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“We Are Business Owners, You Can’t Be A Wallflower”: Priya Ahluwalia, Tolu Coker & Torishéju Dumi Are Leading The Charge For Sustainable British Design

For today’s fashion talent, sustainability goes beyond a buzzword. Julia Hobbs meets three designers – with three distinct styles – who are aligned on a shared purpose. Photographs by Charlotte Wales. Styling by Poppy Kain.

Tolu Coker, the youngest of our prodigious designer trio, is sitting cross-legged on the floor of an improvised dressing room on set for her British Vogue cover shoot, sharing an insider’s guide to her North Kensington neighbourhood. I open an iPhone Note and type: “St Augustine’s car boot sale in Kilburn. Go early.”

“It’s where the Portobello vintage traders source their pieces,” Tolu says, scrolling for a photo of the industrial knitting machines she’s discovered there – the same machines that the 29-year-old Central Saint Martins graduate used to create her breakout spring/summer 2024 collection, entitled Irapada (meaning “redemption” in Yoruba) from her living-room atelier, inspired by the white gowns worn in south London’s Yoruba churches and Candomblé processions in Brazil.

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Today, in a sunlit Tottenham photo studio, Coker’s hand-deconstructed denim will be celebrated alongside designs by her fellow cover stars, visionary creative directors Priya Ahluwalia and Torishéju Dumi, both 31. Where Ahluwalia is a master of artisanal knits and zinging prints, Dumi’s monochromatic looks are about structure; in her hands, deconstructed blazers become a blueprint for extraordinary silhouettes using offcuts of fabric salvaged from large wholesale warehouses.

These designers have built businesses on resourcefulness. “Sustainability to me is about making do with what you have. That’s in my DNA,” Dumi says. “The fabrics that I work with are always offcuts. There’s so much leftover fabric out there.” It’s a sentiment shared by Coker. “Very early on, I conditioned myself that my definition of success is about slow, steady growth and longevity – to be able to continue creating, and grow with the people around me as well,” she says, adding that fashion doesn’t always have to be about making more clothes. “Sometimes it’s just telling a new story with what already exists,” Coker adds, which was why some of the pieces in her spring/summer 2024 collection were carried forward from a previous release.

The clothes these three women produce are innately sustainable, which isn’t, as Ahluwalia has long emphasised, “just about the yarn you choose”, but driving social and environmental change. Since graduating from the University of Westminster’s menswear MA programme in 2018 (Opening Ceremony and LN-CC bought Ahluwalia’s entirely upcycled graduate collection), she’s built a team with a high representation of Black women, inclusive of LGBTQ+ and Disabled people. “If you’re a woman, and you’re Black or brown, the opportunities available to you as a fashion designer get smaller and smaller,” Ahluwalia says.

The reality is that deserving talents are being overlooked because decision-makers are choosing to stick with the status quo. “For fashion to be new, and for creativity to thrive, we have to be open to different points of view. We need to broaden the pool of people that are part of top-level conversations, starting with who’s in the room,” she explains. “There are designers and creators who are so capable, and will flourish with the right backing.”

Beyond being less wasteful when it comes to making clothes, Ahluwalia knows how her factories treat their staff. She’s also constantly thinking of ways to reward the community that follow her brand but may not necessarily be able to afford to buy it, through invitations to her film festivals and runway shows. Indeed, five years in, the south Londoner is already on a mission to grow her namesake label into a lifestyle brand in the manner of a Ralph Lauren, encompassing everything from interiors to restaurants – as well as film (she’s represented by Ridley Scott’s prestigious Black Dog Films production company, and has directed shorts for Mulberry and Vogue).

Torishéju Dumi – born in Harlesden, in the capital’s northwest – was the wildcard who won Paris Fashion Week. Her first-ever runway show ended the spring/summer 2024 collections with an exclamation point; her obsessive study of texture and form brought to life by an all-star model line-up including Naomi Campbell, Paloma Elsesser and Devyn Garcia, assembled by casting director Aymeric. (The stylist, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, first spotted Dumi’s talent while sitting as a virtual judge during Central Saint Martins MA fashion graduate show in 2021.)

Campbell’s opening look featured Torishéju’s signature horned blazer, a piece that embodies her modus operandi as a designer. “The clothes I make are there to help the wearer feel like somebody,” she says. Dumi honed her exacting eye at Céline, during Phoebe Philo’s tenure. The house’s Cavendish Square atelier (with the famous purple velvet carpet that spiralled all the way up to Philo’s office) offered a masterclass in pattern cutting and familial team warmth. “Everyone was lovely,” she says of her alma mater. Some days, she was despatched to the enormous Chelsea archive, where she relished the opportunity to photograph pieces from past collections, seeing firsthand how they were made. “Everybody has their own take on why they like that era of Céline,” she notes. “For me, it’s the beautiful construction – that’s what makes good clothing.”

Dumi’s debut runway show was about realising her own autonomy. “I’m not living out people’s preconceived notions of what I should be like as a Black designer,” she says. “It’s only now, with the release of this collection, that I actually feel free for the first time in my creative life.”

While momentum is gathering for these three industry frontrunners, financial support is increasingly harder to come by, particularly for fashion shows, which are a vital part of any rising designer’s publicity strategy. “Lighting alone will cost you a minimum of £12,000 for 10 minutes,” Ahluwalia says, leaning towards my iPhone microphone. “If any of you [reading this] want to give us money for a show, I’m taking meetings at the moment,” she says with a laugh.

“A lot of people think that more visibility equals more financial success, and that’s not always the case,” Coker explains. Each of the designer’s pathways into the industry underscores the importance of access to expert tuition and funding. Coker learnt about Central Saint Martins through a local youth centre during her school holidays, and held her inaugural runway show thanks to the support of the BFC’s NewGen initiative, which has springboarded UK fashion talents including Ahluwalia, Lee McQueen, Jonathan Anderson and Molly Goddard over the past 30 years. Without the Sarabande scholarship (awarded by photographer Sølve Sundsbø), and fabrics donated by Alexander McQueen, Dumi tells me she wouldn’t have been able to complete her MA.

Ahluwalia, meanwhile, credits Ganni CEO Nicolaj Reffstrup for sharing advice which proved instrumental in how she built her business – tools (Coker calls them Ahluwalia’s “seeds of knowledge”) that she’s keen to pass on to her contemporaries. “We are business owners, so you can’t be a wallflower,” Ahluwalia says. “People like us and buy our brands because we know what we want. That’s our job – to know what we think is beautiful or interesting. Start from now,” she urges Dumi. “Know that you’re allowed to ask for what you want. If you were a man, you would just do it.”

As the trio gather for their group portrait, Ahluwalia has some final words of advice. “You know, the fact that we’re all here is so f**king amazing,” she says. “When we’re each on our way home this evening, we should all think about being here. Really enjoy it. Savour it. Because life happens so fast.”

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