“As designers and artists, we want to dress future generations to feel safe going out into the world,” say Nuba co-creative directors Cameron Williams and Jebi Labembika
Shortly after graduating from Central Saint Martins’ MA (Menswear) program in 2020, designer Cameron Williams launched his clothing label Nuba with “the intention of shifting perspectives of how people perceive nuances in culture and the experience of growing up in a foreign environment”. With a deft hand for tailoring, Williams challenges classical ideas of elegance. “By bringing in these different cultural elements from our parents, our mothers, I wanted to add a uniqueness to the idea of elegance and redefine what that means in a luxury setting,” he explains. Now, Williams’ long-time friend and creative collaborator Jebi Labembika joins Nuba as co-creative director, helping to weave the ideas that underpin the label into fresh narratives.
Williams and Labembika have long shared a desire to cultivate a new understanding of the space in which they grew up, “as the sons of mothers of Afro-Caribbean and West African culture. As two men in the city who had to escape from a very intense stereotype of the trajectory we were expected to follow,” says Labembika. Their first official collection together, Escape, is conceptualised as the starting point of a young person’s journey to make sense of these inherited cultural influences and those of their adopted environment – and then define how they posit themselves between these worlds. The beautifully tailored garments read as geography, a map of the self as it navigates codes of assimilation within diverse social realms.
With a simple palette of oranges, blues, blacks, and whites, Williams explains that within the collection “there’s a real stripping back of cultural references in a way that’s mature, that allows this youthful body approaching a stage of maturity and confidence to have space to grow into this balance of worlds”. In many ways, the palpable textures of the British felted wool and crumpled nylons chart the diverse cultural and social meridians that run through the body protected beneath.
Drawing inspiration from the men and women of south London who layer their heritage with cultural symbols of London – a puffer jacket worn over traditional dress, an M&S bag in tow – the designers craft Nuba’s singular silhouettes through a meticulous draping of garments. The layering, as well as the hidden pockets and fastenings, were devised as a form of protection of oneself from the pressures of societal stereotypes. “My mum used to always say protection is currency,” explains Labembika, “we are deeply exposed – through social media and various world events – so we want to take that power back. As designers and artists, we want to dress future generations to feel safe going out into the world.”
For their lookbook, Williams and Labembika collaborated with South African photographer Jessica Madavo to capture “this idea of a journey. Of movement. Of adapting to a city. Of clothes as geography.” Against the distinctive background of the city of London, Madavo’s photographs map out the dynamism of the two models’ journeys; the single frame shots allowing each to communicate their own story through the clothes. “There is a sense that they are brothers, but each photograph is of a single model which goes back to this idea of confidence to go on such a journey by himself,” says Williams of the shoot.
As Nuba expands in new directions, Williams reiterates that the label’s story is not limited to their personal experience – it speaks to anyone who finds themselves “within those spaces where you need to find your own position, your own nuances and form your own presentation of yourself.” Escape, especially, is about “the juxtaposition of youthfulness and the maturity of tailoring to define a new sort of elegance for the youth with an injection of culture.” “The collection is really for anyone who feels like they need to escape from whatever reality or culture they find themselves in,” adds Labembika. “And to tell their own story.”