Towards the end of the press preview of this sumptuously progressive show, Grace Wales Bonner mentioned Sankofa. This bird-looking-backwards symbol of Ghana’s Akan people, she said: “means’ ‘going back to go forward.’ It is not about being nostalgic or historical. It’s about taking something from the past in order to pass it forward and make it useful for the future. And that’s the spirit of this collection.” Wales Bonner was speaking in the central courtyard of Florence’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi, a space where one Pitti Uomo executive mentioned in passing that there had never before been a live fashion show. It was as if the Palazzo had been waiting 485 years – the time since it was once home to the first Black head of state in modern Europe – to become the outbound runway for this evening’s Sankofa flightpath. Its starting cipher was Alessandro de Medici, who until his assassination in 1537 at the hand of a cousin ruled here as the first hereditary monarch of the Florentine Republic. His mother was named Simonetta da Collevecchio – aka “Soenara” – and was Black. She, history a little shakily relates, was a house servant who became mother to Alessandro after an encounter with either Duke Lorenzo (the official father) or Pope Clement VII. “I wanted to acknowledge that presence but also think about the idea of arrival,” said Wales Bonner. The building also held an additional layer of resonance relevant to her practice of excavating multifaceted manifestations of cultural intersection through garments. The palazzo was commissioned by Alessandro’s ancestor Cosimo in 1444, around the same time that he hosted the 17th ecumenical council, a global gathering of Christendom which according to historian Paul Strathern included: “Armenians and Ethiopians… other entourages included Moorish, Berber, and black African attendants.”
All of this context served as evidence that the building around us has played a role in the history of Black agency and participation in Renaissance Italy. It was leveled by the intervention in the Palladian architecture by the artist Ibrahim Mahama, who clad the space in a huge patchwork of hand stitched jute sacks originally used to export cocoa from his home country of Ghana – where Wales Bonner met him several months ago – into the global markets. “It was important to have an equal representation within the space,” said Wales Bonner. The opening look featured the reproduction of an artwork by Kerry James Marshall. This was another pointer towards Wales Bonner’s intention to rehang the display of menswear in Florence just as one would rehang a gallery – in order to shift the visitors’ experience. Just as effective was the slow coalescence of menswear forms – some sourced from the previously mentioned binary of contemporary European tropes of formality and informality, and others from a broader array of traditions whose boundaries were broken down by adjacency. Paris’s Charvet provided handsome robes and day-pajamas in jacquards whose patterns were drawn from Wales Bonner’s research into West African tradition. The macramé womenswear dresses were set with hand-made glass beads by Ghanaian artisans, and the heat-dryed hand-dyed jersey had been fashioned in Burkina Faso (Wales Bonner was building new trade routes between Africa and Italy, and Savile Row too). In menswear there was genre-busting back and forth between futuristic sportswear (which included a hand-made adidas shoe whose trefoil looked lacily artisanal) and Wales Bonner-directed, Anderson & Sheppard-cut tailoring in cashmere and camel hair that was de-conventionalized through emphasised shoulders and small sly acts of sartorial ‘wrongness’ that looked incontrovertibly right. So back to Sankofa. What was the backward-looking-bird returning to, in order to pass forward for the future? Said Wales Bonner: “It’s about bringing an Afro-Atlantic spirit to European luxury by honoring these traditions wherever they are. And making something hybrid or integrated through working with different people.”
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.