Grace Wales Bonner: designing the diaspora

Meet one of Britain’s brightest new talents, the English-Jamaican menswear star exploring the space between European luxury and black identity

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Grace Wales Bonner Dazed interview Fashion East AW15 CSM
Grace Wales Bonner SS15 lookbookPhotography Dexter Lander, set design Clementine Keith-Roach

When Grace Wales Bonner’s BA collection – where decadent pink mohair, cream bouclé suits, high-waisted flares and jewelled cuffs were styled on a team of striking black male models – burst onto the Central Saint Martins graduate show runway, industry attendees sat up a little straighter in their seats. Her designs took their cue from black visual culture and critical theory, subverting both constructs of masculinity and the hallmarks of privilege that define European luxury fashion. For Wales Bonner, born in south-east London to an English mother and Jamaican father, fashion constitutes a vessel for her own self-exploration. “My identity lies between the two different cultures,” she explains. “With the collection it was about exploring the space between European ideals of opulence, elegance, and then something very real, very directly African.”

The collection saw her crowned winner of the L’Oreal Professionnel Designer of the Year Award, selected for Dazed’s curated pick of CSM’s most promising graduates, and now chosen as a new name on the talent-heavy line-up at Fashion East men’s presentation at LC:M next week. “It’s been pretty mad,” the 23-year-old says of the last year, “but it has been great, seeing things come together and for people to understand my work.” Ahead of next week’s collection debut, Wales Bonner reflects on the year that’s been and what we can expect from AW15.

Why is black culture such a strong point of reference for you?

Grace Wales Bonner: I am drawn to black culture as a way of understanding that side of my heritage, and interested in how black identity is manifested through rhythms, how something like jazz can disrupt conventional European rhythmicality. I am hugely inspired by the black painter Kerry James Marshall and the 70s genre blaxploitation, both play with and disturb institutionalised notions of blackness.

Are there specific references in blaxploitation that influence your work?

Grace Wales Bonner: Melvin Van Peebles’ film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song stands out. It was the first film of its genre and it is all about ‘sticking it to the man’, going against the odds to fight the system and take ownership of one’s own representation. The director himself received no industry support in making the film, yet he completely took ownership of how he wanted black people to be perceived. His characters are strong, empowered, hyper-black. I was drawn to that idea of performing blackness, owning identity in an unapologetic way. That was the influence I took from it.

What role does casting play in representing your work?

Grace Wales Bonner: The models I work with are an integral part of the process. Some were from Sierra Leone, others from Nigeria and Ghana, and lots of them were English but had parents from these places. They have experienced that duality in cultural reference and so became not just models but part of the story. I developed the collection through them – hearing their feedback, how they would wear it, what they thought about it. I fit the models at four stages in the process and a lot will develop during those times. For me, this just illustrates how important real people are to the story.

Your clothes have also been shot on children, what was the thinking behind this?

Grace Wales Bonner: This editorial was about representing my designs in a different, more light-hearted way. Though black identity is central to my work, it is also about so many other things – I don’t want it to be pigeonholed in any way. I am always going to play with representation; there is no prescribed way of showing the clothes. The kids responded to the clothes in a different way, taking them somewhere else, making them something different. I find it exciting to see the clothes in a different way. Women have bought the clothes – I’m really open to that.

Have you ever been tempted to move into womenswear?

Grace Wales Bonner: I actually started off doing womenswear, but since I started designing for men I found I could use my designs as a vessel to explore my heritage, as I felt somehow distanced from it. I also think there is so much more you can do with menswear at the moment, there is still so much to explore.

“I was drawn to that idea of performing blackness, owning identity in an unapologetic way” – Grace Wales Bonner

Where do you intend to take this exploration next?

Grace Wales Bonner: I think the exploration of black identity and culture is a subject I am going to keep exploring through my work. My points of reference continue to adapt and I am trying to be a bit more subtle in how I am communicating some of these ideas. I have tried to mix couture techniques with specific African crafts and that is definitely something I am developing more this season – trying to make a hybrid between different techniques.

What can we expect to see from your designs at Fashion East AW15?

Grace Wales Bonner: This work will be in a similar vein to my previous collection, but not restricted to that world entirely. It explores my initial ideas more deeply, pushing hem further than I have done before. As a designer I would love to make each collection build on the last, creating a story in which each collection relates to each other and is expressed in some narrative order.

Anything else to look forward to for 2015?

Grace Wales Bonner: I was working into the new year, which was quite intense but it feels good entering the year having already worked hard. I have lots of exciting projects I can’t really talk about yet. It’s really important for me to collaborate with people I respect. So next year I will be looking to continue that – working with artists, thinkers, photographers that inspire me. I am really looking forward to the year ahead.

On the Rise is a new monthly column taking a closer look at some of fashion’s most promising new talents. Revisit this page to keep up with the latest features

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