Zadrian Smith on Thoughtful Design, and Dressing Three BAFTA Nominees

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Samantha Conti
·7 min read
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LONDON — It’s been an awards season of acrobatics for the stylist Zadrian Smith, who’s been flipping between the U.S. and Europe on (mostly) empty planes amid pandemic restrictions, and guiding a group of young London actors, some of them teenagers, through the labyrinth of luxury fashion.

Smith is dressing more top nominees than ever at the BAFTAs, which take place at Royal Albert Hall on Sunday before a virtual audience. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards are the biggest in the U.K., and usually a good indicator of who might scoop an Academy Award.

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This season Smith is working with three actors who will wear custom-made looks from Alexander McQueen, Prada and Dior Men.

They include Bukky Bakray, who has been nominated for Leading Actress in the coming-of-age film “Rocks,” and for the EE Rising Star Award, which is chosen via a public vote. Smith is also dressing Bakray’s “Rocks” costar Kosar Ali, who’s up for Best Supporting Actress, and Kingsley Ben-Adir, who has also been nominated for the EE Rising Star Award following his breakout role as Malcolm X in Regina King’s film “One Night in Miami.”

Smith faced a number of challenges this awards season — but they didn’t all stem from COVID-19 restrictions. He noted that Ali, who is from a British-Somalian Muslim family, is a modest dresser and not every design house has been able to grasp the nuances of creating modest red carpet clothing. An exception was Alexander McQueen, which took up the task with gusto.

“It was really important that we got Kosar’s modest dress right — and that it didn’t feel gimmicky,” said Smith. “It’s also the first time I’ve worked with modest dress, so it’s been eye-opening for me.”

He added that McQueen’s creative director Sarah Burton and her team were detail-oriented and sensitive to Ali’s needs.

“They were adamant about getting it right, and made sure Kosar was a part of the conversation from beginning to end. They made sure that the turban to cover her hair had the right jersey thread count, that it had enough stretch. These are the conversations, and the questions that have to be asked,” he said.

Ali had told Smith that, in the past, designers have sent her turbans, but with no stretch in the fabric, so they could not even stay on her head. Smith said that, by contrast, “McQueen put Kosar’s needs ahead of theirs,” which is unusual in the industry.

“I often feel that the fashion industry thinks they’re listening, but on delivery they miss the mark. Oftentimes designers try to paint their aesthetic onto the talent, and sometimes that is an epic fail, or the talent just doesn’t feel comfortable,” he said.

Regarding modest dress, Smith said he believes fashion has a lot to learn. “I think sometimes fashion doesn’t deem anything that’s modest — or in the religious or spiritual space — to be sacred or fashionable.”

He said brands may call themselves inclusive, “but they have one plus-size model on the runway, one Muslim model, and they’re ticking a box. If you are working for a talent who may not be sample size, and you go to a fashion house and ask about dressing them, they say, ‘Oh no — we don’t have anything that fits her.’ The messages are not aligned — it’s smoke and mirrors.”

For Bakray’s look he worked with Prada, another house he said is tuned in to the needs of individual actors. He noted that Bakray had previously told him that she felt little connection to the fashion world, and had never seen herself represented in the space.

Smith said he wanted to change that and find Bakray the knockout look she deserved for her big red carpet moment at the BAFTAs.

“This is Bukky’s first rodeo, and Prada treated her like a star. Making custom costs a lot of money, and our industry in Italy has been hit so hard. Prada was so gracious and so humble throughout the entire process,” he said, adding that Bakray will be wearing a mauve, light duchess satin strapless gown with décolletage.

For Ben-Adir, Smith went straight to Kim Jones, creative director of Dior Men. “Kim Jones doesn’t normally do custom, and we are so grateful to him and the entire team. His suit has a Marlon Brando feel, with shiny, silky, soft and loose black fabric, with a silk belt. It’s heaven,” said Smith.

He said Ben-Adir loved the fabric, and said he gets a buzz when he hears an actor talk about how a fabric feels. “You can see their faces change when they put the clothes on. Their emotions change as well,” said Smith.

He added that working virtually during the pandemic has been difficult for him and for his styling partner Sarah Edmiston as they cannot be with the actors for that key final fitting.

“For us, the most challenging part has been the lack of human contact and human interaction. What we do is such a tactile, in-person job. You want to hear the sounds the person makes when they put on the dress, and as the fabric caresses their body,” said Smith.

He added that social distancing and virtual events have been taking its toll on the actors, too. “A lot of talent are missing that [live] moment. These events are like high school reunions — you see all of your friends. I think people are starting to miss the human aspect of it,” he said.

Smith believes other industry players have been hurt by the pandemic’s restrictions as well, in particular the smaller fashion houses that cannot afford to keep up with the big luxury names.

“Awards are a great moment to put a smaller designer on the map and this season a lot of the smaller brands will probably suffer. The bigger fashion houses can afford to hire a photographer, draw up a press release, provide hair, makeup, tailoring and give the talent an amazing hotel room at the Corinthia,” one of the hotels in London where the stars are dressing ahead of the BAFTAs, Smith said. “Those numbers add up really quickly.”

Smith, who is a founding member of Fashion Minority Alliance, a British nonprofit that works with businesses, brands, organizations and individuals to promote and secure the advancement of Black and minority creatives worldwide, added that the smaller fashion houses are also the ones that are the most open to diversity and inclusion.

“At the top of the food chain you have the brands that have the resources and the power to pivot quickly. But sometimes they pivot quickly without the research, or having the right people in the room, and it does not seem authentic. With smaller brands, the pivots are more authentic and feel real, and [many of them] are already inclusive and diverse. Younger designers and brands are keen to be supportive, and have fewer boardroom checks.”

Change is also happening at the bigger brands, if at a slower pace.

“There are several brands that are listening now, that have more of an awareness. Post-Black Lives Matter, and post being called out, I think our clients are giving more time and space to think about it. And I am really thankful that a lot of the brands are listening, and that there is open conversation.”

Smith said he’s thankful to have collaborated with McQueen, Prada and Dior Men because, in addition to having an inclusive mind-set, those brands saw each actor as an individual.

“None of them tried to paint their aesthetic onto the talents. They wanted to breathe new life into their aesthetic through the talent, and that is so important. I hope that what everyone sees on Sunday is a true reflection of that — an aesthetic that is a hybrid of the client, and of the house as well.”

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