The designer’s poetic take on race and masculinity is breaking new ground – but she thinks diversity in fashion is more than just a black-and-white issue
Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
These days, when success in fashion is increasingly measured by how quickly you can break the internet, Grace Wales Bonner is the kind of designer that stops you in your tracks because she represents the exact opposite. Her poetic AW15 presentation at Fashion East snapped you wide awake with its complex ideas about black representation, communicated in a wildly lavish yet profoundly gentle way, and accompanied by a book collaged from poetry, artwork and critical theory rather than a tweetable press release plug.
“It’s about a real gentleness, especially between the characters,” says Wales Bonner of the show, which featured many of her friends among the cast. “I feel like I’ve seen enough images of black men looking really aggressive, very hypersexualised or ‘street’. That’s not how I think about men at all. That’s not the men in my life.”
On a savanna landscape backdrop bathed in sunset purple, her all-black cast lounged in crushed velvet trouser suits delicately embellished with cowry shells – an old African form of currency – and Swarovski crystals (that European telltale sign of wealth) set off by a subversive undercurrent of 70s halterneck tops and sensual tailoring.
The boys were all individual characters, dripping in opulence and deliberate Chanel references. Their cheeks flushed pink under blonde Marcel waves or Ethiopian hats turned into tiered crystal headpieces, and they wore satin ballet slippers and flares with the word ‘Afro’ daintily embroidered on to the back pocket. It was a powerful commentary on the depiction of black men as well as the meeting between European and African culture, imbued with a quiet, sensual power rarely seen in menswear.
The whole thing was as if you’d walked into a painting, and this was exactly Wales Bonner’s intention. Building on her BA graduate collection from Central Saint Martins last year – which explored self-expression in 1970s Nigeria with barechested models dripping in diamonds – the young designer went back to the roots of representation by looking at the orientalist painters of the 19th century and how black people were portrayed then through a western lens, as in Léon Bonnat’s “The Barber of Suez”, versus now. “What I loved about these paintings was how exotic and luxurious these figures looked,” she says over mint tea on a chilly February morning. “It’s beautiful, but within that there’s this mythologised idea of how slow and easy their life is, just lounging around, smoking.”
The tenderness of Bonnat’s painting – complemented by Wales Bonner’s research into the Harlem Renaissance and its vibrant 20s and 30s scene of gay black poets and dancers doing radical but inherently gentle work – came off in the graceful way she approached the masculinefeminine dialogue. “My friends are just like that. It’s not me pushing (gender ideas). It’s just really normal for me.”
This level of authenticity is something that permeates all of Wales Bonner’s work. Coming from a very academic point of departure, the designer – who also lectures at CSM – deals with themes that grew subconsciously from her extended BA dissertation on how a black person operates in the European framework. “That was really exciting for me; realising I can communicate these ideas in any way, including clothes,” she says. Without wanting to upset the general fashion population too much, it is rare to meet a designer so deeply engrossed in academia as Wales Bonner. She draws on black thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and his thoughts on creating new identities “in the doorway of two things. For example, how jazz is a hybrid between traditional African music techniques integrated within European classical limitations.” She sets about this work with such conviction and ease that you can’t help but feel she’s contributing something truly new to menswear.
The idea of disrupting an established western narrative is another theme in Wales Bonner’s multilayered approach. “I feel that you have to be within the frame to be able to push it out and reverberate and vibrate between these things,” she says. “I think that happens with someone like Basquiat as well. His work is talking to the history of things but then it’s completely dismantling ideas about what art or ‘black art’ is.”
Listening to the sonic poetry of critical theorist Fred Moten, Wales Bonner found herself asking many of the same questions. “Even hearing that poetry, you know that the person is black,” she says. “How do you know that? How can you know something is black? I guess my conclusion is it can be anything. It’s not a closed topic. It’s open. Something to discuss and explore.”
It’s an examination that’s also a very personal thing. “I’m mixed race, and growing up my primary school was quite white. Then I went to secondary school and it was quite mixed but I mainly hung out with black people. There was a kind of expectation for me to behave a certain way and ‘improve’ my blackness in a sense, which I kind of performed for a while until I got a bit older and was like, ‘Actually, it’s not about the characteristics of something. It’s about understanding.’”
Born in south-east London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, Wales Bonner was always reading and writing as a child. After attending art college, she enrolled at Central Saint Martins, where she interned at Meadham Kirchhoff and wrote for Pop magazine before going to New York to assist Camilla Nickerson, stylist and fashion editor extraordinaire. “She was really inspirational to me in terms of just being a strong woman,” says Wales Bonner. “She’s got such a good eye. I realised how much that can transform design. Having a really good understanding of how things work together and how to tell a story.”
At Central Saint Martins, Wales Bonner initially dabbled in womenswear. “But menswear just took me out of the equation in a way. It was more about the idea, not thinking about what I’d wear or just aesthetic things. It gave me a bit of distance to actually project ideas into a subject. And it’s an exciting time to be involved in menswear; people are pushing it way further now.”
One voice influencing her AW15 collection was radical poet Amiri Baraka. “He’s so rhythmic, his intonation is really amazing,” says Wales Bonner, producing a book from her bag. It’s Baraka’s 1970 book In Our Terribleness, a long poem with photography by Billy Abernathy which celebrates the beauty and spirituality of black people. “It kind of interrupts an established flow of how you think it’s going to sound.” Her sweater, emblazoned with the words ‘The Black Genius’, is a quote from the author’s work. “You don’t think about the black geniuses – people probably don’t think about blackness in that way. Even though Baraka’s message was very militant, the format is just really gentle. Again, he’s working within a frame of reference that people understand to communicate something.”
“I’ve seen enough images of black men looking really aggressive or ‘street’. That’s not how I think about men at all” – Grace Wales Bonner
While she comes at fashion armed with abstract thinking (and is currently toying with the idea of developing her dissertation for publication), Wales Bonner’s work to date is an emotional response first and foremost. “I am quite sensitive about the whole thing and how it’s represented,” she says. “Even with press, sometimes I find it difficult if I feel like people don’t understand and they just want the clothes. That’s quite soul-sucking. All my emotional energy, all my money and my thinking is in the clothes, so I’m very attached to them.”
After a whirlwind year since graduating from CSM, the 24-year-old designer admits she is still learning on the job. Major stores have picked up her collection, among them Opening Ceremony and VFILES, and there was a pre-collection collaboration with MachineA and Joyce in Hong Kong which launched last month. “It’s been mad how people have responded. You know, your head’s so down that you don’t see anything or really know how people will react. I’m just happy it’s made people think about things. Or made people think anything.”
For all her meaningful content, Wales Bonner says she is still able to “admire something that’s beautiful on its own.” But can fashion make a difference? “Definitely in terms of influencing culture and the trickle-down of ideas. For example, people will find it OK to see a guy looking feminine and they won’t realise why. The more images that are out there of different representations, the better.”
She recently attended a talk with painter Kerry James Marshall, and was inspired by his commitment to pushing ideas of black representation in his work. “He was like, ‘I’m not going to paint a picture of a white person because I don’t need to.’ There need to be images out there for other people to see. If people are saturated with other images – not even to do with race, but gender or anything – that’s powerful. And fashion is definitely a place that pushes people’s ideas on this forward.”
On the topic of the lack of black models on the runways, Wales Bonner says she finds it weird sometimes when people do a ‘black’ show. “I find that problematic, because then it’s just about trends and it doesn’t feel authentic. It’s kind of an excuse not to do it again.” But, she says, “If you think it’s backwards for a black person, it’s even worse for an Indian person. I was talking to a Nigerian model the other day about Asian models, and how there are so many beautiful Indian girls and boys. And he said the agency has tried to introduce Asian models, but they’re just not getting results. And we were laughing at the idea of ‘introducing’ it to the market. But it’s going to happen pretty soon.”
Like many young British designers, Wales Bonner finds the financial side of things most challenging. “It’s hard,” she says. “Last season I funded myself by working alongside this.” While she has someone helping her with sales, it’s a constant balance of creativity and business. “I need to do both sides of things. I’m always talking to people to find out how they’re managing. It’s a struggle for everyone.” That said, she’s heartened by the city’s non-financial support system. “I feel like London does support its talent and the designers here support each other. Big designers will actually come and say ‘well done’ to you.”
Despite her dad’s initial misgivings, her parents are some of her biggest fans. “My dad didn’t know what I was doing.He was like, ‘Yeah, but can you get a job?’ Then he came to the show and he really liked it. My parents are really supportive. Dad thinks it’s about family. His dad was a tailor in Jamaica and he was like, ‘Granny and all of your family would be so proud to see this.’ They live in the Jamaican countryside, up in the mountains. They would never think their stories were influencing that kind of cultural discourse, or that I’d been looking to them for inspiration. My dad really loves that.”
At the moment, she’s dreaming about trips to Senegal and Lagos to connect with young people and crafts makers. A recent visit to Ghana still lingers in her imagination: its music, its people and their resourceful creativity, especially the Ghanaian ‘fantasy’ coffins shaped like birds or Coke bottles, and the way some of the best things can come out of having to work to certain specifications, like those of a coffin. “I’ve set myself a parameter of what I’m exploring, which is nice,” she says. “I feel like it hasn’t been explored. And there’s such a rich culture that I’m not going to run out of things to talk about.”
photography Brett Lloyd; styling Tom Guinness; hair Teiji Utsumi using Bumble and bumble; make-up Ciara O’Shea at LGA Management using M.A.C; models Ellie at FM, Frankie at Models 1, Maximilian Davis, George Hard, Jamie Baah-Mensah, Wilson Oryema; photographic assistants Nick Bentham, Simon Wellington; styling assistant Eden Loweth; make-up assistant Naomi Nakamura
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