Self-Expression. Wales Bonner AW23

For autumn-winter 2023, Grace Wales Bonner delivered one of the best collections of the season. “Somehow, I feel like being away from home, in somewhere like Paris has this romance and grandeur about it.Wales Bonner‘s show took place in an historic suite of salons at the Hotel D’Evreux. This hallowed site is at the very corner of the Place Vendome, the heart of haute French luxury. It couldn’t have been a more intentional choice of backdrop for the aspirations of this most studied of young designers, who often repeats “bringing an Afro-Atlantic spirit to an idea of European luxury” as her mantra. Her abiding mission to elevate “Black male style; a very refined approach to masculinity” took on the Parisian sojourns of the American writer and intellectual giant James Baldwin, the fabulously wealthy young Maharaja and Maharani of Indore, and fanned out to admire the showgirl, style-maker and activist Josephine Baker. By immersing herself in their worlds, she said she found herself transported, not so much by the idea of literal references of costume as by the uplifting effect of the cultural atmosphere. “Thinking about what Paris as a place gave them license to do and express. This idea of freedom of self-expression, to define yourself.” Paris, she speculated, “may create space to have more license to be expressive.” The award-winning jazz trumpeter Herman Mehari stood in the middle of the apartment and played as a procession of sophisticated “Black flanuers” threaded its way through the rooms. First out was a strikingly precise black tailored coat with half its upturned collar in white. On its breast was pinned a brooch – one of several composites of baroque pearl and Ghanaian bead jewelry that studded the show with a sense of the ceremonial. Wales Bonner’s knack is for drawing her own clever intellectual line between past and present. Saturated as her pieces are with cultural symbolism, she always takes care that the way they’re put together is wearable and relatable. You could see that knack of hers as you scanned down an outfit – say, a precision cut tailored jacket, worn with cotton utility-type trousers and babouche slippers. Babouches walked the parquet in many variants; twinkling silver and sparkly and with Mary Jane straps on the toes for women. She also knows how to elevate the ordinary, or the generic, to give it her own stamp of cachet. Cowrie-shell decoration has been in her repertoire from the very first; now she deployed it as lines of embroidery on an oversized ecru peacoat, white on white. Half- French classic, half Wales Bonner classic. The leveling up, the equality of craftsmanship across cultures is also what Wales Bonner is about. Her casual wear has her intellectualism coded into it too. When you’re wearing a Wales Bonner collegiate jacket with the words Sorbonne 56 sewn onto it, you’re referring to the First Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Paris, to which James Baldwin was a delegate. When sporty, there are also genuine cultural connections. Wales Bonner’s designs for the new Adidas soccer kit for the Jamaican team was showcased.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.
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