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Art of Style

The designer interview: Grace Wales Bonner

Weaving threads of connectivity across community, time and culture, GRACE WALES BONNER is quietly changing the face and future of fashion. ALICE CASELY-HAYFORD spoke to the designer, who is reinvigorating the industry with her meaningful and considered craft, ahead of her new collaboration with Adidas Originals

Fashion

In February 2020, just before the world was devastated by the pandemic, designer Grace Wales Bonner visited Jamaica – the island that has served as a constant source of inspiration for her soulful designs since she launched her eponymous brand back in 2014. The exploration of the duality of her British-Jamaican heritage and diasporic links between the hybrid of European and Afro-Atlantic ideas have been a recurrent theme that Wales Bonner was able to contemplate on a deeper level during a period of focused reflection as the world was put on pause. “It’s given me an opportunity to reconnect with my values and think about what’s really essential within that. I’ve given myself the space to home in on what the essence of the brand is. What I want to actually carry forward, what things are always continuous and what I want to let go of. It’s been really nice to have that space to reflect and refine.”

These brand themes have been crystallized in a trilogy of collections, starting with Lovers Rock for FW20, unveiled back in January, which was inspired by the British-Jamaican community in London, and continued in the aptly named Essence collection for SS21, which explored the origins of dancehall music in early 1980s Jamaica. “I’m trying to use the seasons now or the structure of fashion weeks to explore an idea over a longer period of time,” Wales Bonner explains over a socially distanced coffee. “Some of the conversations I had in Kingston in February then evolved into the film [Thinkin Home by Jeano Edwards], but will also inform the next collection I’m working on. There’s a bit more of a continuity of time in terms of being able to enrich ideas through that continued dialogue, which is really satisfying for me.”

Amplifying Black voices and Black stories has been a key focus for Wales Bonner throughout her prolific but short career. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in May of this year has created a renewed interest in platforming and promoting Black creatives within mainstream media that, at its best, feels like an authentic move towards inclusivity and progression but, at worst, feels tokenistic and performative.

“It’s a life’s work, what we’re doing,” Wales Bonner affirms, referring to the sudden interest in Black stories and her unwavering dedication to diversify the fashion industry and broaden storytelling around Black history. “We haven’t changed what we’re doing… This is what I’ve dedicated my working career towards.”

“To create a luxury brand that comes from a Black cultural perspective, Wales Bonner needs to be independent,” she continues. “It needs to have its space and [the events of the past year] reaffirms how important that is. There aren’t many [Black-owned luxury brands], so there’s a long way to go.”

“There is a spirit now, more than ever, of people wanting to support and help. For me, what’s been so important is finding my creative community really early on and developing work in a way that’s quite insular, creating something authentic…”

Having set up her own critically acclaimed and commercially successful luxury brand in the space of just a few years, would Wales Bonner be interested in helming a global luxury-fashion house? “The end goal is for Wales Bonner to be an essential luxury brand,” the softly spoken but remarkably self-possessed designer asserts. “Working with other brands is really interesting, especially if they have a specific heritage. It helps me to expand what Wales Bonner is. It seems like the way things are going, collaboration is far more possible and mutually beneficial.” When I think she has circumnavigated the question, Wales Bonner quietly adds: “It could be a possibility for sure, if it was the right brand.”

Although a creative director role at a leading luxury-fashion house is yet to be determined, what is abundantly clear is Wales Bonner’s interest in collaboration. Over the past few years, the 30-year-old designer has partnered with Manolo Blahnik and, in 2019, Maria Grazia Chiuri invited her to reinterpret the New Look silhouette for Dior’s Resort 2020 collection.

“She’s got a point of view so strong; I love her stuff,” Mr Blahnik told PORTER recently. “She’s a divine girl, so chic, so elegant in the sense of pure; she’ll have just two or three things – a jacket and maybe a tunic and some shoes – and she wears it so beautifully. To me, she’s one of the most extraordinary designers.”

Bringing her own extraordinary talents to the table, Wales Bonner is particularly drawn to collaborators who intimidate her. “I’ve been seeking out artistic excellence and it raises the bar for me to be challenged,” she explains. “I’m always interested in this idea of a multiplicity of perspective – looking at a subject from different angles and different voices and expanding on what that could be. It helps me to expand my awareness and learn a lot in the process.”

Launching this month is a capsule collection with Adidas Originals, comprised of vividly colored knits in patriotic colors of red, yellow, green and black; slimline tracksuits; football shirts; smocked blouses; silk kaftans; tailored crochet three-stripe pants; and vibrant sneakers. The collaboration with the sportswear brand was first unveiled as part of Wales Bonner’s fall/winter 2020 collection, Lovers Rock, presented in London back in January, then expanding in her SS21 collection, Essence. Wales Bonner worked closely with the Adidas research team, mining its archives to pore over the history of the brand and delve into how dancehall musicians donned the label in the ’80s. The result is an uplifting, sensual and sun-drenched, fluid collection across menswear and womenswear, with meticulous military details and gold emblems.

“I’m always really drawn to brands that have a specific heritage – classicism, in a way. When I create something, what I try to do is a meeting point between two worlds. I was interested in bringing tailoring sensibilities or an eveningwear esthetic into sportswear – bringing that beauty to something that you can wear every day”

“It’s been brilliant working with Adidas,” Wales Bonner enthuses. “I’m always really drawn to brands that have a specific heritage – classicism, in a way. When I create something, what I try to do is a meeting point between two worlds. I like that [Adidas] really honors its history. I was really connected with that way of looking at the past and also looking at how other cultures have appropriated and interpreted things differently. The original intention of what something is gets transformed. I was interested in exploring that with them and also bringing some of these tailoring sensibilities or an eveningwear esthetic into sportswear – bringing that beauty to something that you can wear every day. They’re able to technically push things and develop fabrications and things that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own. Finding partners that can help you expand your vision and create something that is accessible is really important. I’m excited to be able to open up the brand to a bigger audience with this collaboration as well.”

It is not only through collaboration with other brands that Wales Bonner is opening up her label to a wider audience, but also through the exploration of different media, whether that be film, exhibitions (such as A Time for New Dreams, held at the Serpentine Galleries at the beginning 2019), or her new digital platform and educational tool, Between Critique and Hope.

“Publications are a format I’m interested in working in,” the designer muses. “With the Essence collection, I wanted to have that intimacy and I wanted to give people an insight into my thought process and a real closeness to my point of inspiration and the dialogue with the people who have thought around these ideas.”

“My research practice and my artistic practice is really important to me. It’s what drives everything at Wales Bonner. Between Critique and Hope is looking at archiving as an artistic practice. It’s creating a database of research and references that give a way of looking at nuanced subjects in a very curated way. It’s about trying to offer uplifting experiences for people and educational resources. Over the past six months there’s been so much information and such a shift in consciousness, and that can be quite overwhelming.”

Before setting up her eponymous label, whilst a student at Central Saint Martins, Wales Bonner completed her placement year working for design duo Meadham Kirchhoff in London. In turn, a number of esteemed emerging talents have cut their teeth in her studio, such as acclaimed Nigerian-British designer Mowalola Ogunlesi. Despite only just turning 30 herself, Wales Bonner really believes in the importance of championing new stars and creating and maintaining a supportive network.

“To create a luxury brand that comes from a Black cultural perspective, Wales Bonner needs to be independent. It needs to have its space and [the events of the past year] reaffirms how important that is. There aren’t many [Black-owned luxury brands], so there’s a long way to go”

“Another person I worked with, Maximilian Davis, just launched his brand recently, which I was so impressed by. It was really impactful,” Wales Bonner excitedly shares. “There is a spirit now, more than ever, of people wanting to support and help. For me, what’s been so important is finding my creative community really early on and developing work in a way that’s quite insular, creating something authentic… I don’t think I felt when I started out that I could talk to or approach people, but I think there’s that spirit of generosity and people wanting to support. A lot of work that many people are doing right now is also to create possibilities for future generations.”

Undoubtedly, Wales Bonner is leading the charge in reinvigorating the fashion industry with her meaningful and incredibly considered craft. “The way I want to do things is so intentional and very steady. It’s a gradual thing. It’s a long game… I want to create something that is really sustainable and impactful for the future, and that’s an exciting journey.”

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