To say Grace Wales Bonner is fond of research is to put it mildly. The 30-year-old designer’s collections for Wales Bonner, the label she launched in 2014 after graduating from Central Saint Martins, are steeped in academic deep dives that cast an incandescent light on Black men: their history, identity, sexuality, and power.
Her collections, which are anchored in traditional English tailoring and have expanded into women’s wear, have been informed by such source material as the 1930 crowning of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia, Cuban mambo culture gleaned from the writings of Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, and, for her most recent outing for winter 2021, the book Black Oxford (which details the history of Black scholars at the famous university) and the words of Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. Fashion critics have remarked that the dense press notes that accompany Wales Bonner fashion shows can be rather dissertation-like.
The daughter of a white English mother, who works as a business consultant, and a Black father of Jamaican descent who is a lawyer, Wales Bonner grew up in South London. Her parents separated when she was young, but politics, literature—particularly that of the West Indies—and education were part of the fabric of both her parents’ households.
“I’m definitely interested in history and honoring the kinds of lineage and legacy that that has allowed me to create,” Wales Bonner says by phone from her North London home during London’s third pandemic lockdown.
Bonner has been shuttling between her flat and her studio of the last three years, on the Strand at number 180, a historic Brutalist building that has become a hub of creative studios. With travel impossible both internationally and locally due to Covid restrictions, shooting the designer’s atelier was not in the cards.
And anyway, Wales Bonner is resolutely private about her space. The photographs accompanying this piece were a creative compromise shot by her friend Ruth Ossai.
One might imagine the workplace of this Zadie Smith of the fashion world as being like that of a tenured academic, heaving with papers and ephemera gathered in far-off places. Not quite.
“I like a minimal environment, like white walls and something clear, to give me some headspace,” she says, noting that there is a library in the studio. “I’m surrounded by books.”
There’s the collection of 1980s yearbooks from Howard University that were part of the research for her 2019 exhibition “A Time for New Dreams” at London’s Serpentine Gallery, a multisensory installation on mysticism and ritual in Black Atlantic culture. Collaborators on the project included Rashid Johnson, Liz Johnson Artur, Kapwani Kiwanga, Laraaji, Eric N. Mack, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose portraiture also hangs in Wales Bonner’s studio alongside work by Samuel Fosso. She keeps an archive of things collected from travels to Ghana and India, as well as a record player. Music has featured prominently in past lineups, including “Lovers Rock,” her fall 2020 show celebrating the British Afro-Caribbean music scene born at London house parties in the ’70s. It was also recently captured in Steve McQueen’s film of the same name, the second in his Small Axe series.
It is not unusual for designers to glean ideas from music, art, and various arcana when crafting their mood boards and press releases or delivering sound bites to journalists, but Wales Bonner manages to weave her references into the clothes in a way that is, if not literal, palpable.
Sepuya, who is known for his pictures of queer and Black subjects, sees Wales Bonner’s work as “keeping Blackness as a center of the research and the history, but allowing it to move in ways that aren’t necessarily typical, or what might be expected by mainstream culture.” As a former student of the history of menswear—and someone who likes clothes—he was struck by her storytelling. “The thing that stood out was that this isn’t just fun clothes. There’s something more behind this,” he says.
A critical darling from the get-go, she was awarded the 2016 LVMH prize by a jury that included such fashion luminaries as Phoebe Philo, Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci, and Karl Lagerfeld. Before she introduced proper women’s wear into her collections, retailers, including Matchesfashion.com, were buying the men’s collection and offering it with their women’s assortments.
As much as Wales Bonner is interested in illustrating Black identity through its history of improvisation and creativity, she grasps the importance of designing seductive clothes that just look great.
“I have my own process of designing, which is research-based and involves exploring identity and representation,” she says. “But I also want to create things that are beautiful and stand alone without the context.”
There’s a retro ’70s and ’80s sportiness throughout her work, the tailoring soft and elegant; it skews preppy/collegiate at times, regal at others. Traditional British sophistication is offset by flourishes from the diasporic side of her work, such as oxford shirt dashikis and woodblock prints. For her last collection she worked on a tuxedo with the Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard (Fran Lebowitz’s custom tailor of choice). For the past few seasons, Wales Bonner has deftly integrated her successful ongoing collaboration with Adidas Originals with her runway collections.
Rather than chase an edgy streetwear cash grab, as many of Adidas’s other design collaborators have done, Wales Bonner has mined the nostalgic side of old-school soccer kits and tracksuits, working in a richly vibrant retro palette and a tailored finish.
“As a period, the ’70s feels like a time when men had more license to be expressive in how they wore clothing,” she says. “I feel sometimes things have become more conservative since then, so I’m connecting to that freedom in a way.”
In a very short time Wales Bonner, one of a handful of young women designing for men, has caught the attention of all the major players in the fashion game: LVMH, Adidas, even Dior, whose creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, commissioned her to design a Bar jacket and New Look skirt for the brand’s 2020 cruise collection.
This kind of recognition has earned her white male peers top jobs at heritage luxury fashion houses, jobs that have gone to conspicuously few women—and no women of color. The powers that be would be wise to do more than watch Wales Bonner.
This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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