Men’s – Outsider Intellectual. Wales Bonner AW21

Grace Wales Bonner is one of the most convincing (and educational!) story-tellers in today’s fashion industry. Her latest collection showcased the final chapter in a trilogy, begun last January, which explores the cultural and sartorial threads that interlink Britain and the Caribbean. “This subject is the starting point for why I’m interested in creating,” said the designer, who is British born but of Jamaican heritage. “During this time I feel like I’ve really been grounding myself in this framework, and refining myself within it. These collections are about consolidating and reinforcing what is timeless to me; representing the breadth of what Wales Bonner is, and can be.” Thus far in the series the designer has looked to the second-generation Jamaicans who established London’s 1970s Lovers Rock scene to inform her designs, and then the dress of Jamaica’s dancehall and reggae stars. Here she started by exploring the wardrobes of Britain’s Black scholars in the 1980s: those who traveled from across the world to study at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. There was a reimagining of their academic attire – of tweed blazers and knitted scarves, well-worn chinos and striped jumpers – but within that historicism, “I was thinking about how in certain spaces people create a language for themselves,” reflected the designer. “About how you might disrupt an institution from inside.” It’s a subject that has long fascinated Wales Bonner, whose brand was established with the intention of disrupting the luxury perspective, redirecting it from its often singular focus on Eurocentricity. So poets like the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite and the Saint Lucian Derek Walcott appeared as more than just aesthetic character studies; rather, they were catalysts for considering a post-colonial movement that explored “what it is to be in another place, or from another place.” The resonant words of Braithwaite, who left Bridgetown to study at the University of Cambridge, were spoken over the immersive film directed by Jeano Edwards which accompanied the collection: “You had not come to England / You were home.” In terms of clothing, Wales Bonner imagined what she termed the wardrobe of the “outsider intellectual,” considering the structure of British traditions and wondering “within that framework, how do you create something new?” She found her answer by imbuing her distinct take on sartorial eclecticism with a gently liberated, multicultural sensibility. The designer worked with Savile Row tailors at Anderson & Sheppard on tuxedo suiting inflected with Afro-Atlantic flair and elsewhere she softened Oxford shirting, printing cotton cashmere with Jamaican “flowers of resistance” from the photograms of artist Joy Gregory. Boating striped overshirts simultaneously channeled Oxbridge classicism and West African dashikis; brushed denim was cut into crisp suits. A sense of ease was injected into even the most traditional tailoring. Woodblock prints and Indian embroidery drew on the diasporic nature of her research, and a deliberate diversity was instilled throughout. “What I was trying to connect with is a sense of expansiveness and possibility,” said Wales Bonner. “For example, in Derek Walcott’s The Gulf, he has a poem about different Indian gods. You think you’re looking at Caribbean thought, but then there are all these other influences. Once you start researching anything, you realize that nothing is simple. Nothing is one thing. So I didn’t want to make anything too neat.” That expansive notion was echoed, too, in the latest iteration of Wales Bonner’s Adidas collaboration – a partnership that has recently taken fashion by storm. “I was trying to imagine a fictional university that is a lot more multicultural,” she said of its new evolution. “Maybe what their team kits for a track program might look like.” Referring to “the origins of sportswear – when it was made in a beautiful, crafty way which feels almost tailored,” Wales Bonner leaned into Adidas’ technical resources to revive specific fabrications like ’60s jerseys and lived-in wools “to make things feel authentic,” she said. A T-shirt printed with the emblem for “Wales Bonner Adidas Originals Literary Academy” offered a tongue-in-cheek nod to the extensive footnotes which typically accompany each of the designer’s collections. But what has been proven by the sell-out success of her tracksuits and trainers is that, even without related reading, there is something uniquely compelling about Wales Bonner’s designs: the heavy-duty weight of her research injects something intangibly compelling into her clothes.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Men’s – Peter Doig. Dior AW21

While everybody is obsessed with Kim Jones‘ menswear at Dior… I’m still on fence with it. In overall, I love how he implements couture traditions of the maison and, at least, makes his part amusing, comparing to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s womenswear. But his autumn-winter 2021 collection just feels regular. Maybe it’s the side-effect of working on the Fendi debut? Again, Jones invited an artist to collaborate. This time, it’s the Scottish-born painter Peter Doig, whose roving background – an upbringing in Trinidad, study in London in the 1980s, success in the ’90s, a move to Canada – is exactly the stuff that brings out the fanboy in Jones: “Peter was at Central Saint Martins with Stephen Jones, and knew all the people I’m obsessed by – Leigh Bowery, Trojan, the London club kids at that time. Stephen introduced us. He really became part of the studio for the collection, and started making things, painting hats, and designing the set, which is based on the speaker stacks he’s collected.” Stephen Jones, Dior’s resident milliner confirms: “Yes, Peter was always hanging out with us fashion-y types at school. Then all of a sudden, unlike us, he went off and became a major international artist.” The line-up is full of Doig references: yellow anoraks, orange coats, and lions; paint-dabby patterns on sweaters – that’s all material replicated from Doig’s oeuvre. “His work is autobiographical. We looked at his paintings of men, of skiers, ice hockey players, and the night sky,” said Jones. “I think he was fascinated by how closely we could replicate his brushwork in textiles and knitwear.” The cheerful shots of citrus color – translated into some of Jones’s subtle merges of casual and luxurious street-wearable outerwear – are the making of the collection. Other than that (fashion-meets-art dialogues are always compelling), I wasn’t really convinced by the whole picture.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Men’s – Tourist vs. Purist. Louis Vuitton AW21

You might not be a fan of Virgil Abloh and his copycat practices, but one thing is sure: he delivers substance to Louis Vuitton‘s menswear (which sadly can’t be said of Nicolas Ghesquière’s recent seasons for women…). Abloh’s autumn-winter 2021 line-up seems to be his most personal to date, bringing conversations you would never really see at Vuitton. His sixth collection, named ‘Ebonics,’ came with a film directed by Josh Johnson that was powerfully centered on spoken word and performance, a call to radical thinking through the lens of menswear. Amongst the words delivered by Saul Williams and Kai Isiah Jamal were these: “Deconstruct the narratives… make spaces”; “Take down the walls, unravel the mysteries. Make it up to me.” And: “As Black people, as trans people, as marginalized people, the world is here for our taking, for it takes so much from us.” Abloh has mustered an educational encyclopedia of answers to the ineluctable questions that have been troubling all designers: over the point of fashion, of shows, of making clothes in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the crises that blew up in humanity’s face last year. “We’re still reeling,” he said, in a telephone call with Vogue. “We sat through so many heavy conversations in 2020, some so heated that things can’t be discussed anymore. But fashion can do this. Shows can do this.” Abloh’s belief in clear-eyed boyhood innocence – that grace period before awareness of socio-cultural biases sets in – has always been an inspiration signalled in his Vuitton collections and campaigns. “I start from the wonderment of boys. When you’re a boy there’s one thing that adults ask you: What do you want to be when you grow up? And you say artist, lawyer, doctor, football player, fighter pilot. But then, if I ask what does a doctor look like? There’s a knee-jerk. That’s where we can learn.” His point, spelled out amongst the stack of literature he releases with each collection, is this: “Fashion has the power to de-program these dress codes and impact possibilities.” The multi-level consciousness, and his ambition to educate, include, and create aspiration is down-to-earth in one direction, and high-flown in many others. “Tourist vs. Purist,” the slogan he wrote when he entered Louis Vuitton in 2018 returned on bags this season. “It’s my organizing principle for my point of view when I make things. A tourist is someone who’s eager to learn, who wants to see the Eiffel Tower when they come to Paris. The purist is the person who knows everything about everything.” Abloh exerts his positionality as both – the outsider who became the insider; the man with the power to bring young people with him into the former exclusion zone of high fashion.

There’s lot to unpack, from the Louis Vuitton baggage (some of it in the shape of carrier bags, potato sacks, an LV ‘Keepall’ in the form of a plane) to the symbolic reconfigurations of masculine archetypes, to the challenging of ownership of sources that Abloh built into the clothes. “There are a lot of stories mixing cultures,” he said. “And from that, a new language will be created.” Cool, considered, chic, and flowing with floor-length coats, easy slim tailoring, African draped wraps, kilts, and Western hats – styled by the super-stylist, Ibrahim Kamara – it plainly makes for Abloh’s best collection for the house since he arrived in 2018. And his most autobiographical yet -an exploration of his African heritage and of what it means to be at the pinnacle of a career in Europe as a Black American creative director. “When I grew up, my father wore Kente cloth, with nothing beneath it, to family weddings, funerals, graduations,” he said. “When he went to an American wedding, he wore a suit. I merged those two together, celebrating my Ghanaian culture.” Add LV patterns to the cloth, drape it, then pair and compare it again with tartan checks, and the result is indeed something new. So too, the diagonal green-on-white print on a leather motocross suit. “A memory of the wax print fabric my mom had around the house when I was growing up,” he chuckled. “She was the one who taught me to sew; and she had learned it with a tailor in Ghana.” The collection is a powerful and beautiful statement. Abloh concluded, “I’m an optimist. The future is yet to be decided.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.