Grace Wales Bonner heavily detailed, intellectual approach to design is unheard of in contemporary fashion. Many designers don’t even refer to books anymore, rather Instagram feeds to source inspiration. In the show notes for her Spring 2018 collection, entitled ‘Blue Duets’, there is an extract of text by Hilton Als from The Artist’s Insitute exhibition Hilton Als: James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children. The extract criticises ephemerality. Fashion is founded on ephemerality in the 21st century but you have designers like Wales Bonner whose intellectual process coupled with her affinity for producing a memorable show moment that subvert expectations and enrapture audiences. From her debut MAN show, to showing at Grosvenor Place or recreating the Notting Hill Carnival, each show is as recognisable as the last. An incrementalist, Wales Bonner has developed her aesthetic steadily, maintaining a sustainable pace and her audience’s interest.
Tenderness is commonly associated with Wales Bonner. Her dissection of black masculinity is never abrasive, nor is it invasive. It is concerned with tenderly telling a story—whether it’s about Ethiopian royalty or her family members—that skewers the subject of black masculinity. This season she tasked herself with exploring black queer culture and arrived at the James Baldwin reference. Baldwin famously explored dynamics of sexuality in his sophomore novel Giovanni’s Room which preceded the gay liberation movement. (The set design reminded one of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and the subsequent Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. The play and film tackled the story of a black man facing his sexuality.)
The show opened with a gentle smattering of workwear before segueing into distinctly sensual areas. Sleeveless vest and shirts, sharply contrasting colours. A low-cut, sunrise-hued leather tunic was a testament to Wales Bonner’s unique eye, her ability to include an unsuspectingly beautiful item. Her use of leather—specifically black leather trousers—introduce a vaguely fetishistic element to the show. Her visuals convey the power of fabric and colour choice and the result when the two intermingle.
For clothing that is understated, subdued, her work is spellbinding. Perhaps it’s her tailoring, or maybe her unique fabrication. Her utilitarian methodologies differentiate her, in London, from the sea of maximalists who are beginning to dominate the schedule. Wales Bonner needn’t worry about their emergence, as post-LVMH Prize she has already amassed more acclaim and the integrity of her label is at insurmountable heights. Along with Craig Green, Martine Rose, Wales Bonner is a heavy hitter, a powerful force. It is also the most meaningful, and that is the job of the visual artist. As Als writes, “for when I am in the presence of visual material that absorbs me, forces me to feel, to look, my mind closes against that which can be spoken.”