Not long ago, London menswear was most associated with a veritable line-up of dusty old Savile Row brands, prone to overusing words like ‘heritage’ and ‘Britishness’. (Even David Beckham, always slightly late to the party, was at it yesterday during his own presentation of khaki hunting garb.) Thank god for Grace Wales Bonner, then, who could make even the most myopic UKIP voter realise that right now ‘Britishness’ is as colourful as ever and informed by the melting pot of cultures, migrants and dialects that live together in this very fashion capital.
The Wales Bonner show brought a spiritualism to the streets and, as always, drew on the designer’s own experiences as a mixed-race girl brought up in south London – as well as the time she spent at the Josef Albers Foundation in Senegal last year. “It was about the return of these spiritual characters who have existed in the Wales Bonner language before,” she explained of her departure from sparkling, princely figures. “It was about making them the heroes and looking at the street in an elevated way – and looking at it at different time periods. It was about bringing this sense of richness and depth to street language.” The set at the art deco Royal Institute of British Architects was giant a black cube of Notting Hill Carnival sound systems, chosen because of the way they transform a public space with the power of word and sound.
“It was about bringing this sense of richness and depth to street language” – Grace Wales Bonner
As for the clothes, medievalism could be felt in the crystal-strewn velvet doublet and breeches, more slender than any of those Renaissance men, yet less baroque than the designer’s previous Swarovski renditions. Patchwork leather trousers and jeans looked like they were straight off the streets of Dakar. There were also slinky long-sleeved t-shirts completely covered in a checkerboard of Masai beading, with exaggerated sleeves spliced open; leather jackets trimmed with Dalmatian-intarsia mink; and neatly tailored zip-up silk tracksuits, all worn with Manolo Blahnik interpretations of African sandals and patchwork boots. One of the most incredible looks was a houndstooth wool polo and trousers, worn with a shrunken duffel coat on top and matching baker boy cap. Stephen Jones created leather Rasta caps with white mink stripes and leather patchwork, grey wool Pashtun caps with Medieval flounces of fabric, and trailing, almost monastic do-rags.
Emitted from the speakers were the spoken words of Elysia Crampton and a composition by fellow south Londoner Sampha, who collaborated with the Central Saint Martins graduate. “Hearing his musical take on what I’d shown him made me push it further,” she said of his moody harmony which reiterated the words “You’re Free”. In the audience sat Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the painter who wrote a poem for the designer, and who Wales Bonner said made her think about the character more deeply and bravely.
Two specific sections of the show, however, really resonated. The first was a section of all-white looks, which Wales Bonner said was inspired by street preachers in white linen and white-clad children in the Middle Ages collecting vanities. Up until this point, the models raced around the sound system with a sense of urban urgency, their bodies more or less at a slant as they walked in circles. Then, stillness. Out came the “new spirituals” in pristine white tailoring and gloves, draped in humble linen and walking at a slow, reflective pace. The designer explained this section as the “street preachers” – inspired by Renaissance friars, who were missionaries who sought to convert the laity, as well as Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Something about those looks radiated with strength and calmness – and even to the most cynical atheist, a sense of heartfelt spirituality.
“Something about those looks radiated with strength and calmness – and even to the most cynical atheist, a sense of heartfelt spirituality”
What also provoked thought was a section of looks that felt so real, as though they could have been plucked from a market stall or a Senegalese wardrobe. It takes a highly developed skillset to achieve that kind of look without it looking remotely contrived. Backstage, a giant silk print showing a few men on the streets of Dakar was hung on the wall for all to see. It was a photograph taken by Patrick Cariou in 2002 and “the biggest inspiration for the collection”. The image’s presence could be felt in the crinkled shirts worn with the top buttons open, slouchy two-piece tailoring and crushed velvet ties. The designer said the time she spent in Senegal, upon reflection, has helped her imbue her work with a sense of ‘realness’ – a sensibility that connects the Barbès in Paris to the streets of Dakar, and colourful London neighbourhoods with Kingston. She may have used the word ‘realness’, but it could also be read as ‘sincerity’ – one of the most powerful characteristics of this young designer’s work.