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.

Worlds Between Worlds. Wales Bonner SS21

With digital shows and presentations, it’s quite difficult to geo-locate, and while Wales Bonner is a London-based label, it’s presenting spring-summer 2021 as part of Paris Fashion Week. What Grace Wales Bonner has been proposing throughout her career is a concept that has now, finally, come toward the forefront of fashion: exploring Black culture and aesthetics with the same nuance and consideration that has long been afforded Eurocentrism. This season, alongside a look-book photographed by Sean and Seng, the designer remotely worked on a film with director Jeano Edwards to present an immersive, intimate snapshot of Jamaica, and has created a digitally available zine to further expand on her research process. There is a piece in it written by Mahfuz Sultan, where he describes the importance of “Grace’s poetic interstices, the worlds between worlds, where Africa, India, and the islands touch as if on a dance floor…at least for those of us who, like Malik Ambar or Aimé Césaire, have spent our lives on the postcolonial circuit, flickering in and out of other stories as shades, exiles, ephemera.” It is that illumination that has forged a pathway for London’s array of emergent non-white designers: a flourishing generation following in her footsteps and narrating their own histories and identities. “There’s always been a continuity to the way I’ve worked, because I’ve expressed who I am and my position quite clearly since I started,” Wales Bonner says. Now, she continues: “When people expect me to have some point of view on what’s been happening…well, I feel I’ve tried to show that over the past five years. There are certain things we’ve always known. It’s more that now, other people are catching up.” This season that sense of continuity, and of Wales Bonner applying her microscope to regularly marginalized narratives, was more explicitly visible than ever. Instead of taking a new era as her starting point, she zoomed in further on her deeply personal autumn 2020 offering: an exploration of Lovers Rock and the second-generation Jamaican community of 1970s London. While last season was situated in Lewisham, and within the wardrobes of her father and his friends in late-1970s London, this time she located her perspective in early-’80s Jamaica. “It’s been a really wonderful exercise to be able to go into more depth and reflect on research over a more extended period,” she notes. Having visited Kingston just before the pandemic hit, Wales Bonner had already begun her research. An exhibition on dancehall culture at the National Gallery of Jamaica, alongside a meeting with curator Maxine Walters, had directed her toward figures like reggae icon Augustus Pablo who’d wear “incredible shirts with amazing, elongated cuts, which felt very British.” During a trip to Bob Marley’s house, now a museum dedicated to his life, she was struck by a pair of World War II military trousers he’d cut into football shorts: “a connection to Britain transformed, and then integrated into his lifestyle.” “While the first collection was about viewing the Caribbean community from a British-centric perspective, this one is thinking about a similar community in a completely different place,” she explains. “I was interested in British clothes that ended up in the Caribbean and were transformed by how people put them together and their context.” While she notes that the diaspora wore their heritage “exaggerated, extreme, and brighter, showing their connection to Jamaica in a louder way” on the island, particularly among its dancehall musicians, she discovered that there was a more pronounced emphasis placed on the aesthetics of Britishness. “There was a classicism that was celebrated and romanticized,” she continues. “There was a certain sense of sophistication of having something European.” So the shirt-making traditions of Jermyn Street, or the Savile Row tailoring that has long been one of her fixations, found new resonance in a striped nightshirt she describes as “the Stockwell dashiki,” or a “Kingston caftan” in tailoring wool. Flashes of jockey silks, or near-luminous knit cardigans, injected a proud flamboyance; a woven jacquard jacket, developed from West African wax textiles, translated bold 1970s geometrics into the Wales Bonner world. Her womenswear, which has often taken a preppier tone than her men’s, relaxed into ribbed knitwear with handcrafted crochet stripes, or a fringed, flowing dress, but a checked box-pleated skirt suit retained her particular take on feminine formality. “The collection is called Essence, and in a way, I was taking this time to reflect on what is essential within Wales Bonner,” she says. “How do I reflect the brand DNA in everything that I do?” That sentiment was echoed in Wales Bonner’s partnership with Adidas Originals, which has only been integrated in glimpses before, but took center stage this season, yet, rather than appearing like a commercial collaboration, seemed rooted in synchronicity. The brand’s research team, she explained, were able to source a wealth of archival imagery for her, documenting how dancehall musicians had once worn their wares and so the narrow cuts of track pants, or the crops of tailored jackets, have a particular historicism to them. “It’s about reworking pieces from the archive but with a more elegant, or craft sensibility,” she notes of the crochet three stripes, the hand-finished football boots, or the satin finish of fabrications. “What I do is quite subtle, but it’s about attention to detail.” Such a statement could operate as an explainer for Wales Bonner’s practice—and, as it ever has, in 2020 her approach shines.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

The Look: Wales Bonner SS19

In support for the Black community, I continue celebrating and highlighting the talented individuals that shape fashion today. Take notes! The main points behind the Grace Wales Bonner‘s spring-summer 2019 collection weres spirituality and the seek for inner peace. Wales Bonner found Ram Dass, one of the first people who brought ideas of yoga and meditation to a Western audience, as the key for that relaxed, yet oozing with mystique line-up. Inspirational texts from the spiritual teacher’s book appear printed on loosely fit t-shirts, cotton shirts and over-sized yoga pants. Some read such profound quotes as: “The stillness. The calmness. The fulfillment. When you make love and experience the ecstasy of unity.” But the collection as well has a less laid-back, more celebratory side. Some of the pieces were hand-embellished with shiny sequins and were a nod to craftsmanship originating from India. More about the collection, click here. For more of the London-based designer, click here!

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Men’s – Lovers Rock. Wales Bonner AW20

For her autumn-winter 2020 show in London, Grace Wales Bonner had friends and audience members sitting at tables around a dance floor, joining her celebration of Lovers Rock, the specifically British Afro-Caribbean music scene sprung from underground London house parties in the ’70s. “Lovers Rock was created by second generation Jamaicans in this country, their own kind of sweet mix of reggae and soul,” the designer explained. “It’s a reflection of my family on my father’s side. My grandad came from Jamaica in the 1950s. My dad used to work on Lewisham Road, and I found these documentary photographs by John Goto of teenagers at Lewisham Youth Club in the ’70s.” What fascinated and touched Wales Bonner was how kids of her dad’s generation wore clothes which referenced Jamaican style and Rasta flag colors, woven into a “a fun mix-up” of standard English smartness, “irreverent, but always elegant.” There was a denim tailored coat lined with velvet; a women’s look featuring  a corduroy patchwork matching shirt and skirt color-blocked in red, yellow, green, and black; slim-fit ’70s track pants; and “the kind of Adidas trainers Bob Marley would have worn.” The full repertoire of Wales Bonner’s refined tailoring was on display as well: tweedy suits, separates and coats, worn over body-hugging sweaters and roll-necks, with a stronger representation of womenswear in combinations of blazers and full pleated skirts. The self-knowledge Wales Bonner has gained over the years means she knows who she is and what her brand stands for by now. “It’s coming up for five years,” she summed up to the press. “I’m looking back and consolidating. For me, my approach is elegant, designed, and crafty—about what’s the perfect suit? Now I want to build the business.”

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Men’s – Melting Pot. Wales Bonner AW17

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In my previous post on J.W. Anderson’s medieval-cool collection for men, I’ve mentioned Grace Wales Bonner as another example of a designer, who makes men’s London Fashion Week far, far more exciting. It isn’t a secret that London is Europe’s most celebrated melting pot of cultures, customs, dialects – no wonder why creatives from the whole world come here, to start their businesses. Wales Bonner‘s autumn-winter 2017 colllection is a continuation of her nearly poetic take on the topic of ‘spiritualism’.

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It was about the return of these spiritual characters who have existed in the Wales Bonner language before, it was about making them the heroes and looking at the street in an elevated way – and looking at it at different time periods. It was about bringing this sense of richness and depth to street language,” is the way she explained her latest outing of diverse boys (and girls).

 Since the very beginnings of her own label, the Central Saint Martins graduate finds inspiration in her childhood memories – being a mixed-race girl brought up in south London was an experience, which left a significant mark on Bonner’s aesthetical point of view. The clothes presented by Grace clearly showed her interest in intriguing,  African culture. Inspired with the unexplored street culture of Dakar, Wales Bonner sent out a line of leather patchwork pants, crinkled shirts with slouchy tailoring and velvet ties – as if the looks emerged out of Patrick Cariou’s photographs from his trip to Senegal.

Tops covered in authentic Masai beading; stunning leather jackets trimmed with Dalmatian-intarsia mink – those are just some of the striking pieces coming straight from Wales Bonner runway. For the collection, the designer invited two, supremely-talented creatives, who are often associated with British fashion – first, Manolo Blahnik, who reinterpreted African sandals and boots. Second, Stephen Jones, who produced a limited number of Rasta caps with white mink stripes (Grace picked London’s Kingston neighborhood as a reference) and Pashtun caps. Bravo.

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Photography Chloé Le Drezen