22 February 2019

God Is Black (Part 1) - Umit Benan SS19

"God Is Black Part 1"
Spring/Summer 2019

This look = 10/10

I love designers who are story tellers, because in a way I think it is one of the purest aims of fashion - simply sharing a story. Umit Benan is one of those designers who shows each and every season his incredible ability to share stories, creating colourful fictions to immerse yourself in. And yet those fictions still manage to translate into wearable pieces that you can comfortably incorporate into your wardrobe. The starting point for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection, God Is Black Part One (Part Two debuted earlier this month in Barcelona), were takkes (otherwise known as topis or kufis) hand-knitted by his mother, that took him back to living in the Bronx as a young child. He said he remembered seeing African-American Muslims leaving the mosque, and thinking how stylish they were. And so for this collection he explored the ideas of religion and racial identity, looking towards an array of African-Americans including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most obviously from the styling of the collection, Tupac Shakur.

If you are wondering why you may have not seen much of Umit before this collection, it is because he actually took time away from designing. During this hiatus he underwent therapy and says that process allowed him to reconnect with his Muslim identity and belief in God, a journey which led him towards creating this collection. The result is a collection that resonates with me on a personal level and that reminded me of just how meaningful Umit's work is for me. There are multiple threads in this collection that hit home for me, and a lot of it is admittedly not even intentional on his part. Instead, as with most forms of art, it is what I connect to within the collection, and how I interpret those ideas. And that is one of the reasons I am always so impressed with Umit's work, in that he creates these highly stylized fictions each season, which you think would constrain your interpretation, but for me there is always something there that I see which gets me hooked and then flowers in my mind.

I am fascinated by this collection primarily because of the very simple question - what does a Muslim look like? As regular readers will know, I do not discuss religion here, mostly because I subscribe to the Ron Swanson belief that I am a practising none of your ****** business. However, I am a Muslim, and what with my name I am sure that some can work out which sect. Given the dominant narrative surrounding Islam in the media today, I think the idea of dress and identity where being Muslim "in the West" is concerned is a truly intriguing topic. The most often spoken about article of dress when Islam is mentioned is the "hijab", although in fact people are usually discussing the niqab, which is the face covering worn by a small minority of women. Hijab is actually an umbrella term, referring not only to dress codes, but also behaviour, which applies to both men and women. However in colloquial discussion hijab usually refers to the simple headscarf for women that covers their hair. People seem to throw the term burka around a lot, but that is actually a full on long loose robe worn by women, whereas the niqab is the aforementioned face covering.

Umit took for his inspiration the idea of the Black Muslim, but this collection is clearly not a take on the stereotypical attire one might associate with a member of the Nation, which I assume most Americans would think of when given the combination of Black and Muslim. Rather it fits nicely into a wider discussion of Muslim representation as a whole, and what it means to be a Muslim today. An interesting aside at this point is that the Hispanic community is actually the fastest growing group of Muslim converts in America today. As much as the media like to portray a singular conservative image of Islam, Islamic history is actually one of a cultural melting pot, where one can find a wealth of diversity when it comes to architecture, artistic styles and indeed dress history. Here we see everything from a hoodie and bandana, to more formal tailoring, but all tied in together seamlessly. Remove the topis, and you would likely not necessarily even think the word Muslim, which I think is the power of this collection. What does a Muslim look like? Well, like everybody else. But even so, Umit's mix of sportswear alongside kaftans seemed wholly organic for me.

You see, I have my own childhood memories of topis, having attended Saturday school until my late teens. Even now I am fascinated by what people wear to the mosque, and how this has changed over the years - the most notable difference is actually just in the shift from working class to middle class, and the pecuniary freedom that comes with it. Whereas people used to wear discount high street brands, you now see far more higher end store brands and even a number of designer pieces. And where more traditional clothing is concerned, you used to see shalwar kameez that were ill-fitting and imported on the cheap, but now you are much more likely to see tailored pieces bought while travelling "back home". My local mosque was home to first and second generation immigrants as I was growing up, although now it has a far more diverse attendance. For those of us whose parents had come to London from abroad before we were born (primarily South Asia and East Africa in my local community), we grew up with a stark clash of cultures, and you would see numerous attempts to resolve that nebulous sense of identity through clothing.

Culture and religion are two very different things, and yet the overlap in this instance is difficult to divide neatly. Dress was the site for negotiating identity and exploring what it meant to be British, while also being South Asian (or East African, or Iraqi, or Syrian, etc.) and Muslim. It was, and still is, common to see a dishdasha worn with the latest Air Max sneakers, or a shalwar kameez with the pyjama swapped out for sweatpants and some Air Force Ones. My mother actually came to the UK as a child and went to school here, and she remembers wearing flared jeans with kurtas as a teenager. Combining styles and combining garments was a way of fitting into and attempting to resolve two parts of our identities, that to the outside world may have seemed entirely incompatible. But that is the beauty of dress, in that you are able to create something that reflects who you feel you are, and thus allowing you to celebrate the beauty in that. I have always thought of it as getting the best of both worlds.

Then again, I have been asked on a number of occasions when simply wearing a Yohji blazer and trousers with the hems rolled whether I was dressed that way "for religious reasons" (the answer is yes, you should accept our Lord and Saviour Yohji Yamamoto into your life, and I am happy to take cash or PayPal donations directly for the Church). I am a brown man with a beard, and here in the UK that generally seems to mean Muslim for most observers. I remember being stopped and searched by police on a number of occasions at the train station when I started university. I was always told that it was a "random" search. They would take me into a side room where, lo and behold, the only other people being searched were also brown men with beards. No matter that one person could be in a suit, another in sweats, and someone else in their work uniform. And obviously it goes without saying that not everyone there was even Muslim. But once I remember catching someone's eye as we were both being searched, and we gave each other a sad smile and a nod.

Even as a teenager being brown was enough to get Islamaphobic abuse hurtled your way. I remember shortly after the Iraq war began being pelted with hamburgers and a milkshake while in a shopping center. I was repeatedly called a "dirty Muslim" and told to go home (in actuality they had Northern accents, I have a London accent, and so clearly they were the ones who could do with going home). But no matter what happens, how I might be negatively judged for my skin colour and appearance (to say nothing of my religion), I am proud of who I am. I see the meeting and mixing of these different backgrounds and identities as an opportunity to find the best in each world and use that to celebrate what makes each and every one of us individual.

And so, while I obviously cannot relate to the Black identity or experience presented in this collection, the pride and celebration of racial identity in itself is something that most certainly resonated with me. Umit celebrated race and religion, I mean just look at the title of the collection, in a way that really hit home for me. I enjoyed how luxurious the clothes were, what with a workwear jacket made of velvet, or crisp white pyjamas presented alongside white tailoring, and the fact that there was such an effortless elegance and beauty to the garments. The hand-knitted topis really were the icing on the cake, and made me instantly smile. Here being Muslim and being Black are truly things to be celebrated, and I really do think we need more of that these days.


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