Samuel Ross and Priya Ahluwalia

LONDON — There was no glitz and glam this year: No more red-carpet gowns, paparazzi flashes, pop-star performances or after parties.

Instead, on Thursday night, just as the U.K. was coming out of lockdown, the British Fashion Council released a 30-minute YouTube clip — for the first time accessible for all to watch from home — to reveal this year’s Fashion Awards winners.

The lack of industry fanfare and sparkle made way for a more powerful message: Let’s change.

“It’s no longer enough for the fashion industry to set ‘trends,’ it needs to set more important trends of creating a more equal and representative society in which everyone has the same chance to succeed,” said Lewis Hamilton, an award presenter alongside Priyanka Chopra, Maisie Williams and Rosalia.

The winners themselves, both the young and established, were singled out as the changemakers leading the industry forward in the fields of sustainability, diversity, creativity, and community. Gone are the traditional awards categories that mostly favored a select few megabrands.

A-Cold-Wall founder and designer Samuel Ross is one such figure, recognized as part of “a new generation of men’s wear designers” who has also made waves this year for creating a Black Lives Matter financial aid scheme and offering grants to Black-owned businesses.

Ross told WWD that the pandemic humanized A-Cold-Wall. “It put me in a place that has been amazing to a certain degree to take back the brand with my own voice. When you scale the brand, it gets big. With 670,000 followers on Instagram roughly, the brand starts to take on its own persona. But throughout COVID-19 and the civil rights movements, I really took it upon myself to take back the brand and let it echo my voice,” he added.

Humanizing the fashion business should be an industrywide priority, as far as Ross is concerned: “We need to make sure that we are adding visibility to what’s happening from a racial perspective, or from an employment perspective. I believe we need to start looking at giving back to the consumer base, the followers, who have taken the time to invest in what we make and have to say. We need to give it back. It needs to be a two-way conversation. It needs to be more plural, it can’t just be selling goods to people.”

Ross also thinks real inclusion means rethinking education and letting more players into the fashion conversation. “If we do want to make fashion more inclusive, the gates need to open,” he said. “The notion of what fashion is, needs to be wider. All you are seeing is such prolific focus on loungewear, but what about sportswear and jersey? Why can’t Sports Direct be included in those fashion conversations?”

Ross was recognized for his diversity efforts alongside Priya Ahluwalia, another emerging London talent who, like Ross, has always embraced lateral thinking.

“It’s very important when we think about positive fashion, that we really think about people and the planet before profit,” said Ahluwalia, who stood out for her dedication to sustainability and the way she represents the Black community. “How can we work with our business not only to support but regenerate communities and the environment with different craft, social and development initiatives?”

Priya Ahluwalia and Samuel Ross

Priya Ahluwalia and Samuel Ross  Virginie Khateeb/WWD

Her wholesale business has taken a big hit during the pandemic, but the brand has been able to remain a market standout by staying agile and taking on different projects.

“Stores all pulled out or reduced their orders. But that made me strategize, and rethink things because I realized that it’s actually not that sensible to completely rely on wholesale channels to make money,” she said. “People come in and ask me about sustainability, partnership and collaboration. I guess what they really like about me was the way I represent the community and I like telling people stories that are not necessarily at the forefront of fashion. At the same time, I won the LVMH Prize jointly, and got a film sponsorship from Gucci.”

The importance of embracing philanthropic efforts and using fashion to impact global and local communities was also given emphasis during the online ceremony.

“Our consciousness has changed,” said Chopra, who virtually handed out awards to the likes of Chanel, Michael Halpern, Kenneth Ize and the Emergency Designer Network for their community-centric, charitable projects. She wore a bespoke white jacket by fellow Indian designer Kaushik Velendra, who now is based in London, for the ceremony.

The Emergency Designer Network was founded by Bethany Williams, Cozette McCreery, Holly Fulton and Phoebe English in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since April, the four designers joined forces and worked with 40 National Health Service Trusts and 150 makers to create 50,000 surgical gowns and 10,000 sets of scrubs for health care workers.

“As Easter approached and nothing was getting signed off at government level, we put out a call to designers, makers, machinists and factories and set up our GoFundMe account. Initially, we thought we’d have around 40 people, but it ended up being over 200 volunteers from our network,” McCreery said, explaining how industry peers all mobilized to help.

John Smedley made scrubs; Reiss donated fabrics; magazine and public relations offices had their teams send threads or labels and help to fund-raise; while Net-a-porter, Matchesfashion and Freight Brokers organized the deliveries.

“It has given us time to slow down, question our output, source locally (mostly out of necessity) and realize that we can, and should, be more collaborative, more supportive and more accountable,” McCreery added.

Raf Simons, who was recognized along with Miuccia Prada for their creativity this year, echoed McCreery’s thoughts: “The fact that [Miuccia Prada and I] are both here is testament to the importance of dialogue within creativity,” he said in the video. Other winners in the creativity field included Grace Wales Bonner, Jonathan Anderson, Kim Jones, Riccardo Tisci and Burberry.

Michael Halpern was honored for his focus on community. After presenting one of the most moving digital presentations during the spring 2021 season — which saw frontline workers model his exuberant creations and tell their stories — Halpern has also come to see creative collaboration as the only way forward.

Halpern RTW Spring 2021

Halpern, spring 2021  Courtesy of Halpern

“Change is not something that comes easy to an industry that has been doing [things] the same way for a very long time, so in a way, there is this silver lining to this past year. We need to continue to come together, support one another, and work collaboratively from all different facets of the industry. If we continue to do this in a genuine way, I see an incredibly bright future for our industry,” said the designer, adding that he felt “euphoric” once he came to grips with the process of filming his collection, and seeing the frontline workers in his creations.

As for Ize, who has been working to support communities of weavers, artisans and design groups across Nigeria, a changed fashion industry is one that can make more room for brands like his.

“Moving forward, the community will have to be more than just a means to an end. There has to be a higher value placed on the community, as it offers much more. It’s not often that African stories are told on the global fashion scale and my hope is to one day look around and see more brands like mine on runways and in stores all over the world,” said the designer who is laying the foundations for the industry shifts he hopes to see.

He is starting to work on building his own factory in Nigeria with the ambition of making African craftsmanship “a big segment of the global fashion industry.”

Another important figure who has been advocating for social change through his label this year is Asai’s designer A Sai Ta.

He’s been using the power of his social media platforms and rethinking the meaning of his brand beyond his own identity: Asai now also stands for “actively stand against injustice,” “activate spirit align independence” and “all souls are immortal.”

“I believe that through my existence in the industry I am contributing to ideas of diversity, being British, Chinese and Vietnamese, challenging social class and what it means to be British,” said Ta, who was also recognized as part of the community pillar. “I have committed to offer up a percentage from every product I sell to charities that support communities under oppression.”

Models wearing Asai on the cover of Le Monde magazine

Models wearing Asai on the cover of Le Monde magazine.  Courtesy

For him, the community is precious and needs to be cultivated and sustained. “This year was prevalent for us all in witnessing the wrongdoings of people in power and racial injustice; all communities need to come together to dissolve this discrimination. Community is coming together,” he added.

Moving forward, Ta believes that action also needs to take place beyond social media. He started by launching his own e-commerce site selling a poster of models wearing his pieces, originally a cover shot from Le Monde magazine.

“Visibility here was a key aim of mine, giving voices to the models who were in the image by including a quote from each of them and also having them choose the charity we would donate to. Additionally, two ready-to-wear dresses went into production giving the customers the option to choose the price they would pay for the dress with all, not just some of the profits after production cost, being given to charities that support marginalized communities. As an independent brand, this was a challenging project to undertake, but it was fulfilling to know that fashion has the power to contribute to positive change.”

Predictably, sustainability was on the awards agenda with four designers and organizations — Anya Hindmarch, Stella McCartney, Christopher Raeburn and The Fashion Pact — honored for their efforts in the field.

Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn  Olivia Thompson/WWD

Raeburn, one of the earliest sustainability advocates in the industry, said “after 11 years of doing things differently” he was humbled by the recognition — but the work is far from being done.

“It’s so apparent to me that the work we’ve done isn’t enough; the very fact that this award exists is a provocation that we need to step up. As an industry, we have to dig deep to look for new ways of working, and embed responsibility at the core of it all. The new categorizations of awards really bring a positive focus on areas that we need to continue to evolve,” said the designer, who developed a new brand manifesto this year and has been working with Timberland to develop a set of ambitious 2030 environmental goals.

Aware that post-pandemic, “we’ll be facing a bigger environmental and inventory crisis than ever before, and that making more new stuff won’t help that,” the designer is calling for a total reinvention of the fashion model.

“We still have the biggest challenge ahead of us; changing from being the second biggest polluter to a positive force for good for people and nature. If we all work together now, not just within our industry but cross-industry, then we won’t be talking about environmental awards in the future — we will all be winning. I think 2020 will be the year that we all look back on and, despite the challenges, we’ll know this was the moment we woke up to our obligations and started to put the foundations in place for a brighter future.”

Naomi Campbell walking in the Kenneth Ize RTW Fall 2020 show.

Naomi Campbell walking in the Kenneth Ize fall 2020 show.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD