As a high school student in London, Grace Wales Bonner would take an hour-long bus ride that began in Dulwich, the plush suburb where she lived, and rolled through Brixton, Streatham, and Tooting, diverse neighborhoods bustling with people who had come to live in the city from all over the world. “I’d see everyone getting on and off the bus, and I’d notice how different groups would dress in certain ways, by mixing sportswear with traditional dress,” she recalls. “That was quite formative for me in understanding how people use clothes.”
Her fascination with dress as a form of cultural coding has established Wales Bonner, a petite, delicately pretty 27-year-old British-Jamaican, as one of Britain’s fastest-rising fashion stars. Since her debut show three years ago, she has won rave reviews for her impeccably constructed men’s wear collections, and has received a clutch of awards, among them the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, which included 300,000 euros to invest in her business. (She says “the best thing about winning was the confidence it gave me.”) She has also claimed a singular role in London’s cultural scene by steeping her designs in African and Afro-Caribbean history, postcolonial cultural theory, and black and post-black literature.
“The first time I met Grace I was completely mesmerized,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the influential artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, in London. “Not only are her clothes great, she uses the context of fashion to work with amazing people from all disciplines, bringing together magical groups of artists, musicians, and poets.”
Take her most recent presentation, which was inspired by a favorite book, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, a 1939 prose poem by the writer Aimé Césaire. “I was thinking about Césaire returning to Martinique after being educated in Paris and observing it from a distance, and I imagined a sailor returning to his homeland after a long time at sea,” Wales Bonner explains in her gentle voice. “So I looked at 1940s nautical clothing and uniforms, and thought about how to reflect the sensuality of the port by cutting the cloth to reveal the skin.”
She also invited the young African-American artist Eric N. Mack to make textile sculptures as sets for the show, and at the dinner she hosted afterward, her friend the poet James Massiah recited the work of another Caribbean writer, Derek Walcott. Daunting as this may sound—the program for the show included a list of 18 books that had influenced the collection—Wales Bonner somehow manages to keep things lively and engaging. “I always come to things from a black cultural perspective,” she says. “I feel a personal need to explore certain ideas, and to research and handle things in a specific way. But I’m also interested in clothes being seductive.” The cropped peacoats and gently flared pants for fall are prime examples.
While Wales Bonner has established a loyal band of global stockists, including Dover Street Market, the Webster, and Matches Fashion, she still lives fairly frugally, sharing a friend’s house in East London with her boyfriend. She recently upgraded her studio and moved to 180 the Strand, a brutalist office block in central London that is being converted into creative work spaces, galleries, and recording studios. Appointed as an artist-in-residence there, Wales Bonner was given a space for two years, and currently enjoys an atelier with postcard views of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye Ferris wheel. Her main indulgence is travel. In the past year, she’s visited South Africa and India; this fall she plans to spend time in Trinidad and Jamaica.
For someone with such a flair for fashion, Wales Bonner, surprisingly, was ambivalent about pursuing it as a career. Growing up with her two sisters, their father, a lawyer (his parents emigrated to Britain from Jamaica), and their mother, a white British business consultant, she was a clever, creative child who was torn between studying history, art, and design. She finally enrolled at Central Saint Martins and chose fashion, seeing it as a means of pursuing her growing interest in cultural identity while collaborating with friends working in music, art, literature, and philosophy.
From the beginning, Wales Bonner’s concept of fashion was very different from the glitz-and-glamour cliché. Encouraged by her father, she had started to read the works of 20th-century writers including Césaire, Walcott, and postcolonial theorists like the Martinican philosophers Édouard Glissant and Frantz Fanon. In the final year of her degree, she wrote a dissertation on the thinking behind her graduation collection. “It was a study of black rhythmicality and how it expresses itself in aesthetics,” she recalls. “I didn’t really need to do it, but I wanted to.”
Six months after completing her studies, Wales Bonner showed her first men’s wear collection at Fashion East, a nonprofit that helps fledgling London designers launch their careers. “The distance of designing for men gives me the space to think in a different way, to project and to explore fantasies,” she says. Velvet jackets and pants were embellished with crystals and cowrie shells, which were once used as currency in Africa. The program described the collection as “a riff on exoticism—echoing through the ballrooms of the Harlem Renaissance,” and the bibliography included two of the most important African-American novels of the 20th century, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “I was very interested in representing the type of masculinity I felt close to: a gentle, sensual, and fluid man, who’s so comfortable in his sexuality that he feels free to blur the lines.” (Women with similar sensibilities, like the musicians FKA Twigs and Kelsey Lu, quickly started wearing her clothes.)
For her latest outing, Wales Bonner purposely adapted a few pieces to fit women—including an exquisitely cut white pantsuit—but she still wants them to feel like men’s clothes. She often wears her own men’s designs, with Adidas Stan Smiths, her hair tied back neatly in a ponytail or bun. “I guess you’d describe my taste as fairly conservative,” she says. “I really like what Phoebe Philo did at Céline, and I love Prada, especially the generic stuff, rather than the runway collection.”
Her design process begins by building a picture of an imaginary world and its characters through images and sounds. Only then does she think about what these characters, like the Martinican sailor, might wear. From there, she makes prototypes as toiles, which she refines like an old-school grand couturier by fitting them on models or friends. Having decided on the concept of the collection, she creates collages of the images unearthed in her research as prompts for the collaborators she invites to work on her shows, such as Mack, Massiah, and the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who wrote a poem for the fall 2017 program. “Reaching out to an artist like Lynette, whom I greatly admire, always challenges me, and that’s a helpful part of the process,” Wales Bonner says. Many of her past collaborators, including Yiadom-Boakye and the musician Sampha, are now her friends. She forges a similar rapport with her models, all chosen to portray different archetypes.
At a time when fashion seems to be more focused on spectacle than message, Wales Bonner’s multidimensional approach has clearly struck a chord. Her rare ability to interpret complex ideas with such clarity and passion makes her work seem charming, not pretentious, irresistible, not unapproachable. “Everything Grace does is beautifully realized,” Obrist says. “Her collages are great artworks, and I love her programs. There’s no English word for what she does, but in German we call it a Gesamtkunstwerk—a complete work of art.”