Wales Bonner, who set her eponymous label in 2015 as a menswear line, is famous for being among the most private artists in the fashion world. She is uninterested in speaking about herself — very remarkable in an industry that runs on self.
She states she omitted her original title from the brand because it isn’t about her. But there are subjects.
One is representations of race in fashion. In her clothing, Wales Bonner explores ideas of identity and civilization that is black — motifs have included antiques and crochets crafted from cowrie shells. She mixes these with British tailoring in modern cuts. Her Jamaican grandfather was a tailor, so perhaps it is no surprise that suiting is her signature style.
In 29, her career trajectory was almost stratospheric. We first talked four years ago, when she was nominated in the emerging designer menswear category in the British Fashion Awards . “I would be interested to see where an award like this could take me with regard to exposure,” she explained, instead humbly.
Up to now, it appears: she went on to win that prize and afterwards scooped the LVMH talent award — a $300,000 fund awarded by a panel including the late Karl Lagerfeld. Since then she has expanded into womens wear and outside fashion also. Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue, has said:”What [Grace] has already done for civilization could be impressive in a person twice her age”
2019 has been another big year. In January, a exhibition was curated by Wales Bonner in London’s Serpentine Gallery, which researched topics of African shamanic mysticism and spiritualism. That paved the way for a event in London and New York.
Back in June, she won the British Fashion Council’s Vogue Fashion Fund for 2019, a month later Meghan Markle chose a Wales Bonner white sleeveless trench dress for her first official photographs after giving birth.
“It was a very meaningful gesture,” says Wales Bonner, that today is dressed in a crisp white shirt with a lacy yoke and cropped black trousers, her hair scraped back in a bun and her face free of make-up.
That the Duchess of Sussex — the first biracial woman inside the royal family — wore Wales Bonner, a new that puts marginalised voices at the forefront of luxury style, was”historically important”, she states.
One of five siblings born in south London into a white English mother and a Jamaican father, Wales Bonner says that she”was constantly looking for reflections of expressions or myself of my family”.
Just five decades ago, fashion and any sort of diversity were not regular bedfellows. Models tended to become white, white and, if female, a size zero, and there was little to no diversity in the helm of luxury houses.
When Wales Bonner presented her graduate collection on versions which were mostly black or biracial, it sent a clear signal to the industry. “I’ve a very particular image of what manly beauty is,” she states.
Her brand was formed”in reaction to a lack of representation, especially concerning black man representation within style”, she says. “I am linking to a lineage and a background where there are many examples of this very tasteful, sophisticated characters that were part of a [historical] story that just weren’t being included.”
She is inspired by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s along with a range of intellectuals, and her muses have included Malik Ambar, the African slave-turned-king of India, also American Pie performer James Hampton.
For autumn/winter 2019, she looked to Howard University — a all-black college in Washington, DC. Titled Mumbo Jumbo (later Ishmael Reed’s seminal novel on race in America), the collection meshed classic collegiate bits — varsity jackets, baseball sweatshirts and tailored sweatpants — together with lace”St James” slogans (a nod to Hampton).
“Everything is composed of multiple references,” Wales Bonner says. “The way I create is grounded in research and theory.”
Her studio is testament to this. She is surrounded by rails filled with pants and blazers, but stuffed with tomes about Malcolm X and African modernism to the brim. She cites the theorist Stuart Hall and poet Ben Okri one of people whose job shapes her strategy.
The combination of cultures and narratives stems from Wales Bonner’s adolescence. While her father lived in Stockwell her mother lived in Dulwich. “I spent quite a lot of my adolescent years traveling from one area of London to the other,” she says. “It was quite informative, seeing plenty of distinct communities and seeing the way people dressed buses. It gave me a wide experience of civilization in London.”
It was at secondary school she felt the need to face her own identity: her black peers stated she had been white and white friends said she had been black. “I got right into identity politics as a late teenager. I think it was an exercise in attempting to find myself,” she states. “The notion that identities are shaped between two civilizations I find very intriguing.”
Some view fashion as jagged or absurd, but everything about Wales Bonner resists this. For her project at Central Saint Martins, a dissertation was submitted by her as a backup, should she not have what it took to become a designer. Clothing, she says, is only one of her sockets. “Another could be literature, audio, experiences? . ? . ? . ?” And she’d like to do them all.
Her goal would be for Wales Bonner to develop into a cultural force and she says further artwork projects are in the pipeline. Nevertheless, the main focus is to set up a global luxury brand that’s coming out of a black perspective. Unlike most designers that are twenty-something, she has no desire to venture a major European residence up. “What I wish to achieve with Wales Bonner is already a very ambitious goal.”
I feel the industry is becoming more diverse, there’s more awareness,” she tells me. Virgil Abloh became the first designer at Louis Vuitton at the helm of all menswear last year.
And”in terms of casting, it seems as though there is a very different demographic of versions, where previously it could have been challenging to discover specific appearances or people from some cultures,” she says. “There’s a wave of young designers championing a nuanced view of the world, which feels urgent and meaningful.”
Wales Bonner was weaving this story. But she is reluctant to acknowledge praise.
That is quite uncomfortable,” she says, when asked how she feels about being touted a genius, as Ishmael Reed explained her.
It is definitely not something I think about. I am connected to a very rich and deep history of black cultural customs, and I am conscious of that background,” she states.
Part of what I am doing is honouring it having a conversation with it and picking up my place within it.
She’s a very long pause between phrases considering her replies in exactly the exact same manner I imagine she studies a text. “I would like Wales Bonner to talk for something bigger than myself. And my intention is for my job to also talk for me”