They’re perched on stools, at times staring intently down the camera lens, with eyebrows scrunched as if in mid-thought. Some wear newsboy caps that sit gently askew on the head, but they’re mostly kitted out in an amalgamation of track suits, sweater vests worn over button-down shirts, tucked into midi skirts or trousers, and topped off with crisp blazers or cosy cardigans. When Jamaican-English designer Grace Wales Bonner saw these South London British African-Carribeans lensed by photographer John Goto in the ’70s at an Autograph exhibition a couple of years ago, she’d felt like she was looking at herself and her family.
Wales Bonner had grown up in Southeast London to a Jamaican father and English mother, and knows first-hand what it’s like to be functioning at the crossroads of different cultures. She’d spent her teens getting a firm grasp of her roots through readings on colonialism and post-colonial identity, and attributes much of her awareness to such intellectual material and history. “Seeing myself reflected in images has been quite important to me growing up and understanding my identity. I think what I’m trying to create is also so [that] other people can feel that as well,” Wales Bonner says over the phone, which sums up her work in fashion thus far quite succinctly.
It was evident in her first collection — SS’15 Afrique — right out of the gate from Central Saint Martins in 2014, which deftly united African craft, black culture and couture. The designer started her eponymous menswear label the same year, minting a reputation for a keen exploration of black Atlantic identity and history, and tailoring that moved the needle on traditional concepts of masculinity.
Within the next two years, Wales Bonner took home two of fashion’s most prestigious awards: the British Fashion Awards’ Emerging Menswear Designer, and the LVMH Young Designer Prize. In 2018, womenswear joined her repertoire, which the designer recounts as a natural progression. Just a year later, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri enlisted her to interpret the house’s storied New Look tailoring, as part of its Resort’20 collection.
Goto’s series of photographs is titled Lovers’ Rock and it is the inspiration for Wales Bonner’s FW’20 collection. It’s perhaps the closest she’s gotten to home thus far, out of all her collections that have propelled us through time and locales to ’40s Cuba, Senegal and even the Middle Ages — often inspired by intellectual readings or the work of artists. “Some elements of the wardrobe [in the pictures] were also really recognisable to the language I’ve been creating with Wales Bonner. In a way, it almost felt too obvious because it’s kind of like the community I come from.” She continues, “I had to take some time to get comfortable with going somewhere so familiar.”
While a specific subset of men and women might adore Wales Bonner’s sportswear-inflected tailoring for the very reason that it’s a vessel of knowledge and bridge to other disciplines beyond fashion, the designer is well aware that that might not always be the case. “It’s not necessary for someone to understand the history that I’m coming from if they’re not interested, because [clothes are] also about aesthetics and beauty.
It needs to stand on its own outside of that as well.” What she hopes for is that her garments are “seductive in its essence”, to ignite a relationship with its wearer that transcends material or luxury desires. “Emotional dressing, or soulful dressing,” is what she calls it. Yet there’s no denying that Wales Bonner is an incredibly rarefied exegete within fashion. When asked about how she’d navigated a mixed-heritage identity growing up, she said, “People might have had expectations of how I should behave. I think it’s always about breaking down conceptions, ideas, or ways of seeing that could be limiting.” For those who spare the time to read between the seams, her garments do the same for the African diaspora.
Lately she has, like many other designers, mulled over the core motive of Wales Bonner during these pandemic- riddled months. “The idea of essence” has been on her mind, driving her to create only what is essential. Her collections each season have typically been runs of 20-odd looks, with Wales Bonner scaling back even further — her biggest challenge at present. “That feels like the way to move forward. Retailers like MatchesFashion have been kind of championing that way of thinking about collections,” she says, as one of the 12 labels that are under the e-tailer’s Innovators Programme which supports and mentors young fashion talent. Despite her move to tighten her collections, it’s clear that the basis of her work remains unchanged. She declares without missing a beat, “[My goal is to] bring an Afro-Atlantic spirit to European ideas of luxury.”