Grace Wales Bonner’s collections are never made up of banal clothing with overly complicated narratives. Instead, she lets her research — deeply rooted in black culture — lead the way. It’s what sets her apart from the other young talents vying to be London’s next big star designer.
Wales Bonner’s Fall/Winter 2019 collection was her most well-researched to date, so it was only fitting that she presented it at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where she has curated an art exhibition, “A Time for New Dreams,” exploring black spirituality and bringing together work by African diaspora artists.
Her latest show was a natural evolution of this theme. “It’s been really interesting for me being in a space for a longer time. I’m used to shows being over in ten minutes,” Wales Bonner tells Highsnobiety backstage when asked about her exhibition, which she confirms was prolonged by another month and will run until March 17.
“I’ve also been looking a lot at the wardrobes of the people I’m referencing,” she continues. These names include Eric N. Mack, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Rashid Johnson, David Hammons and 80-year-old American writer, poet, and musician Ishmael Reed, who flew from San Francisco to attend the show and perform a jazz solo on the piano. Writer Ben Okri, meanwhile, recited a poem he had written specifically for the show. “Our genius is black, awaken your feet to the wisdom of the world,” he chanted.
“This collection was really focused on African-American artists and writers and looking at the way they reference their history outside of America and how they perform that somewhere else,” says Wales Bonner.
“I was thinking about this idea of writers as oracles and them having a really important function in connecting people to their heritage and ancestry, so I’m honoring that brotherhood and lineage,” she explains.
But those allusions are difficult to get across through a runway show when showgoers have five seconds to view each look. So Wales Bonner also looked at the wardrobes of the figures she was mentioning, as well as ’80s and ’90s yearbook photos from Howard University.
Embellished varsity jackets, gabardine mackintosh coats fastened with tortoiseshell buttons, and wide tailoring with craft stitches is what came out, as did academic button-down Oxford shirts, jazz-era tuxedos, and Breton knitwear emblazoned with the names of Reed and St. James, the latter being a reference to African-American artist James Hampton who, in the 1940s, spent over a decade creating the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which he claimed led him to receive revelations from god. “I was thinking about how art can be a very direct form of spirituality,” says Wales Bonner.
The footwear — black leather oxfords, customized Converse Chuck Taylors, and gold-feathered loafers made in collaboration with Manolo Blahnik who, along with Naomi Campbell, Sampha and Kim Jones attended the show — were the perfect final touch to a moving collection. It was beautifully crafted, confident attire at its best.
What Grace Wales Bonner is doing is important for the culture. It’s time culture wakes up to her.