He was the product of a prominent family whose decidedly punk-rock sensibilities made him a pioneer in menswear. British designer Joe Casely-Hayford succumbed to a three-year-long battle with cancer on Thursday, at age 62.
The grandson of acclaimed Ghanaian author, politician and pan-African nationalist J.E. Casely Hayford (Ethiopia Unbound), Casely-Hayford initially rose to prominence in the late-1970s with his deconstructed takes on bespoke tailoring, using his Savile Row training to bring a subversive new energy to men’s clothing.
“He was the first London designer to bring the cultural mix and energy of the East End together with the amazing skills of a Savile Row tailor,” fashion journalist Sarah Mower told British Vogue.
Worn by rock stars and honored by royalty with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) title for services to the fashion industry in 2007, Casely-Hayford helped to define London style on a global level for multiple generations. His first label, Kit, launched in 1984 with rakish redesigns of military surplus garments. After a stint as creative director of bespoke men’s brand Gieves and Hawkes, Kit was relaunched in 2009 as the hugely successful Casely-Hayford, with son Charlie joining his father as the label’s co-collaborator. (Notably, the two also shared the same May 24 birthday, exactly two decades apart.)
Writing Casely-Hayford’s obituary for Vogue, fashion journalist Luke Leitch recounted a conversation he’d had with the designer, in which he reflected on his unexpected influences.
“As a black kid in Britain, I was on the outside looking in, initially,” Casely-Hayford recalled. “So I remember being chased down the King’s Road by rockers—and then a few years later, I was being chased up it again, but by skinheads. But I’ve always been fascinated by English society.”
“We come from the same time,” said Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. “Joe was a talented pioneer, filled with integrity, and the first of his kind: a black designer who represented London on the world stage.”
In a 2011 interview with The Fader, Casely-Hayford delved deeper into his lineage and legacy, which arguably helped birth the aesthetic we now fondly know as “Afro-punk.”
My grandfather, he wrote a book called Ethiopia Unbound, which was probably one of the first books to be published by a black African in English. It was about the idea of duality and double-consciousness, what W.E.B Du Bois talked about, that when you’re black you’re never just one identity; you’re aware of both yourself and how you’re viewed by the majority at all times. My grandfather wore Kente cloth to study at Cambridge, and Savile Row to visit family in Ghana. He didn’t make clothes, but what he wore was political. He was very much interested in the idea of African emancipation and black people thinking in much broader terms than they had been allowed to.
I was always classified as a “black designer,” so I had to struggle to work against that. I was into punk. I made clothes for The Clash. There weren’t African elements in my clothes until later in my career, even though people always expected them. I wanted to be seen as “the designer.” I just felt the idea of hip-hop culture being the focal point of black identity was something quite narrow, and that there should be other diverse elements. ... Our newest collection could be British, it could be African, it could be Bedouin. And that’s the point.
In addition to his own incredible success, Casely-Hayford’s family is considered one of the most influential in England, with a creative impact felt worldwide. Daughter Alice is digital editor of British Vogue, sister Margaret chairs the board of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and brother Peter is a film producer. Second brother Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, also an OBE, is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (not to be confused with the more recently opened “Blacksonian”).
“We will be remembering [Joe] as a great creative forerunner of the new generation of multi-cultural designers, and the founding father of a wonderful, clever and intellectual British-Ghanaian family,” said Mower. But along with his impressive family, Casely-Hayford is survived by his incredible and innovative legacy.
“Joe was a lovely man as well as a consistently inventive designer,” Dylan Jones, editor-in-chief of GQ, told The Guardian. “He was one of the mainstays of the industry in the ‘80s, and was an inspiration to a whole generation of young designers. His name was also one of the first British brands to gain genuine global recognition. He will be greatly missed.”