Grace Wales Bonner is the latest winner of the LVMH prize, which was won by Marques’Almeida in 2015 and by Thomas Tait in 2014.
It’s the most prestigious prize in fashion, a sure sign that the biggest names in fashion see you as a future star. The jury consists of the likes of Phoebe Philo, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci and several of the Arnaults, who own LVMH. So, in essence, win this and you’re fashion’s version of a made woman.
So who is Grace Wales Bonner and why is she so feted? We explore the many reasons and take a look at some of her best work below.
Who is Grace Wales Bonner?
First, to the initiated this will seem like an almost offensive question. But for those who don’t spend every waking moment living fashion, Grace Wales Bonner is still a very new name. While you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been hearing about her forever, she’s still only 25 and made her debut in 2014 when she showed her BA collection. She’s British and Jamaican, which we wouldn’t usually point out, but it does influence her work (more on her influences later).
A star from the start, her BA SS15 showing at the Central St Martins graduate show won her the L'Oréal Professionnel Designer of the Year award. The following season, her FW15 collections took place as part of Fashion East. Later on in 2015, her work was shown at the V&A museum as part of the fashion in motion series. Her SS16 collection was also with Fashion East, and was picked up by LN-CC, Matches (who sold it as womenswear), Opening Ceremony and V Files, among others.
Bonner also picked up another accolade in 2015, winning the Emerging Designer of the Year award at the British Fashion Awards. She then showed on the runway as part of MAN in FW16, before graduating to her first solo show in SS17.
The reception to her collections has been as hectic and feverish as her rise, with Charlie Porter, fashion critic at the Financial Times, saying that she “has opened a new field in menswear” by exploring black masculinity and “poetic interweaving of historical narratives."
Lulu Kennedy, director of Fashion East, said “I love [Grace Wales Bonner and Charles Jeffery, who showed alongside Bonner] attitude and vision, and the absolute conviction with which they approach their work. And that’s before we even mention how brilliant the clothes are!” Tim Blanks described her collection as “Deeply thought, but deeply sensual, her presentation was a standout for its elegance and its calm.”
We could go on and on with the quotes, but essentially, Bonner has been universally well received.
Wales Bonner’s influences (and execution of said influences) are a large part of what has made her such a standout. Wale Bonner’s mother is English and her father is Jamaican, and she’s long said that exploring this duality is what drives her collections. Her BA collection was Kerry James Marshall and ‘70s era Blaxploitation, specifically Melvin Van Peebles’ "Sweetback’s Theme."
In an interview with Dazed about that collection, she noted that “The director himself received no industry support in making the film, yet he completely took ownership of how he wanted black people to be perceived." The latter point about ownership of how blackness is perceived seems to be a driving force behind her collections.
In August 2015, she went to Senegal for a residency at the Josef Albers Foundation. Her SS16 collection took influence from Ethiopian Malik Ambar, who was brought to India as a slave and eventually became a popular prime minister of medieval Indian kingdom Ahmadnagar Sultanate. Her latest collection took inspiration from Hailee Selaisse and composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the first Caribbean composer. She’s also listed people such as Isaac Julien (who made Young Soul Rebels, a film filled with fashion inspiration), Thelonious Monk and Basquiat among her influences.
To talk Grace Wales Bonner, you have to talk about Blackness and, specifically, the limits society puts on black masculinity. Wales Bonner’s rise came at the same time as the return of grime and these two dueling images can’t be dismissed. While Grime does showcase a lesser-heard black Britishness, there is still a certain amount of bravado that society likes to assume is innate to blackness. So the idea of blackness being vulnerable and delicate, as Bonner’s collections show, is still, unfortunately, somewhat new to a lot of fashion critics (and society in general, as fashion is just a section of society, rather than some completely disconnected fantasy world).
When Charlie Porter noted that the exploration of black masculinity was a "new field," we couldn’t help but notice that this is only a new field because people’s preconceptions and prejudices means that they thought they’d discovered all there was to discover about blackness. Bonner’s redressing of this is also extremely important. After all, how many fashion critics have had to write so specifically about black history before she showed?
While influences are important, they’d still fall down if the clothes didn’t hold up. Clearly, they do. Separated from context in the likes of LN-CC, the terry cloth polo shirts, slightly cropped jackets and wide-leg jeans all work separately on their own. A great deal of similarly feted designers haven't create garments that work separated from the context of a presentation at this stage of their career, as Bonner is still only two years from her graduation. Bonner has something substantial to say and also makes desirable products. It’s a rare skill to be able to do both and it's likely why she won the LVMH prize.
With the LVMH Prize, Bonner can afford to take some time and decide how she wants to grow her brand. She’s already doing womenswear alongside her menswear, so expansion on that side could be in the cards. But with the ear of fashion’s most powerful conglomerate, the world is her oyster. As she said in an interview with Matches, “I have a vision; it’s about executing it in the right way."