Bevan and Khalid are two designers behind the menswear and lifestyle brand TSAU. I interviewed them a few months ago in Palm Vaults to find out about their label and the textiles behind it.
Tell me about the name, what does it mean and where does it come from?
Bevan: TSAU mainly derived from us kind of taking all of the different cultural elements that surrounded us. Khalid grew up in Brixton and I grew up in Harlesden. We kind of fell into the creative industry (I’ll let Khalid tell his story) by accident so my approach to it was always referencing where I came from which was predominantly a Caribbean influenced area and me being Ghanaian was a balance between the two.
Khalid: Growing up in London, specifically Brixton being interested in communicating certain ideas in reflection was me navigating and understanding my experience, of not so much the black experience but of the Carribean experience in the UK and what being British meant to me. For me the concept of Britishness was secondary as for a long time I only identified as Black and Jamaican. I was born here but I never really felt British and my experience of Jamaica was so hyper local; the concept of Britshishness was somewhat other. When I came to an age where I was thinking about having kids there was a necessity of ownership and realisation that a large part of my community actually had played a part of the uniqueness of Britain and specifically London. Through TSAU we process our space and experiences. We have a large group of friends but between me and Bevan there were distinct lines of symmetry of me being from Brixton and he being from Harlesden.
Bevan: I don’t think we were conscious of what we were taking in when we were growing up.
Where did you guys meet?
Bevan: Indirectly through another friend of ours. Even when we met, we didn’t connect until we actually started sharing ideas and realising that culturally our ideas were much closer than anybody else’s.
K: We’d always been around each other and connected but it wasn’t until we properly broke things down and shared our experiences.
Did you both study together?
B: No, I studied at London College of Fashion and that was probably the moment I had that outside experience. Sitting down with lecturers got me into looking deeper at cultural things. I had a Jamaican influence growing up but when I went to uni it made me want to look into my parents’ journey so that took me back to Ghana and then everything came together and it all kind of started from there. That’s how I really started soaking in the environment that was around me much more. Whereas before it was just there inside and I kind of learnt to process it and produce through different mediums; Whether it was through photography or design.
What did you study at LCF?
B: Fashion Photography.
Do you have a background in designing clothes?
No, the thing is when I was studying photography in the first year it was about the camera and in the second year it became about the cultural element. I fell deep into that and really developed my eye so then I stopped taking pictures and I just really started looking at things and I guess that relates to TSAU as well. Same thing with Khalid, we talk about fabrics and I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about fabrics as Khalid does. He knows about fabric more than I do but at the same time there’s this balance there which kinds of levels each other out.
What did you study Khalid?
I studied everything and nothing but I guess in terms of academics I studied I.T. Nothing fashion related.
B: That’s actually brilliant he didn’t study anything fashion related.
K: I’m not so interested in fashion, I’m more interested in style which is more about behaviour and the individual than rather than fashion.
Khalid, could you tell me about how you became interested in fabrics?
I like the way things look but also how things feel in the same way how as things taste and smell, with fabrics I’m connected as in terms of style or fashion I believe it’s an equal part of the story. My enjoyment with clothes has probably always been fabric involved as my earliest memory of being conscious of appreciation or distinction would be wearing sportswear with my friends vs going to dinner with my family and wearing dress pants.
What was the first textiles technique that caught your eye and why?
Everything by Nike. Later Loro Piana? I don’t know the first, but I remember a really strong emotion to a cashmere knit in a Number (N)ine collection that was in a season where everything that was scented. That definitely was a turning point in how I think of the possibilities.
What other textiles techniques do you admire and why?
Aboubakar Fofana is a Master Indigo dyer from Mali, as well as for me being one of the best presentations of not only Indigo dying craft but Artisianal crafts in Africa. I came across him about three years ago and I literally became obsessed by not only the work, but the image of a blue fingered, black man with long dreads in Mali creating pieces of work not removed from the story of Africa.
How did you go about picking and deciding what fabric to use for your current collection?
K: In terms of thinking of it a collection isn’t something I’d say is true to us.
B: With our pieces the time that goes into how we construct them and the time that goes into how we develop or where the references come from is a continuous process. We see each item as like an art piece and for it to be on rail is something I can’t think of, pieces laid out and folded on a table.
K: Through our conversations with each other they make total sense because it’s the kind of things we talk about on a daily basis, so after that it’s having an idea and knowing how to formulate it, for example, a shirt we designed with textiles from an African mill. The cloth has as significance to Ijar tribe in Nigeria they particularly wear printed textiles and it’s weirdly printed on wool.
Wool is quite a thick fabric to wear in a hot country.
B: Where are you from?
I’m half Nigerian and half Ghanaian.
B: So you probably know that temperature doesn’t really matter. My dad once sent a leather Avirex jacket back home to Ghana! It’s never cold.
You’re right, I’ve seen people rock full suits in Ghana. Properly committing to a look.
B: The thing is with us is that identity is a strong thing as well, the shapes are really important. We build characters in our heads so at different periods of time we’re living in different periods. We might be here at the moment but the silhouette might be in a different period. Right now; we’re in the 70s in Jamaica. Everything is really considered, to the shape, the prints, to how many buttons we leave open on our shirts. It’s the whole process to the feeling of doing up the buttons. Even with the (flared) trousers for a long time we were looking at Zanzibar and the way people dressed at the period of time. The meaning of the trousers and how it meant to be represented with a person being affluent at that period of time in and around 1845 and then producing a piece like that is a process.
Do your clothes have price points yet?
B: Not at the moment. We don’t want to put any pressure on ourselves by saying we need it to be this or we need it to be that, I think we’ll kind of water it down if we did. At the moment we’re fully exploring and there’s no limitations to creating and there’s nothing of needing to have it in this store or that store. We could easily produce those projects; we’ve done it in the past. Both of us has had experience of consulting with other brands and helping them produce other things but with TSAU in particular we just want it to live and breathe.
K: And resonate.
To make what you want, how you want; more is more if you want. What other textiles have you worked with?
B: At the moment, we’re trying to construct this jacket inspired by Ethiopian opal.
What’s Ethiopian opal?
B: It’s in Welo in Ethiopia; a special sort of gemstone that you find in the mountains.
K: In terms of the opals category it’s regarded as one of the highest grades of Opal. At the time of its cultivation the value of it not only it being found in Ethiopia but the value they now have to the surrounding area. Now you have new story of these guys extracting a stone that was bringing wealth to themselves and the surrounding but that would also enrich the opal industry in the West.
Do you ever work with embroidery or embellishments?
B: That’s more Khalid’s realm.
Bevan, are you more the shapes person and Khalid the textures person?
Khalid is definitely textures person, everything fabric is Khalid. For me yeah, it’s really about shapes, identity and culture in itself. As I said it’s definitely about a balance between the two of us.
Because you’re a photographer.
B: But at the same time the direction of the way things go and I’m more concentrated at the art direction balancing that out with Khalid. He would think about the fabrics. I might text him in the morning and say “look at this guy, look at the shapes” and he’ll text me back and back suggesting fabric he’s found within the shapes for example. It naturally kind of builds from there and then we go through the process of selecting the fabrics together. Most of the time I would fit product and then we would talk about casting and I might cast. Khalid might look for a location then I’ll go back to talking about art direction. The whole thing from beginning to end from looking at references to creating the piece, shooting the location to everything is constructed between us. We’re actually thinking about creating a book where people can look into our whole process of how we create things; I think sometimes people don’t really know the journey and don’t see the process. We try to put out as much as possible but I don’t think people really get to see the process which is important to us.
Dries Van Noten my favourite designer does something similar with his look books for his collections; it’s not just pictures of the clothing. For example, he takes close ups of hair pins, lighting and décor of each show so you get a mood and feeling of the collection.
B: It’s definitely about creating a mood. Once we find that location it has to relate to the fabric and character.
And the model?
B: The model is like almost casting without casting. Casting is really important to us, just selecting a model from an agency can take something away from the process for us.
K: We always think about the person as individual and who they are rather than killing it and super imposing what we want to communicate, the idea of creating a marriage somehow.
B: Of course, we look for that raw element and when you get someone from an agency they’ve already been conditioned into looking and behaving like a “model”.
K: They give you fashion.
K: Because you hear so much about identity in fashion it’s not what we’re working towards it is more about the cultural identity aspect.
Does it always have to be a person of colour?
B: No, it’s not something we consciously think about.
K: For us representation is definitely a part of the stories we’re telling but I wouldn’t say it’s reduced to just that. Though it doesn’t have to be a person of colour to communicate a story, It would be pointless communicating cultural ideas devout of representation of ourselves and what we feel, as realistically what’s the point? I don’t think it’s a sensible way forward, additionally. I’m also plagued by the lack of authentic representation at times, so to me if I look through a series of images where the status quo is a black male or female model allied with a white model and the existence of black models alone aren’t featured on the same platform and the existence of an all white cast is, if I find it an issue I’m going to want to challenge that, then at the point I see a all black cast. I’m not merely going to rally behind it and celebrate that either because it’s like 2017 and as it’s not even about just having black models in shoots, it’s about allowing black creatives the freedom to express their own narratives on equal platforms.
B: I can definitely say it’s important that we tell our story. The dominant narrative at the moment is going in one direction and we feel there are other stories to be told.
Do you ever make any kinds of textiles yourself? Or do you have ideas and make them elsewhere?
K: In terms of the pieces we create we’ve literally done both. With beadwork and cowrie shells.
Did you make the cowrie shell glasses yourselves?
B: Yeah, the funny thing about those is that the idea and making process only took two hours to make.
Would you ever go into a fabric store and look for fabrics or would you prefer something you’ve designed and had made or made yourselves?
B: Travel is really how we stay inspired. So, going to different areas, going to Ghana, Bonware where they do the Kente watching their process and stuff like that. Finding out things closer to home, going to Jamaica, seeing different processes there and then really developing our own fabrics and then developing our own pieces. Us travelling, experiencing and feeling helps with the end result. We’ve talked about going to Haiti too. We definitely want to create other elements; we don’t just want to make TSAU about clothes.
Follow TSAU here. All images are from TSAU’s Instagram.