A conversation with Harris Elliott, one of the curators behind The Missing Thread, Somerset House’s blockbuster exhibition on Black British fashion
As a seasoned curator, Harris Elliott is well aware that staging an exhibition typically means pouring months – sometimes years – of work into something that is ultimately transient. Still, when The Missing Thread, the show he helped mastermind for Somerset House last autumn, shut up shop in early January, it was an especially poignant moment. A retrospective of Black British fashion, the landmark exhibition sought to pay overdue homage to the unsung trailblazers who shaped the industry, from tailor Charlie Allen to photographer Eileen Perrier. Most memorably, it offered the first public showing of work by the late Joe Casely-Hayford, a pioneering yet overlooked design star. “It’s kind of sad that it’s over,” he tells me a couple days after its close. “The amount of joy and love that people were coming out with […] It’s been overwhelming.”
Opening a few days before the start of Black History Month, The Missing Thread marked the first outing of Elliott’s Black Oriented Legacy Development (or BOLD) Agency, which he set up in partnership with co-curators Andrew Ibi and Jason Jules. The organisation seeks to advocate for change behind the scenes and taps into Elliott’s years working across all aspects of the fashion and creative industries since the late 1990s. That varied career of ‘visual storytelling’ has included everything from styling big-name musicians, designing headdresses for Judy Blame, collaborating with Puma on their London Olympics campaign and lecturing at the Royal College of Art. The relationship with Somerset House, as it happens, goes back a decade, when Elliot and photographer Dean Chalkey staged a tribute to Jamaican Rudeboy style back in 2014, landing international press coverage and unprecedented footfall.
If that first exhibition for Somerset House uncovered a genuine appetite for Black narratives in British museums, the second has felt like a turning point – not just in the sorts of stories that are given space in our cultural institutions, but in the course of British fashion history. It feels like a disservice to describe The Missing Thread as an exhibition – it went beyond presenting, appearing to viewers more like an immersive art installation. Icons from the past were enriched with contextual staging, or specially commissioned response pieces – curators took the connections further with guided tours. That’s perhaps its greatest feat – connecting previously missing threads to the present: highlighting today’s Black British design starts alongside their forebears, reigniting the discussion around inclusivity, even birthing a scholarship in Casely-Hayford’s name.
On the back of the project’s resounding success, Elliott chats to PORT about its making and the indelible legacy it leaves behind.
It feels like there’s been a real explosion of exhibitions centring Black art and narratives – but only in the past few years. How did your first show, Return of the Rudeboy, come about? What was it like putting it together in the context of 2014?
That was all down to the former director of Somerset House, Gwyn Miles. Dean and I created a PDF and a hard-bound book of some of the images that we’d shot so far and sent it to Gwyn. She invited us for a meeting in around October or November , and as we went in to sit down to talk to her, she basically said: ‘What are you doing in July next year?’ It was a really surreal moment. We’d shown it to quite a few people already and there was a lack of understanding and a reticence. She just got it before we even arrived.
Obviously, loads of places like Autograph have had small exhibitions [of Black artists] for years, but Return of the Rudeboy felt like a bit of a revolution. The next show that I saw come through that even had any reference was Soul of A Nation [at Tate Modern], which was obviously a very different narrative and dealing with civil rights era in the States. But there wasn’t anything like Rudeboy at the time. Even now, there’s a tonne of exhibitions where people are referencing different Black narratives or narratives from the African diaspora in different ways, but I feel like The Missing Thread has come in and punctured again – because this story has never been told before.
How did you come up with the idea for The Missing Thread?
So, it was three years in the making. It was the murder of George Floyd that became the ignition – although Andrew and I had been looking to create an exhibition for from the African diaspora probably about three, four years before that. In 2020, people were obviously having loads of conversations about race and the fashion industry was calling people together to start discussing what could be done. Off the back of that, Andrew rang me and said: ‘That idea that we’ve been talking about? I feel like now is the time to bring it together.’
Where do you begin with curating an exhibition like this – especially when there’s so much history that’s been forgotten?
We knew that because the story had never been told before, we had to create a context for it to exist within and that we needed a timeline. The exhibition started in the 70s, and we were thinking: what it was like living in Britain as a Black person at that time, and in the 80s and 90s? We were adamant at the beginning that we needed to talk about it through the lens of art as well as social discourse, and in terms of what people had to navigate in order to be able to create. It was the context that really gave it life.
The staging for the exhibition was unlike anything I’ve seen – just incredibly immersive and warm and accessible. What was the thinking behind it?
I knew that I wanted to design the spaces to feel like an installation piece. From doing Return of the Rudeboy, creating the barbershop really was a pivotal moment of allowing the audience to come in and engage, and having that soundscape to soften the edge of that museum-gallery experience. And while speaking to Maria Casely-Hayford, she always said that we need to treat it like a piece of theatre to be able to immerse people and that just stayed with me.
As we were creating the timeline, it made sense that we would create a journey, and each room had to tell a different narrative that linked with Home, with Tailoring, with Nightlife, with Performance. With Tailoring, for example, the idea for that came from an interview that I did with Charlie Allen, who explained how the racism on the design floor that he worked on was so bad that every morning that he got into the lift, he would recite Psalm 23. We created Tailoring like a church, with a veil over the space that the psalm and also spoke to the importance of church, religion and faith to the Black community.
The Missing Thread marked the first real exhibition of Casely-Hayford’s work. What is it about him and his designs that you felt was so important to highlight?
When I first came across Joe’s work, it was akin to what I would see from Helmut Lang or Comme des Garcons, but it happened to be a Black man. It just really spoke to me and so many others. He had kind of an unconventional approach. There’s a term that Maria used in one of our conversations: he had a form of ‘elegant anarchy’. There was a disruptive way in which Joe would work – but not to destabilise, but to cause us to rethink about what it is that we’re looking at.
Were there any artists or designers whose work you were particularly excited to share with the younger generation?
Charlie Philips. Charlie has been quietly taking pictures and documenting culture for over 50 years, and it’s only in the last five to ten years that people have started to know his work. This is someone who’s probably in his 80s who’s started to get his flowers and the industry’s started to wake up to his work. To be able to recognise and celebrate some of our elders – people like him, Pogus Caeser, Hassan Hijaj – that was just really powerful.
And then the other person that was really pivotal to me was Faisal Abdul Allah. There’s a piece that he’s got printed onto metal that was in Home and I remember distinctly seeing that when he graduated in ’93 as part of his graduation show that he exhibited externally. It was a picture of this group of rappers called Scientists of Sound and the piece was called ‘I Wanna Kill Sam Because He Ain’t My Motherfucking Uncle’. Those images have stayed with me for the past few decades and to be able to have that in an exhibition – something that had a pivotal imprint on me – feels like a good 360.
Were there any that you were discovering for the first time?
I’d never come across Eileen Perrier before. We’d always decided that as three male curators we needed to have really prominent female voices, and so to find Eileen’s work and have her photograph be our headline image, that felt so powerful and resonant with the narrative that we wanted to put across.
What do you hope the legacy of The Missing Thread will be?
The legacy has already started. As a result of the exhibition, we pushed to create a scholarship with the British Fashion Council [in Joe Casely-Hayford’s name]. That’s been launched, and a designer called Taya Francis, who’s doing her MA in Nottingham, was the first recipient.
For me, from the beginning, it was always about education. If young people going through can see the exhibition and it have an impact on how they think about themselves and they can see how involvement has been instrumental to how Britain presents itself to the world, through design and music and culture, I feel like that’s really what the legacy is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.