Here’s the thing about designer Grace Wales Bonner: When she speaks, you sit there a bit mesmerized. The young designer, born to an English mother and Jamaican father, considers fashion a conduit to better understanding her own heritage. References to literature, art, and history slip easily into descriptions of her collections for her eponymous label, Wales Bonner, which often come from a place of examining identity and representation. It’s easy to see how the young Central Saint Martins grad has become a new favorite among the fashion set. The woman has substance.
She recognized the real impact of her designs when she presented her Fall 2015 collection, Ebonics, after graduating. Wary of how people would react, Wales Bonner was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. “That’s when I realized again that you can communicate so much with clothing, and people can read into that and what you’re doing in a deep way.”
The collection, which featured rich, deep tones of chocolate and indigo, luxe crushed velvet, and crystals intertwined with tailored denim and raw silk, reexamined the concept of formalwear while riffing on exoticism. In 2016 Wales Bonner became the first menswear designer to win the LVMH Prize for young fashion designers and has since expanded into womenswear.
Her initial interest in menswear came from the critical distance that exists between her and her designs. This has allowed for a more experimental approach to each collection, evidenced by signature pieces like velvet separates and slim-fit trousers. “I feel like menswear can be quite conservative, so there’s a lot of scope to develop and move it forward,” she says. “And I think there’s a bit more freedom and fluidity in womenswear, which I’m really just starting to develop.”
Wales Bonner is becoming recognized for her precise tailoring work — think structured jackets and perfectly proportioned suiting — which is integral to her design process. “There’s this kind of classicism in tailoring,” she says. “And [I look] to disrupt that quite subtly.” This disruption comes from an aesthetic largely influenced by her interest in cultural narratives and identity politics and her ability to create, as she says, “some kind of hybrid or a meeting point between two different cultural perspectives.”
As for her own forecast on future collections? “For some time now I’ve been thinking about spirituality and how that manifests in aesthetics through artists like Alice Coltrane,” Wales Bonner says. “I’ve been thinking about how that ties in with some of the recent trips I’ve been doing.” For Spring 2019, these inspirations manifest in the form of patchwork brocades from India styled over pants and jackets adorned with prayer chimes.
Wales Bonner is also expanding her horizons beyond the realm of fashion with an interdisciplinary exhibit at London’s Serpentine Galleries for which she collaborated with a range of creatives, including writers, visual artists, and musicians. “It’s really exciting to have a way to express myself in a more broad sense, and so that’s something I’m interested in,” the designer says. “Not only in the way I present collections but also in allowing more people to engage with what I’m working on.”