From the mind: Grace Wales Bonner
With her soulful designs Wales Bonner has won legions of admirers
It was several years ago, at his London townhouse in Marylebone, that Manolo Blahnik shared the name of his then fresh discovery. “I’ll tell you about someone who is exquisite,” the celebrated shoe designer said, his tone conspiratorial. “She is called Grace Wales Bonner. I saw her things, and in five seconds – I am good like that – I knew. She’s got it. The first collection I saw was out of this world. Beautiful.”
Working in collaboration with the British-Jamaican designer, Blahnik has since dreamt up Wales Bonner sabot shoes hand-finessed with beads and feathers, square-toed sandals and patchwork ankle boots of collage-like construction. When, with her Spring / Summer 2017 collection Wales Bonner paid tribute to the 1930 crowning of Haile Selassie as the emperor of Ethiopia, Blahnik matched her tailoring’s regal elegance – black, white or midnight blue suiting cut to sit close to the body, some creations accented with pale pearls and cowrie shells, an ancient African currency – with a selection of evening slippers. “It’s very referential,” declared Blahnik, describing Wales Bonner’s approach, which is rich in detail and storytelling. “It’s from the mind, which I love.”
A treatise on black culture and identity politics, in her clothing collections Wales Bonner, who established her eponymous business in 2014 upon graduating from Central Saint Martins, artfully expresses far-reaching academic research – her references have stemmed from literature, history and critical theory – and autobiographical vignettes in graceful designs that in execution nod to the traditions of British tailoring.
“That’s incredibly flattering,” Wales Bonner says when I tell her of Blahnik’s take on her work. “I guess what he means and which I can relate to is that it comes from a very instinctive place. It’s quite intuitive but it’s grounded in research and deep thinking, deep reflection.” Shaped by her interrogations, Wales Bonner’s work is laden with meaning. Precise of cut, finished in prestige materials and dotted with choice details, her clothing is also noteworthy for its sheer visual appeal. “I am really interested in beauty and it being seductive in its own right, that feels really important,” she says. “I always think about this idea of emotional or soulful dressing and having quite an intimate relationship with clothing, so I always try and bring this kind of poetic feeling to collections.”
In previous seasons, the London-based designer has drawn from the assemblage techniques of American outsider artist James Hampton, Patrick Cariou’s Dakar-set photography, Essex Hemphill poetry and the writings of American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. For last autumn, she authored a wardrobe influenced by reggae music style Lovers Rock and the second-generation Jamaican community of mid-1970s London. “I was interested in this sense of eclecticism, of forming an identity in a way,” says Wales Bonner. “How you connect to your heritage and your background even when you might have never necessarily been to Jamaica but you’re connecting to it through that generation. Maybe because you’re in London, you connect to your heritage even more strongly than you might do if you were in Jamaica because [there] you don’t have to display it in such an obvious way.”
Essence, this spring’s collection presents an opposite viewpoint, of sorts: inspired by a recent trip to Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, Wales Bonner researched the local origins of dancehall music in the early 1980s. There are bib-front shirts – their tunic-like length nods to the get-ups of Jamaican record producer Augustus Pablo, while their fabrication and finish is rooted in the traditions of London’s Jermyn Street – and tops cut from striped satin. Both this spring’s and her AW20 collection will form part of a triptych of collections exploring diasporic connections between Britain and the Caribbean; her latest designs have also been captured in Thinkin Home, a film by Brooklyn-based Jamaican artist Jeano Edwards.
Since launching Wales Bonner, the designer’s work has been recognised with a number of industry accolades. Last summer, she was named as one of a dozen of independent talents – among them designers Michael Halpern, Charles Jeffrey and Harris Reed – to receive support via The Innovators Programme, an ambitious one-year scheme set up by retailer Matchesfashion. In 2015, she won the British Fashion Award in the Emerging Menswear Designer category; the following year, Wales Bonner triumphed as the winner of the third annual LVMH Prize. Then, in 2019 she was announced the recipient of the BFC / Vogue Fashion Fund; that same year, Wales Bonner laid her research process bare in A Time for New Dreams, her exhibition at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which drew many thousands of visitors.
“I was fascinated by her multi-faceted persona, being an artist as well as a designer, so I decided to get in touch with her for a possible collaboration,” Maria Grazia Chiuri tells me. While in London, Dior’s creative director of womenswear visited A Time for New Dreams, which led her to suggest a team-up. Wales Bonner’s take on Dior’s emblematic New Look shilouette was first unveiled with the Parisian brand’s Cruise 2021 collection.
“I was curious to see how she would construct her point of view in collaboration with a French Maison,” says Chiuri. “I think she brought an energy to the studio and to the show that is uniquely her own. She also was a great communicator, she established a dialogue with everyone, from me to the seamstresses and to the model wearing her creation. I am very happy to have had the opportunity to work with her and to witness her creativity.”