Harris Elliott is an international interdisciplinary visual artist, creative director, cultural curator and academic. He has worked extensively in Japan for 20 years, curated a number of international exhibitions and worked with Thom Browne, Adidas and Gorillaz. At the RCA he is a senior tutor on the Fashion MA programme specialising in culture and identity.
Elliott is part of the Black Orientated Legacy Development Agency (BOLD), a creative design development agency forging structural and institutional change across the fashion industry and beyond. Their most recent project is the curation of The Missing Thread, an exhibition at Somerset House that charts the shifting landscape of Black British culture and the unique contribution it has made to Britain’s rich design history.
Alongside the archive of Joe Casely-Hayford, a Bruce Oldfield dress worn by Princess Diana, and the England football kit designed by Savile Row tailor Charlie Allen, the exhibition features new work by contemporary Black designers, including RCA alumni Bianca Saunders and Saul Nash.
The Missing Thread exhibition is organised around four distinct themes: home, tailoring, performance, and nightlife. How did BOLD approach the exhibition, and how do these themes reflect the evolution of Black British fashion?
We framed the whole exhibition around a timeline which begins in the early 1970s and continues through to the present day. The approach for the research started with our lived experiences as curators and then focussed heavily on the artists and designers we sought to feature within the show.
Home provides the bassline for a space either physical or metaphorical that we felt should be a place of belonging and safety, but often wasn’t.
Tailoring is often seen as the holy grail in terms of craft and skill. Many of our parents arrived as skilled tailors and other professionals but were unable to continue their career in the UK due to the colour bar and racism.
Performance is the act of being out in the world and often being watched. It also draws on the notion that dressing with a sense of defiance can often feel like performing.
Nightlife became our education; the self-curated spaces that weren't dependent on other people’s projections or perceptions of you.
“The curation challenges visitors to experience the turgid past, see the now and reimagine what could be if young British designers all have the same opportunity to learn from these great sources of design inspiration.”
There are several RCA alumni featured in the exhibition, including Bianca Saunders who has made work in response to the works of fellow RCA alumna and influential textile designer Althea McNish. Why did you decide to invite contemporary designers to respond to moments and figures from Black fashion history?
An exciting dynamic is forged when encouraging designers to work outside of the fashion season framework, to create work that allows their creativity to exist solely through an artistic and commissioned lens.
The quest was to tell a contemporary story, not a retrospective. This time continuum narrative allows designers such as Bianca Saunders and Saul Nash to learn and take the baton of excellence handed down by those who are missing from references within British fashion education. This allows them to have confidence in referencing other aspects of Black British design culture.
The curation challenges visitors to experience the turgid past, see the now and reimagine what could be if young British designers all have the same opportunity to learn from these great sources of design inspiration.
“Students on the Fashion MA have a blank canvas to explore varied aspects of cultural referencing in their work.”
What role do you feel fashion plays in broader discussions of identity and culture, and how do you and your students explore these on the Fashion MA at the RCA?
The word ‘fashion’ often seems obsolete, whereas ‘identity’ encompasses so much more than the noise and constraints that fashion has come to stand for. Without cultural context fashion is meaningless. A designer cannot create in a vacuum, there are constant noises and distractions that inform our mental and physical environments whenever we create.
Students on the Fashion MA have a blank canvas to explore varied aspects of cultural referencing in their work. The programme allows students to reimagine a world with new values. The unofficial RCA Fashion MA mantra is ‘do not create unless your process and/or design adds strength to our world rather than creating more clutter’.
“Encouraging students and young designers to work collectively will build interdependent networks.”
How does your work with BOLD and your creative agency, Harris Elliott Studio, inform or influence your approach to teaching at the RCA?
Harris Elliott Studio is a multi disciplinary practice which allows us to work with musicians, artists, brands and institutions, our work sits in between fashion and art. Culture without compromise is at the heart of the work that we do. This ethos allows the varied reference points to support a learning experience that has a non-linear approach to mentoring within the RCA.
How do you envision the future of creative education and its role in shaping the fashion industry?
The industry needs to listen more. The idea of individual designers treated as heroes in fashion houses feels so last season. Encouraging students and young designers to work collectively will build interdependent networks that will allow them to utilise each other's creative strengths to develop new approaches to design challenges.
“I hope that students are able to demystify their preconceptions of fashion from when they enter to when they leave the RCA.”
How does pursuing a Master's degree in fashion contribute to enhancing creative practice, and what do you hope your students will gain from their academic experience?
I hope that students are able to demystify their preconceptions of fashion from when they enter to when they leave the RCA. These designers are able to be playful and interrogative with design – they bring new values that are richer because of the added cross-cultural learning and references that come from the multi-disciplined staff in the fashion department.
Ultimately, the Fashion MA develops creatives with less exclusive and more supportive positioning in their design approaches.