Grace Wales Bonner’s Unapologetic Intellectualization of Menswear
Grace Wales Bonner’s Unapologetic Intellectualization of Menswear
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date July 23, 2018
Since the start of the new millennium, Western art and design structures have seen a rise in the popularity of, and opportunities for, women and artists of color. This is, in part, due to the increasing inclusivity of predominantly wealthy white academic institutions, as well as the rise of the internet and the subsequent semi-democratization of information and media. From poets like Danez Smith and Warsan Shire, to painters like Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker, to novelists and essayists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay to curators like Kimberly Drew (aka @museummammy), people from historically marginalized groups are experiencing success (if not always complete acceptance) within established institutions. However, while the aforementioned artists have brought intellect, talent, creativity and diversity—in both aesthetics and experience—to the establishment, they work within forms that have traditionally been respected as intellectually rigorous.
In contrast, fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner has risen within an industry long-perceived as superficial and frivolous. Might this be because fashion is often considered women’s work within patriarchal systems? Yes. And yet, there is also a level of truth to the critique when many of fashion’s most lauded designers avoid or dismiss social discourse altogether. While there are exceptions, such as design trio threeASFOUR and duo Abasi Rosborough, no one can claim the same combination of focused research and rapid success that Wales Bonner has exhibited in the four years since she founded her eponymous label, all the while opening new spaces for blackness, masculinity and the stories of African diasporic communities.
Born in Southeast London, Wales Bonner grew up in an international, interracial family: “I had two sides to my upbringing because my dad is Jamaican and my mother is English,” she explained to i-D in 2015. “I could always relate to this tension of living in London and being mixed-raced. I went to school in South-West London and felt this pressure to prove the black side of my heritage because I felt like it was questioned. I found growing up really informative in working out who I was and where I wanted to be.”
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Both of her parents were career-oriented; her father worked as lawyer and her mother as a business consultant. After they divorced, Wales Bonner moved between her mother’s house in Dulwich and her father’s in Stockwell, and her bus trips between school and her parents’ neighborhoods allowed her to study the diverse styles of her fellow Londoners. Her older sister attended Cambridge, and Wales Bonner also excelled in her studies. “My father definitely drilled it into us that education was the way. He was born in London, the youngest of a family who’d come from Jamaica in the Windrush Generation,” she told The Gentlewoman in 2016.
Growing up, Wales Bonner didn’t immediately see a career in fashion design. She was mainly interested in visual culture and the ways in which people represent their cultural heritages and identities through clothes. As she approached university age, she was torn between studying art, history and design. She eventually decided to enroll in the fashion program at Central Saint Martins in 2009 as a way to continue exploring her interest in cultural identity while collaborating with friends and artists working in an array of forms. From the time Wales Bonner entered university, black Caribbean intellectuals, artists, and post-colonial theorists informed her work, including a number of whom her father encouraged her to read, such as poets Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott and postcolonial theorists Édouard Glissant and Frantz Fanon.
In her final year of study, Wales Bonner chose to accompany her thesis collection with a written component, despite there being no requirement: “I wrote a 10,000-word dissertation this year on the turning point in black expression around the late-’60s, early-’70s,” she explained to DIS in 2014. “This idea of taking ownership of your representation, working inside established frames of reference to create something new. It was about real people taking out cameras and turning them on themselves and being like, ‘this is me, this is what Africa is—it’s not what you want Africa to be.’” The collection, entitled “Afrique,” was influenced by the extravagant style of ’70s Lagos and featured predominantly West African models; it also garnered Wales Bonner the L’Oréal Professional Designer of the Year award, for which she beat out 39 other finalists who showed their collections at Central Saint Martins’ graduate fashion show.
In 2014, just six months after graduating, Wales Bonner debuted her eponymous label with her Fall/Winter 2015 “Ebonics” collection at Fashion East’s LC:M alumni show, that brought together ’70s silhouettes—such as bell bottoms paired with slim shawl collar sport coats and track jackets—with deeply textured fabrics—including velour and pinstriped denim—and featured embroidered pants and bejeweled headdresses that mixed cowry shells and Swarovski crystals: “The cowry shells [an old form of currency in Nigeria] and Swarovski crystals together is interesting because it’s showing different ideas of wealth—that’s quite a signature thing for me. It’s about the relationship between two things,” Wales Bonner explained to Matches Fashion.
Wales Bonner’s rumination on currency isn’t the only example of her post-colonial, scholarly approach to design; she spends dedicated time researching and reading before designing each collection, as shown by the inclusion of a “Further Reading” section on her website that lists the influences for each season. “Ebonics” is accompanied by the “Afrique Vol. 1 Mix” by Finn Diesel, original photographs by recurring collaborator Harley Weir, a reading list that features renowned black American writers such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, as well as an artist statement that positions the collection as “a riff on exoticism—echoing through the ballrooms of the Harlem Renaissance […] that unravels elements of formalwear with a rhythm disturbed by bejeweled femininity.”
Weir’s images for “Ebonics” are from a trip he and Wales Bonner took to Dakar, Senegal, with Julia Sarr-Jamois, the senior fashion editor of i-D, to collaborate on photographs and videos of local wrestlers wearing pieces from the collection mixed with their own clothes. According to i-D, the trip helped inspire Wales Bonner to create her Spring/Summer 2016 “Malik” collection, centered on the story of Malik Ambar who was sold as a slave when still a child in the 16th century: “An exhibition I saw in Harlem a couple of years ago was the inspiration; it was basically about Africans in India in and around the 16th century. […] Because I’d come back from Senegal, I was noticing contemporary mirroring as well in the cross-over in terms of music and film references that are explored in different ways but have a running thread through them,” Wales Bonner recounted to Interview Magazine.
In November 2015, Wales Bonner was awarded Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards, and the following June she won the LVMH Prize at only 25 years old. “My interest in black culture and the representation of black people is central to my work,” Wales Bonner explained to Numéro at the 2016 LVMH prize ceremony: “The reason I started doing fashion is probably because I didn’t feel that representations of black people had any relation to my own life. I wanted to show an image of beauty, dignity and sophistication that I haven’t found elsewhere. I felt the need to create these images of young, sexy, virile black men who feel good about themselves.”
Since winning the LVMH prize, Wales Bonner has continued her intersectional, interdisciplinary approach to fashion, while gaining a cult following among women, in particular (she recently launched her first womenswear capsule collection for Fall/Winter 2018). “I think it’s really important to nurture everything I am interested in. Writing, collages, making clothes and creating this world, even if it’s just for me personally and not publicized,” she explained to i-D. Her community of collaborators includes musicians Dev Hynes and Sampha, photographer Weir, and painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who wrote a poem for one of her shows. In 2017, she released an 11-minute film, “Practice”, in collaboration with Weir and Hynes that focuses on Leroy Mokgatle, a 17 year old ballet dancer from Pretoria, South Africa. The film, which, at one point, features Mokgatle gracefully pole dancing in a strip club, is just another example of Wales Bonner’s dedication to exploring and propagating more complex and inclusive representations of black masculinity.
Wales Bonner’s most recent collection, Fall/Winter 2018’s “Des Hommes et des Dieux,” takes its name from a 2002 documentary by Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire on homosexuality within the voodoo religion in Haiti and, according its “Further Reading” section: “[…] explores an expression of creole aesthetics, informed by French Caribbean philosophy and the notion of créolité—an active process of forming identity.” These themes manifest as naval-inspired details and garments, such as sailor collars and pea coats in a predominantly navy, white and yellow color palette expressed through the designer’s go-to silhouettes (flared pants and cropped jackets). Wales Bonner enlisted visual artist Eric N. Mack to create the backdrop for her runway show and an installation at Totokaelo, photographer Jamie Stocker to shoot show imagery and collaborated with filmmaker Jordan Hemingway and composer and producer James William Blades on a short film, Finding Saint, that follows—and was partially shot by—three of the show’s models, Tevin Steele, Jordanne Wellington and Jermaine Downer, “[…] as they reflect on faith, beauty and their experience of travelling from home to participate in Des Hommes et des Dieux.”
Finding Saint is just the latest example of Wales Bonner’s interest in the documentation and self-representation of, and for, individuals and communities of color, in particular young African and Afro-Caribbean men. And, while Wales Bonner wants her garments to stand alone, they rely so heavily on research and the artistic depiction of communities that her process might be called Documentary Fashion (à la Documentary Poetry) which it mixes in-depth research with documentary modes, poetic techniques and personal narratives; in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see black documentary poets such as M. NourbeSe Philip, Claudia Rankine and Patricia Smith, appear on one of her future reading lists.
Although Wales Bonner may not be as politically vocal as the aforementioned writers, or even many of her stated influences, her highly intellectual approach to fashion is socio-politically significant not only for its complex representations of men of color, but also for how it casually rejects the ways in which black (and women) artists have been dismissed as “primitive” by white supremacist (and misogynist) individuals and systems for centuries. Regarding her “Ebonics” collection, she told DIS magazine: “I wasn’t trying to be political or address racism either; it was more about my research. I was looking at these boys in Africa in the ’70s and they’re all dark and the whole thing was about performance and blackness. If I was looking at Basquiat and Kerry James Marshall, they paint their figures pitch black. They’re very unapologetic about how they present blackness.” By looking toward African, Caribbean and black American influences instead of the white European canon that has long dominated the Western art and design worlds, Wales Bonner is creating space and inspiration for a new generation to feel unapologetically black.