Breaking Through: Rahemur Rahman

Rahemur Rahman is the designer behind the eponymous brand that is seeking to change the stereotypes of what it means to be “Made in Bangladesh”. By putting equity and sustainability at the forefront, he is actively working to reshape the fashion business model. His journey may have begun on a similar path that many of his predecessors have walked, but Rahman is determined to create an imprint and a legacy that is entirely his own.

Born to Bangladeshi immigrants in East London, Rahman has been surrounded by fashion and textile production his whole life. His father worked in a garment factory near Brick Lane, where he became acquainted with British tailoring. Rahman’s mother had a sewing machine at home where she and her husband would make clothes for themselves and their children, often using leftover fabric from the factory. Their community has been involved in Britain’s fashion industry for decades, and yet, Rahman is the first Bangladeshi designer to showcase at London Fashion Week.

At his debut, he intentionally chose to stage his presentation in a Bangladeshi community center, across from the Truman Brewery, where the rest of London Fashion Week Men’s was being hosted. After the presentation, he had an interview with a mainstream fashion magazine and, on his insistence, they went down the street to a small Bangladeshi restaurant, Amar Gaon.

“Amar Gaon was opened in the 70s – the owner wanted a place where his people could come have a meal and unwind after a day’s work or after Friday prayers. The need for these spaces, for community, was so important then and even now. And the food is still amazing,” he tells me.

The London Rahman is talking of – the 1970s and early 80s – was changing at a rapid pace. While the embers of post-colonialism were still burning in South Asia, streams of refugees and immigrants flowed out, and many arrived in England. Young men and women looking for safe haven, employment and a future that would give their children a better chance at success than they had ever known – a near-universal immigrant narrative. Many of them had set off from Dhaka and Chittagong, arriving in Tower Hamlets, working at the garment factories dotted across East London. 

With the influx of immigrants came a rise in racial violence and rhetoric – Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech and the targeted attacks that followed highlighted the city’s changing culture and demographics. For the Bengali community, Altab Ali’s murder was a turning point. Trades Council secretary, Dan Jones, recalls this period as “full of death, marches and funeral processions… I remember the massive outburst of grief and the dignified defiance by Bengali workers that followed [Altab Ali’s] murder. [But] a new generation of young cockney Bengalis was emerging, no longer prepared to cower in fear or to accept discriminatory treatment.”

Against this charged backdrop, Rahman’s parents arrived in London and began their lives as immigrants. While Rahman was born over a decade after Altab Ali’s murder and subsequent protests, those memories are ever-present in the tightly-knit Bengali community that he grew up in. Rahman revisited the photographs of the protests from the late 70s and early 80s and found himself inspired by his community’s ‘dignified defiance’. 

“We will not only collect culture, we will invest [in] and protect culture,” is a mantra that Rahman has lived by since his debut collection. Rahman’s interest in and passion for fashion may have stemmed from seeing his mother and their family friends creating garments from the trimmings and unused fabric off the factory floors. Still, it found its maturity in the collaboration he has with Aranya Crafts, a collective based in Dhaka. While working alongside these artisans, Rahman came to understand what a fashion business model rooted in equity might look like. In an interview with I-D magazine, he said, “I naturally assumed Bangladesh would be the worst place to produce sustainable clothes but what I saw with my own eyes is that it’s only the rich that aren’t sustainable. The locals even explained that when you are poor, you have no choice but to be sustainable.”

When Rahman and I spoke, we talked about his trips to Dhaka, where he has spent months at a time with the artisans at Aranya. Nawshin Khair, who heads the organization, once asked if he wanted to see something special. Naturally piqued, he was shown into a large room containing piles of fabric pieces. Khair explained that Aranya Crafts’ original founder, Rubi Ghaznavi, had held on to the byproduct and waste from textile production ever since Aranya started in the early 1980s. Rahman says, “she was waiting for technology to catch up.”

 

Amazed at what he was looking at, Rahman immediately asked if he could use some of the materials. And indeed, there is a mix of fabrics from the 80s, 90s and 00s that Rahman has incorporated into the pieces in his new collection, titled ‘Children of the Rag Trade’. Over a Google Meet video call, he pulls out a few to show me. Immediately discernable from the grainy video feed is a jacket made with different fabrics – olive green, deep mustard and earthy brown. Another piece has shades of rose and coral, some with natural dye block prints. Each panel tells its own story from its own decade. The resulting effect is a gorgeous aesthetic and narrative patchwork, paying homage to a sustainable and equitable artisan community in Dhaka and his own community’s resilience on the streets of East London.

Speaking to Rahman, it becomes very apparent very quickly that he is someone who operates at a high level of self-awareness. Working his way through the ever-present imposter syndrome that seeps into many BIPOC creatives, Rahman is open about the challenges he faced and the conversations he had with his mentor, Judith Tolley, at the Center for Fashion Enterprise, where Rahman is currently occupying an incubator space.

“At the start of the pandemic, I was ready to shut it all down,” he says. The prospect of keeping his brand going as the world was collapsing around him seemed impossible when coupled with the frustrations of being pigeon-holed by both the industry and his inner demons. “I kept asking myself – what am I doing with this brand? Why do I exist? I was also sick of being a ‘Brown’ designer. And then, my mentor explained to me that every generation has someone who needs to go through this, and while it’s frustrating and hard, there’s power in it too. Because it’s up to me to do what I can to make sure no one else has to go through what I’ve gone through.” And that, he says, was the wake-up call he needed.

“All the experiences I’ve had have brought me here where I can speak the way I do, walk into historically and predominantly white spaces and not be threatening or any of the things that make me ‘too Brown’ or ‘too white’. I can meander through like water and use it as my strength – I used to think it was my biggest weakness. The first time I went to Bangladesh, I was so nervous because I couldn’t speak proper Bengali. I grew up speaking the colloquial dialect, which my mother taught me. When I was in Dhaka, I felt like an imposter but then when I came back to London, and it was the constant question of – am I getting these opportunities because I’m Brown and they have to tick a box?”

“The imposter syndrome is very real, and it’s even more pronounced in the diaspora community – we feel alienated in every space we walk into because we dress, talk and behave differently from everyone else.”

At the Center for Fashion Enterprise, Rahman is busy working on his craft alongside fellow up-and-coming designers. He says that their focus is “redesigning the fashion business model to integrate community and social engagement.” When I ask him about his upcoming collection, he tells me he wants to launch in February, but it might end up being in March. “I’ve taken myself out of the traditional fashion cycles – I was doing two seasons and following the six-month model, but I’m not going to do that anymore,” he says, pointing to the emphasis on redesigning the business model. He wants to create a personalized experience but, more importantly, a sustainable supply chain that impacts everyone from the weaver in Dhaka to the customer, wherever they might be.

“I’m designing my website so that customers can go online and choose a shape that they want – they then choose the textile, the color, or the pattern, and everything is made to order. They become a part of the process, and I hope that they will hold on to these pieces forever. One thing I’ve seen happen over and over again is that people will purchase an item from a designer’s collection in a certain season and fall in love with it, but then that item is never made available again in the next collection. I like the idea of having staple pieces that stay constant – what changes is the textile, the materials, the patterns – which also helps when it comes to decolonization because we can engage the artisans and give them more control when it comes to the new season’s fabrics and patterns.”

A year has passed since the world began to fall apart, but Rahman is entirely focused on the present and the imminent future. With his third collection, ‘Children of the Rag Trade’, launching in March, Rahman has also chosen to engage in and work on community initiatives that focus on BIPOC youth. His experience has made him realize that visibility (or lack thereof) is only part of the reason why young people from BIPOC communities are hesitant to pursue careers in creative fields. An aspect that he has chosen to focus on is finding mentors who are relatable.

“I want these kids to see that there is a way for them to make a career and a living out of this. There are too many young people from communities like mine who end up in very white, very traditional spaces, and they don’t see themselves fitting in. Too often, you will find a young BIPOC student who is given a white mentor who doesn’t understand their journey or their struggles. I want to play a role in creating opportunities and places for them to feel seen, so they pursue their passions and their dreams instead of getting frustrated and dropping out.”

 

He speaks particularly about his own community and, by extension, the South Asian diaspora in the UK, who have remained underrepresented in many creative spaces. Rahman has realized the power in his own ability to code-switch and feel a certain sense of ownership and control in multiple spaces, regardless of geography. He now wants to use that to empower the next generation of South Asian creatives, who have their own stories to tell. Like Amar Gaon and the restauranteurs in the 70s, Rahemur Rahman creates spaces for his community and gives them a platform to forge paths of their own.

Photo by Paul Phung
Breaking Through: Rahemur Rahman

Rahemur Rahman is the designer behind the eponymous brand that is seeking to change the stereotypes of what it means to be “Made in Bangladesh”. By putting equity and sustainability at the forefront, he is actively working to reshape the fashion business model. His journey may have begun on a similar path that many of his predecessors have walked, but Rahman is determined to create an imprint and a legacy that is entirely his own.

Born to Bangladeshi immigrants in East London, Rahman has been surrounded by fashion and textile production his whole life. His father worked in a garment factory near Brick Lane, where he became acquainted with British tailoring. Rahman’s mother had a sewing machine at home where she and her husband would make clothes for themselves and their children, often using leftover fabric from the factory. Their community has been involved in Britain’s fashion industry for decades, and yet, Rahman is the first Bangladeshi designer to showcase at London Fashion Week.

At his debut, he intentionally chose to stage his presentation in a Bangladeshi community center, across from the Truman Brewery, where the rest of London Fashion Week Men’s was being hosted. After the presentation, he had an interview with a mainstream fashion magazine and, on his insistence, they went down the street to a small Bangladeshi restaurant, Amar Gaon.

“Amar Gaon was opened in the 70s – the owner wanted a place where his people could come have a meal and unwind after a day’s work or after Friday prayers. The need for these spaces, for community, was so important then and even now. And the food is still amazing,” he tells me.

The London Rahman is talking of – the 1970s and early 80s – was changing at a rapid pace. While the embers of post-colonialism were still burning in South Asia, streams of refugees and immigrants flowed out, and many arrived in England. Young men and women looking for safe haven, employment and a future that would give their children a better chance at success than they had ever known – a near-universal immigrant narrative. Many of them had set off from Dhaka and Chittagong, arriving in Tower Hamlets, working at the garment factories dotted across East London. 

With the influx of immigrants came a rise in racial violence and rhetoric – Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech and the targeted attacks that followed highlighted the city’s changing culture and demographics. For the Bengali community, Altab Ali’s murder was a turning point. Trades Council secretary, Dan Jones, recalls this period as “full of death, marches and funeral processions… I remember the massive outburst of grief and the dignified defiance by Bengali workers that followed [Altab Ali’s] murder. [But] a new generation of young cockney Bengalis was emerging, no longer prepared to cower in fear or to accept discriminatory treatment.”

Against this charged backdrop, Rahman’s parents arrived in London and began their lives as immigrants. While Rahman was born over a decade after Altab Ali’s murder and subsequent protests, those memories are ever-present in the tightly-knit Bengali community that he grew up in. Rahman revisited the photographs of the protests from the late 70s and early 80s and found himself inspired by his community’s ‘dignified defiance’. 

“We will not only collect culture, we will invest [in] and protect culture,” is a mantra that Rahman has lived by since his debut collection. Rahman’s interest in and passion for fashion may have stemmed from seeing his mother and their family friends creating garments from the trimmings and unused fabric off the factory floors. Still, it found its maturity in the collaboration he has with Aranya Crafts, a collective based in Dhaka. While working alongside these artisans, Rahman came to understand what a fashion business model rooted in equity might look like. In an interview with I-D magazine, he said, “I naturally assumed Bangladesh would be the worst place to produce sustainable clothes but what I saw with my own eyes is that it’s only the rich that aren’t sustainable. The locals even explained that when you are poor, you have no choice but to be sustainable.”

When Rahman and I spoke, we talked about his trips to Dhaka, where he has spent months at a time with the artisans at Aranya. Nawshin Khair, who heads the organization, once asked if he wanted to see something special. Naturally piqued, he was shown into a large room containing piles of fabric pieces. Khair explained that Aranya Crafts’ original founder, Rubi Ghaznavi, had held on to the byproduct and waste from textile production ever since Aranya started in the early 1980s. Rahman says, “she was waiting for technology to catch up.”

 

Amazed at what he was looking at, Rahman immediately asked if he could use some of the materials. And indeed, there is a mix of fabrics from the 80s, 90s and 00s that Rahman has incorporated into the pieces in his new collection, titled ‘Children of the Rag Trade’. Over a Google Meet video call, he pulls out a few to show me. Immediately discernable from the grainy video feed is a jacket made with different fabrics – olive green, deep mustard and earthy brown. Another piece has shades of rose and coral, some with natural dye block prints. Each panel tells its own story from its own decade. The resulting effect is a gorgeous aesthetic and narrative patchwork, paying homage to a sustainable and equitable artisan community in Dhaka and his own community’s resilience on the streets of East London.

Speaking to Rahman, it becomes very apparent very quickly that he is someone who operates at a high level of self-awareness. Working his way through the ever-present imposter syndrome that seeps into many BIPOC creatives, Rahman is open about the challenges he faced and the conversations he had with his mentor, Judith Tolley, at the Center for Fashion Enterprise, where Rahman is currently occupying an incubator space.

“At the start of the pandemic, I was ready to shut it all down,” he says. The prospect of keeping his brand going as the world was collapsing around him seemed impossible when coupled with the frustrations of being pigeon-holed by both the industry and his inner demons. “I kept asking myself – what am I doing with this brand? Why do I exist? I was also sick of being a ‘Brown’ designer. And then, my mentor explained to me that every generation has someone who needs to go through this, and while it’s frustrating and hard, there’s power in it too. Because it’s up to me to do what I can to make sure no one else has to go through what I’ve gone through.” And that, he says, was the wake-up call he needed.

“All the experiences I’ve had have brought me here where I can speak the way I do, walk into historically and predominantly white spaces and not be threatening or any of the things that make me ‘too Brown’ or ‘too white’. I can meander through like water and use it as my strength – I used to think it was my biggest weakness. The first time I went to Bangladesh, I was so nervous because I couldn’t speak proper Bengali. I grew up speaking the colloquial dialect, which my mother taught me. When I was in Dhaka, I felt like an imposter but then when I came back to London, and it was the constant question of – am I getting these opportunities because I’m Brown and they have to tick a box?”

“The imposter syndrome is very real, and it’s even more pronounced in the diaspora community – we feel alienated in every space we walk into because we dress, talk and behave differently from everyone else.”

At the Center for Fashion Enterprise, Rahman is busy working on his craft alongside fellow up-and-coming designers. He says that their focus is “redesigning the fashion business model to integrate community and social engagement.” When I ask him about his upcoming collection, he tells me he wants to launch in February, but it might end up being in March. “I’ve taken myself out of the traditional fashion cycles – I was doing two seasons and following the six-month model, but I’m not going to do that anymore,” he says, pointing to the emphasis on redesigning the business model. He wants to create a personalized experience but, more importantly, a sustainable supply chain that impacts everyone from the weaver in Dhaka to the customer, wherever they might be.

“I’m designing my website so that customers can go online and choose a shape that they want – they then choose the textile, the color, or the pattern, and everything is made to order. They become a part of the process, and I hope that they will hold on to these pieces forever. One thing I’ve seen happen over and over again is that people will purchase an item from a designer’s collection in a certain season and fall in love with it, but then that item is never made available again in the next collection. I like the idea of having staple pieces that stay constant – what changes is the textile, the materials, the patterns – which also helps when it comes to decolonization because we can engage the artisans and give them more control when it comes to the new season’s fabrics and patterns.”

A year has passed since the world began to fall apart, but Rahman is entirely focused on the present and the imminent future. With his third collection, ‘Children of the Rag Trade’, launching in March, Rahman has also chosen to engage in and work on community initiatives that focus on BIPOC youth. His experience has made him realize that visibility (or lack thereof) is only part of the reason why young people from BIPOC communities are hesitant to pursue careers in creative fields. An aspect that he has chosen to focus on is finding mentors who are relatable.

“I want these kids to see that there is a way for them to make a career and a living out of this. There are too many young people from communities like mine who end up in very white, very traditional spaces, and they don’t see themselves fitting in. Too often, you will find a young BIPOC student who is given a white mentor who doesn’t understand their journey or their struggles. I want to play a role in creating opportunities and places for them to feel seen, so they pursue their passions and their dreams instead of getting frustrated and dropping out.”

 

He speaks particularly about his own community and, by extension, the South Asian diaspora in the UK, who have remained underrepresented in many creative spaces. Rahman has realized the power in his own ability to code-switch and feel a certain sense of ownership and control in multiple spaces, regardless of geography. He now wants to use that to empower the next generation of South Asian creatives, who have their own stories to tell. Like Amar Gaon and the restauranteurs in the 70s, Rahemur Rahman creates spaces for his community and gives them a platform to forge paths of their own.

Photo by Paul Phung

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