The grand halls of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have played host to plenty of the world’s most agenda-setting fashion exhibitions over the years—but none quite like this year’s blockbuster “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear.” With a timeline that includes the full sweep of Western civilization (and far beyond), the show draws links between the past and menswear’s liberated present through a wildly inventive design scheme that revels in the curiosities and contradictions of men’s clothing across the centuries.
While the idea for the exhibition was first germinated by curators by Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever almost a decade ago, another collaborator helped bring their vision to life: the buzzy 33-year-old architect Jayden Ali, whose firm, J.A. Projects, was tapped to design the show in 2020. “The curators work on the show for so many years, and then somebody comes in who is going to have such a big impact on what it looks and feels like, so it can be quite a risky and vulnerable moment,” Ali says.
An important part of J.A. Projects is how interdisciplinary the team is and that you give everyone a day off a week to continue their creative pursuits outside architecture. What about that approach has proven fruitful for you?
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Because a lot of people deem that to be relatively radical, but I just think it’s a contemporary way of working. I think I just know the value of wearing multiple hats; I know the value of writing and trying to formulate thoughts in a slightly different space and how that can then influence your other work. And I think that is really important in architecture, mainly because it takes so long to produce anything. You can’t capture a musing in the way that you can with a poem or a radio show or a short film or a visual essay, so you have to engage with these types of media too. The city is built upon a combination of the material and the immaterial. All of the social fabric that exists to allow our cities to run, our political systems, our financial systems, all come from modes of belief—these collective imaginaries that allow things to get built and be financed. But you can’t grasp that stuff physically. I think what we’re seeking to do is to manage and manipulate all of the intangible bits of the city and marry them with the tangible or the physical. And I think you need space and time to do that. So it’s really important that people carve time outside of that to explore things that are interesting to them. What’s really important to you? How the hell are you making sense of the world you’ve inherited? How are you processing that in order to project some alternative future? Where are the overlaps of what we’re doing here? Can we bring this together somehow?
J.A. Projects has obviously grown extremely rapidly. Is there an end goal in mind or a sweet spot in terms of size and working rhythm that would feel right to you?
Everyone at a senior level tells me no, it is just this for the rest of your life now and you have to get on with it. [Laughs.] But I do think it would be good to have a few more people. We have 10 people at the moment, which is a lot for me to manage while also trying to retain some creative juice. You either want to be a bit smaller, which puts you in the kind of perilous world of really small fees, which makes it very difficult to stay that size, or you want to be a little bit bigger, which allows you to have a secondary level of management or at least have an associate—someone who’s quite senior and can also run things. I think we should be 12 to 15, dependent on work. I think it would liberate me again to do the stuff that I’m good at. But I’m really thankful for the team because they are getting better every single day. In a new practice, I think it’s really important to incubate a culture. I talk a lot about culture, and it has different meanings in different settings, but I don’t think architecture is just about architecture. I think architecture is about the process of making, and you need time with people to do that. I’m really happy for the time that we’ve had because everyone in the practice has been contributing to the way in which we work over the past two, two-and-a-half years. It’s been a steep learning curve for me and a steep learning curve for them, but I hope they’re proud of the direction we’re going in. We seem to be able to work on projects that we love, in places that inspire us, and with people that inspire us all the time. So long may that continue.
Finally, you’re deep in preparation for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale next year. How much can you tell me about what you have planned?
I can’t necessarily say too much about Venice because the British Council will kill me. [Laughs.] But I suppose the backstory is that we’re a group of friends that decided to bid for it together, and I think that’s very different from a professionally put-together team trying to work things out along the way. We are genuinely concerned with and moved by the same things and have the same motivations, which is to address the duality of social justice and climate justice that is so important to our cities and the world in which we operate. We all exist in museums or the cultural sphere, and we’re concerned with how the objects in institutions are displayed and the narratives that are celebrated within them. We’re interested in switching things up and ruffling feathers and making sure it’s not business as usual.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.