Grace Wales Bonner leaves no stone unturned. Her presentations are deeply emotive, profound experiences that leave you with a hunger to question what you know and a thirst to know more. In high-waisted denim suits, crushed velvet jackets festooned with cowry shells and Swarovski crystal head caps reminiscent of crowns, Grace’s boys are beautiful black royalty.
Her models are the guys she knows, the friends and conduits of her story. “I care about them,” Grace says as we sit and chat in her quiet East London studio. “I want them to be a part of it as well, so I always explain the research behind my collections to them.” These collections — the debut entitled Afrique, the fall/winter 15 offering Ebonics, which was the first to show under the Fashion East umbrella, and the recent spring/summer 16 show Malik — shake up the prescriptive idea of blackness. In Grace’s words, her collections are about “broadening the spectrum of what something can be.”
Grace’s nature is kind, her voice is soft and her vision is unwavering, which is obvious as I leaf through a small rail of clothes in the middle of the room. She’s clearly content in her own space, cosy by any standards, with photos pinned to the wall and postcards of paintings, books and literature strewn on a nearby desk. It’s suggestive of a place of study. Because Grace Wales Bonner is not just a designer. To call her simply a designer would be doing her a disservice. Yes, she’s 24, and yes, her seat is barely cold at Saint Martins, where she graduated with a BA in Fashion Design just over a year ago, but Grace is so much more. She is a historian, a teacher who is handing fashion back its stereotypes and redefining the black male identity, one collection at a time. “I feel a responsibility to be sensitive, because it’s such a big subject. If you don’t, it becomes problematic, which happens a lot in fashion, where people are insensitive.”
Grace’s vision draws from her formative years growing up in Dulwich, South-East London. “I had two sides to my upbringing because my dad is Jamaican and my mother is English,” she explains. “I could always relate to this tension of living in London and being mixed-raced. I went to school in South-West London and felt this pressure to prove the black side of my heritage because I felt like it was questioned. I found growing up really informative in working out who I was and where I wanted to be.” For Grace, it wasn’t an initial interest in fashion that set her path in motion. “I think it was always art and drawing, actually,” she says of her early ambitions. “I think I always had a sensitivity to what people wore and what they looked like, and from that I found it quite natural to create an aesthetic.” With references ranging from artist Kerry James Marshall, to photographer Malick Sidibé, to poetry around the Harlem renaissance, to 70s Blaxploitation movies and the charming clutter of markets in Dakar, Senegal, nothing is beyond Grace’s gaze. She absorbs culture from the African diaspora and executes her collections and presentations with an exactitude that makes her one of the most exciting young menswear designers in the world today.
Drawing any more than a half-hearted applause from cynical fashion editors and critics is often considered a triumph. In fashion today, to snatch column inches, you’ve got to get people talking; in short, you’ve got to shock. But Grace isn’t concerned with fashion and its politics. The ‘shock’ was the sheer elegance of the collection, and its powerful delivery did all the talking. The models stood in silence, regal, gazing into the abyss in their splendor. Editors left Grace’s Ebonics collection stunned, some even in tears. Reviews were jubilant and it was unanimous: a fashion star was born. “I was exhausted, so all the praise was more personal satisfaction than anything else,” she recalls. “I hadn’t seen the space prior to the show and until you see everything all together you can’t visualize it. But the moment I saw it altogether I started crying. My whole family was there. I hadn’t slept but I was so happy with it, I was proud.”
Grace travelled to Dakar, Senegal, with photographer Harley Weir and i-D’s senior fashion editor, Julia Sarr-Jamois, to collaborate on the pictures you see here, featuring local wrestlers wearing the Ebonics collection alongside their own clothes. The photographs, shot in and around Lake Retba, or Lac Rose, so named for its blush-pink appearance, are a stunning testament to the beauty of Senegal and to Grace’s work. “It was such a good reflection of the trip because it was such a whirlwind — the colors, the sounds, the heat. It is very intimate but still very connected to the rest of the world. There are people walking around in traditional robes next to fake sneakers made in China. It’s the most incredible place I’ve ever been,” she says. “Some onlookers were quite confused, but the boys themselves were surprisingly into it. What they were wearing was quite feminine, but they would hold hands and be very tactile. Obviously we had to be sensitive to the Senegalese culture, but it’s about being super comfortable with your sexuality, your mentality and how something is perceived as masculine or feminine.” The trip left her enlightened and became the impetus for her Malik collection — an exploration of the story of Malik Ambar who was sold as a slave when he was a child in the 16th century — that was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in June and met with critical acclaim.
So what’s next for Grace? Do the industry’s big names and even bigger pay checks entice her? “No. I want to do my own thing. I want to establish what I am doing. I think it’s really important to nurture everything I am interested in. Writing, collages, making clothes and creating this world, even if it’s just for me personally and not publicized,” she says. “I think about the artists who work within these European frames but then become their own things. I want that for what I am doing. I want to be one of the luxury brands but in my own way.”
Grace is dispelling the idea of the black male look as “street” and you can’t help but feel that to see her work is to look through the keyhole and into the future. While Grace waits for the industry to catch up with her, she’ll inevitably continue to innovate. “There’s this slight feeling of me doing something more sophisticated and people finding it shocking, but it’s all quite familiar to me. It’s about people feeling empowered and confident when they wear the clothes. Sometimes you have to push a bit more on one side to make the other side okay. It’s about getting the image out there and giving people that space to understand.”