upcycling are all just embedded in the way we society is built”. When examining this further, Jawara’s commitment to conscious design comes hand in hand with “a dedication to cultural communication. My work and point of view is heavily influenced by my background coming from the Caribbean and this gives me a frame of reference to build on a conversation based not solely on clothes but also on culture and what that means for the people who wear them”.
It’s evident that at only 29, Jawara Alleyne has already forged an exciting path in designing and is looking towards creating further connections through his work. “The next phase for me is connecting more with the customers who are interested in buying into my brand and product. Right now I’m working on launching my web store and that will allow me to have an even more intimate conversation with the work and the customers who are interested in what I do”. We, for one, cannot wait.