Behind the scenes with Karen Binns

A woman wearing a shiny black jacket.
A male model in hair and make-up before a shoot.

The legendary stylist and consultant discusses working with menswear designer Bianca Saunders on her SS21 campaign shoot at Kettner’s and pushing for representation in the fashion industry

By Jess Kelham-Hohler   Above left: Karen Binns (courtesy of Karen Binns). Above right: a model on set of Bianca Saunders SS21 shoot (Olivia Sheath)    Friday 2 October, 2020   Long read

You’ve had a wide-ranging career over the years, from Jean Michel Basquiat muse to consultant for the likes of Kanye West, Tori Amos, and now Bianca Saunders. What’s been the common thread?
‘To me, consistency is probably one of the most important words to be using when you’re in the arts or fashion – consistency in how you take on board whatever you do, whatever your name’s attached to, and whatever you’re involved in. I also always learn something new from every single thing that I’ve been a part of.’

How did you first come to work with Bianca Saunders?
‘I first saw her clothes up close in Copenhagen when she was at CIFF, and I was introduced to her by Nancy Stannard who said that this is the one girl who she felt had a lot to offer. It was a smaller collection than others, but it was edited very well, and it showed me that she was interested in a more diverse menswear brand. I didn’t think I was going to be working with her, I just told her if she ever needed help, I’m around. I thought her ideas were great, and being a Black girl as well – you know, there’s not many in this industry. So, when you see one, you feel immediately that you want to be of service and of help to them. I saw promise in her and raw talent, like a diamond in the rough.

‘The first time I worked with her was last season, but I came in at the tail end of it all. We were both trying to see if we would be great working together. She felt that I was good for her brand and that my ideas were great or that my knowledge was of use. So, I think last season was a sounding board, then this season was full on.’
A model lying on a hotel bed.

Models at the SS21 Bianca Saunders shoot at Kettner's (Olivia Sheath)

A model relaxing on a sofa at the end of a hotel bed.
What was it about Bianca’s designs that made you think they have the potential for longevity and to hit that luxury market?
‘I think she’s one of those designers who makes clothes for men that they can actually wear. At the same time, I feel that she pays a lot of attention not just to the pseudo-super masculinity of a man, but also his female side, and I thought that was interesting. From working with Bianca, I can see how important it is for her to deliver luxury to the man of every type – the alternative man, the man who travels, the man who might be bisexual, and never forgetting the henchman with the three girlfriends. She’s developing a whole new consumer.’

For this Fashion Week, you worked together on not only shooting the lookbook for her collection, but also producing a video titled The Ideal Man for this season’s virtual London Fashion Week. Where did the idea come from for the concept?
‘She already had an idea – I came in more as a stylist and consultant for clothing, as well as aesthetics. She came up with The Ideal Man and I thought, wow, we can have fun with this. She was inspired by the newer versions of ballroom, and I was at the real ballrooms, the first ones. And because of that, I have a strong understanding of the etiquette, how important the term categories are, and so on. So, together we came up with these great categories — we originally came up with 20 – and then we whittled them down based on which pieces in the collection represent each category.’
A model wearing a fitted light blue suit.

SS21 Bianca Saunders (courtesy of Bianca Saunders)

A model wearing matching striped shorts and shirt.
What did you make of London Fashion Week going virtual and how do you think Bianca’s video stood out?
‘Now that we have no choice but to be virtual, people have had to start to use their brains, and not go down the same old route of the standard catwalk show. When it comes to virtual, people’s attention spans usually don’t last more than 50 seconds. So, if you don’t grasp their attention in the most entertaining way, it doesn’t matter how many nice pieces you have, they’ll miss the show. Especially from last season – Bianca really understood how to entertain the press and still do it in an authentic way. She was able to achieve as much attention as the more established luxury brands.’

Do you think that people will want to go back to the catwalk shows or the physical presentations?
‘I think people will always want to go physically and look at a show, or a presentation, because fashion is about being seen. If no one has a reason to go anywhere and be photographed and to wear the brand, that could be an incredible downfall. If you have no place to go, you have no reason to buy it. Most of the brands today get the majority of their airplay because they do a show. People can sit on the front row and it adds an aspirational touch to it. I hope that this doesn’t stop completely, because fashion will definitely die 50%. It might not be just runway shows anymore – maybe everyone is going to have just a little bit more depth and a hell of a lot more culture.’
A model posing during a menswear shoot.
Behind the scenes of a fashion shoot.
Beyond the pandemic forcing us all to think more creatively, this has also been a pivotal time when it comes to issues of representation. Do you think the fashion industry can change?
‘I think it’s trying to change now, but it’s also ticking maybe only one box and everyone’s ticking the same box. I’m going to have to see a lot more receipts for a much longer time before I believe that it’s really engaging in the real form of Black Lives Matter and equality, because I’m still not completely convinced. Everyone took the easiest route possible; they booked the darkest models that they could find. And everyone looks like only one type of Black person, when in fact there are about 1,000 categories of people of colour. And does this mean that there were any people of colour on the teams? I think it’s time to start asking for receipts and let’s see how they really take it. 

‘I work with the British Fashion Council now and they put together a new group of diversity coalition that I’m a part of. We’re going to try and bring together all of the really important issues going through the fashion industry and the UK.’

What can you tell us about what you’re working on? 
‘Well, I’d like to put a lot more effort into what I’m working on with the BFC, which is the diversity and inclusion panel, and I've also worked with another platform called Fashion Roundtable — I'm their Fashion Director and on the team for Diversity and Inclusion — for over three years. It has a lot to do with what’s going on in Parliament and helping freelance fashion creatives figure out what they’re going to do now – not only because of COVID-19, but also because of Brexit. Other than that, I’m not really allowed to talk about projects that I’m working on…’

Watch Bianca Saunders’  The Ideal Man here;
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