i-D:
Grace Wales Bonner

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner

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.”

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner

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.”

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner

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.”

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner

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.”

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner

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.”

Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner
Photography by Harley Weir, Styling by Julia Sarr-Jamois in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Grace Wales Bonner