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Grace Wales Bonner is tiny. A slip of a thing, who would barely graze the height limit for the jazzier rides at the funfair, the 25-year-old designer is wearing a black lingerie skirt by Céline, fitted black sweater and Gucci loafers when we meet for breakfast at the Ace Hotel, east London. Her hair is pulled close in a tight bun. Even her ear piercings (numerous) and wrist tattoos are subtle: small marks of subversion on a canvas of cool composure.
But despite her quiet presence, Wales Bonner is making a lot of noise. Her graduation collection from Central Saint Martins, 2014, was awarded the L’Oréal Professionnel Talent Award. She debuted her eponymous menswear label Wales Bonner last year at Fashion East, the same year she was awarded Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards. She staged her first solo show at the London Collections Men in June and a week later was unanimously awarded the third LVMH prize. Decided by a panel of the luxury group’s main designers, including Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs, Wales Bonner received €300,000 and a year’s mentoring.
“Grace was special from the onset,” says Delphine Arnault, director and executive vice-president of Louis Vuitton, who conceived the award. “There is this quiet intensity about her and the strength of her vision, which translated into this very personal world. The LVMH prize will give her the financial means to bring it to the next step and allow her talent to grow further.”
In an industry undergoing major self-analysis, where seasonality, distribution and gender are all subject to endless discussion, Wales Bonner offers a radical point of view. One of five children who grew up in south London, her mother is a business consultant who deals in the more “emotional” affairs of the boardroom exchange and her father is a lawyer; she describes herself as “mixed-race” and her collections are a study in identity. She uses the word “hybridity” to speak of her designs and does exhaustive research in the build to each collection (“There isn’t a book in the world Grace hasn’t read,” says Lulu Kennedy, founder and director of Fashion East, which launched Wales Bonner). But her starting point is always personal. “It’s important to think about emotional, soulful dressing,” she explains over scrambled egg and avocado. “I’m interested in how clothes make you feel.”
On the catwalk, Wales Bonner’s models are usually black, and often cast from among the collaborators she has met in Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and the UK, and her clothes are a mix of traditional African dress, classical British tailoring and extraordinary craft details. Her SS17 collection was dedicated to the ceremonial clothes of Haile Selassie and the music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Caribbean’s first composer. The men inspired her, she explains, “because they mixed with European society and understood the codes of dress, but also expressed real personal style”.
The show was a standout. “It looks very fresh against what other people are doing,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director for womenswear at Matches.com, who bought pieces from Wales Bonner’s first collections to sell, recut, as womenswear. “It’s modern and luxurious. And it’s all made with love.”
Wales Bonner is unashamedly a luxury label: the collections are small and made using demi-couture techniques, so the prices are expensive (£1,800 for an embellished jacket, £700 for trousers). She blurs the lines that distinguish cultures and gender, yet her clothes are always refined and highly considered. “I like working in established infrastructures, or systems, because I feel within those frameworks there’s more to push,” she explains. She might just as easily have started a womenswear label, but she liked the rigour of men’s tailoring. “I feel womenswear can be quite emotional and psychological, in the ways that it makes you feel, where that side hasn’t been so developed in menswear.”
Her creative path has been anything but straightforward. “I feel like I’ve always tried to do the hardest thing,” says the designer, who submitted a dissertation in lieu of a final project at Saint Martins because she thought the study would at least aid a career in writing if she “wasn’t going to do well in fashion”. She adds: “If there’s a choice, I’ll always try and do the more difficult thing. I feel like there’s no point trying to do anything other than that.”
Her eye is uncompromised. She sends men down her catwalk in large hoop earrings, wide-brim hats and, sometimes, skirts. “The guys I work with are a good measure of what’s appropriate,” she says, when I ask if anyone has baulked at wearing her more feminine looks. “I make clothes for specific boys and their characters, and I know they will be more open to things. The nicest thing is when people say a piece makes them feel a certain way, and you see how it changes their posture and how they walk and carry themselves and talk. That’s what’s really exciting to me.”
Wales Bonner’s is an academic process. It’s increasingly political also. Her references are bound up in the complicated histories of immigration and ethnicity — in her first collection she used the cowry shell (once a unit of currency in Africa) as a decorative embellishment. But while cultural homage can be controversial in fashion, where designers might “borrow” tribal styles or plait a model’s hair with cornrows to lend their aesthetic a certain sensibility, Wales Bonner is quick to distance herself from such wholesale appropriation.
“I think, with my work, it’s more about mixing things and allowing couture techniques and craft techniques to stand with the same integrity,” says the designer, who is about to spend a month at Thread, an artists’ residency in Senegal run by the Albers Foundation, where she will research weaving, textiles and crafts, among other things. “It’s about coming at it from a different point of view.”
Perhaps it’s inevitable her work is becoming more political — or that others are politicising it on her behalf. “It’s a British standpoint, I guess, as a result of being mixed-race. Everything I do is seen through that lens,” she says. “I try and avoid being too political, but I feel like now, with the way everything is going on [and the growth of Black Lives Matter] I have a responsibility: it’s a horrendous time. But my approach is quite delicate, I guess, it’s quite soft.”
Soft it may be, but Wales Bonner’s work has a gentle power. “She’s managed to reclaim histories that were stolen,” says Fashion East’s Lulu Kennedy, “and she’s somehow giving back incredible dignity to those cultures. It’s quite awe-inspiring.”
Wales Bonner is no ordinary 25-year-old. And she’s nothing like the often-giddy graduate designers one meets with no other plan than to have it all, and have it now. “A lot of kids we talk to nowadays, it’s all about their social media strategy, their online stores, selling direct to customers and their following,” says Kennedy. “Grace has rarely talked about product or customers, it’s always been about the message and the story she is telling.”
“The way I want to do things is specific, and it’s a slow game,” says Wales Bonner, who has so far resisted pressure to expand. “I guess there are avenues where you can do things that are light-hearted and fun and enjoyable. But that wouldn’t excite me.” She also observes that expedient career decisions are often the only option for young London designers in a city in which, “You have to be very reactive to the opportunities that are presented, and which can stop you from having a long-sighted vision, because you don’t have the resources to think further ahead”.
With such a mature outlook, you wonder if she might be too serious. She’s currently reading Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — “It’s pretty hardcore” — and listening to Kelsey Lu, an “incredible” musician from North Carolina who plays the cello and sings. Are all her pursuits terribly intellectual? “No!” she laughs. “I watch Towie [The Only Way Is Essex] and stuff.” And she likes comedy. “I love Julia Davis [of Nighty Night]. She’s my favourite. She’s a genius.”
One can imagine Wales Bonner becoming a much bigger cultural voice. “You don’t have to buy the clothes to engage with what I’m doing,” she says. “Wales Bonner is a cultural standpoint, I guess.” She worked with the Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist on a musical performance piece last year and she’s already thinking of ways to work on a broader platform.
“She reminds me of Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo in the way that her work transcends the fashion industry,” says Obrist. “She has no fear about working across all the disciplines — art, fashion and music — in a very integrated way. And her exploration of ‘in-between’ identities is very 21st-century.”
“The way she conducts herself, you can see she’s going to be an authority, you get that straight away from her,” agrees Kennedy. “Although she loves fashion, there are so many facets to her. She’s a force to be reckoned with.” And, not for the first time when someone has been talking about Grace Wales Bonner, Kennedy adds: “She’s amazing.”
Photographs: Greg Funnell; Catwalking; Getty