BY Joe Bobowicz in Profiles | 28 JUL 23

Nasir Mazhar Works on His Own Terms

The fashion designer escaped the runway to be with ‘the wrong ‘uns and strays’

BY Joe Bobowicz in Profiles | 28 JUL 23

In 2021, the East London-born designer Nasir Mazhar left his hometown for Doncaster, a small city in the north of England. He now stitches away in self-imposed solitude, occasionally returning to the capital to teach at Central Saint Martins. Today, it’s business as usual at his studio, a former vintage clothing shop surrounded by a well-tended garden. While a cigarette smoulders beside him, he’s threading the last sequins on a costume commission for Beyoncé’s dancers.

Archival studio documentation. Courtesy: Nasir Mazhar

It’s a little over a week before his first exhibition, ‘I Always Wanted to Show You Mine’ (2023), opens at 243 Luz Gallery in Margate. The show offers a look into two decades of studio experimentation, including selfies taken with phones and computers, and a select array of hats and sculptural objects. When I visit, Mazhar is sifting through piles of thousands of images and designs that climb to the studio’s rafters. You might know him for the hyper-technical baseball caps and tracksuits that captured fashion audiences during the mid-2010s, or perhaps you’ve seen the millinery he produced for Lady Gaga shortly before. However, as this two-floored, multi-room emporium of mystical fancies makes clear, much of his work never made it onto celebrities or the catwalks.

‘I feel like a lot of people just got to know me when Instagram started [in 2010], and I started doing clothes,’ Mazhar tells me. Indeed, the references he used in this period – grime and dancehall music – are well cited, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. His first collection in 2006, for example, featured headwear made from dried gourds bought at Ridley Road Market, and a traditional boater, alongside sportier pieces.

Nasir Mazhar, 'I Always Wanted to Show You Mine', 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and 243 Luz; photograph: Ollie Harrop

Never one to follow the beaten path, Mazhar entered fashion almost by accident. At 16, he read Sue Tilley’s 1997 biography of her friend, the performance artist Leigh Bowery (Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon). ‘That just blew my mind,’ he says, choking up. ‘I get quite emotional when I talk about things.’ Inspired by the artfulness of Bowery’s looks and tantalizing stories of his sexual antics, Mazhar was soon drawn to club culture, a reference prevalent in the cyber-punk jester hats and UK garage-inspired hairstyles of his womenswear presentations.

‘I did my GCSEs, had two weeks off, and started an apprenticeship at Vidal Sassoon in Knightsbridge,’ says Mazhar. There, he learned the ropes in hairdressing before his penchant for more sculptural hairstyles gradually directed him to millinery. First came work for the theatrical hatter Mark Wheeler. Designs for an electroclash night called ‘Gauche Chic’ and hat-making courses at Kensington and Chelsea College followed. Mastering 14th-century calash bonnets and hennin hats, Mazhar has carried his fascination with traditional national dress – from Ottomans and Romans to Vikings – and historical sci-fi films like Red Sonja (1985) with him throughout his career.

Nasir Mazhar, Spring/Summer 2012, 2011. Courtesy and photograph: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

He made his runway debut during London Fashion Week in autumn 2010 as part of the Fashion East mentoring initiative, which supports emerging designers. But, after many years on the circuit, he began to feel stifled by the demand to produce shows every six months while meeting fashion buyers’ preferences for a commercial, clearly branded product sold at an exorbitant markup. Eventually, the overhead costs and the expectation to churn out polished collections had lost its lustre. ‘I prefer how artists work,’ he says. ‘They work at their own pace and bring things out whenever they need to bring things out, but in fashion, it’s like a machine.’

Between 2017 and 19, Mazhar left the traditional fashion schedule, embracing an alternative approach to production and presentation. Enter, Fantastic Toiles, a roving market of loosely defined makers, artists and fashion designers who pay a fee to cover the set-up costs and then sell work alongside their peers. First opened in Mazhar’s former studio in East London, Fantastic Toiles has been a lifeline for designers chewed up and spat out by conglomerate-owned megabrands often focused on shifting units at unsustainable rates. (Despite the industry’s lip service to sustainability, it remains one of the most polluting.) Originally, Mazhar envisioned the market as a means of selling his ‘toiles’ (fashion prototypes) that weren’t slick or commercial enough to go into production. However, the project soon developed into a fully-fledged horizontal economy comprised of what he endearingly calls ‘the wrong ‘uns and the strays.’

Nasir Mazhar
Nasir Mazhar, 'I Always Wanted to Show You Mine', 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and 243 Luz; photograph: Ollie Harrop

Fantastic Toiles attracts passionate, discerning audiences who queue around the block to gain access to the hidden-away London locations at which it is held. It sits at the edge of subculture, a cavernous bazaar of wares, sellers, Mazhar and a pocket-sized card reader. Overhead, an eclectic soundtrack of hardcore rave music, medieval soundscapes and Bollywood classics plays. Mazhar wanted to introduce the sense of drama he experiences when outfitting ballet and theatre productions. ‘Actually, that’s where the fantasy is. It’s not in fashion,’ he says. ‘You know, when [John] Galliano and [Alexander] McQueen brought the theatre in, fashion got exciting.’

T-shirts appliqued with pig snouts by designer Pig Ignorant, H.R. Giger-esque flesh dresses by artist Hermes Pittakos and unseen Mazhar designs are just some of myriad oddities offered at Fantastic Toiles. In practice, there’s a collaborative, new age feel that teeters on ‘crusty’, salvaging materials and detritus for new, covetable fare. In many ways, it’s representative of exactly where Mazhar is at. ‘When I hear about Kensington Market [a now-closed indoor market central to London’s hippie and punk movements], that sounds like an ideal world for me,’ says Mazhar. ‘So much more than a fancy boutique.’

Fantastic Toiles, 2023. Photograph: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Maybe the runway has run its course for Mazhar, but if the hunger for Fantastic Toiles is anything to go by, there’s a whole scene of people keen to see where he goes next. His forthcoming gallery show promises the return of his pinned, scrappy headpieces alongside documentation of his rawest creations. It will celebrate a mutable and unfinished design process. After all, that’s what he’s always wanted to show us.

Nasir Mazhar’s ‘I Always Wanted to Show You Mine’ is at 243 Luz, Margate, from July 30–August 30. Fantastic Toiles takes place every two months in London. The next one: 16–17 September. 

Main image: Archival studio documentation. Courtesy: Nasir Mazhar


Joe Bobowicz is a writer and curator working between fine art, fashion and popular culture