The London designer making waves in menswear

Models (above) for menswear brand Wales Bonner, founded by London designer Grace Wales Bonner.
Models (above) for menswear brand Wales Bonner, founded by London designer Grace Wales Bonner. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Models for menswear brand Wales Bonner, founded by London designer Grace Wales Bonner (above).
Models for menswear brand Wales Bonner, founded by London designer Grace Wales Bonner (above). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • At just 29, Grace Wales Bonner is one of London's most promising designers, exploring black male identity through her eponymous menswear brand with looks that have caught the eye of celebrities such as the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle.

Wales Bonner, the daughter of a Jamaican father and English mother, unveiled her 2020 autumn/winter collection on Sunday at London Fashion Week Men's with a clear nod to her Caribbean roots.

Said Wales Bonner: "My grandfather came to London in the 50s, so it is about the second generation who grew up in London (in the 1970s).

"I was really interested in the youth community and how people embrace British traditions, but also how they perform their identities or connections to the Caribbean. It is also looking to the multiculturalism in Britain at that time."

Dubbed Lovers Rock - named for a style of romantic reggae born in the British capital and popular in the 1970s and 1980s - Wales Bonner's collection was partly inspired by photographer John Goto.

Goto captured the British African-Caribbean community of Lewisham, in south-east London, in 1977.

Wales Bonner, who grew up in south London, also dug into her own personal history. "It feels like an inevitable collection for me to do - it is like coming home, in a way."

Her cuts recall Savile Row, the prestigious road of bespoke tailors synonymous with English style since the 1960s.

Caribbean symbols, such as gold buttons on a serge reefer jacket, are displayed with pride. The crosscultural look can be seen in hats made from Scottish wool from the Shetland islands, but in Jamaican colours.

"It is a mix of very traditional, recognisable British fabrics, but also trying to disrupt them a little bit," said Wales Bonner.

She also reinterprets the works of Frank Bowling, the British abstract painter who was born in Guyana. A retrospective of his work was displayed at the Tate Modern art gallery last year.

 
 

His colourful Swan I and II paintings are now printed on silk shirts, with the bird symbolising the irrepressible desire for freedom.

Sunday's catwalk show, backed by an impressive sound system, resembled a family or street party with the public - including young and old members of the AfricanCaribbean community - sitting at round tables, sipping hibiscus tea.

Wales Bonner had only just left the Central Saint Martins fashion design college in 2014 when her graduate collection, Afrique, won the L'Oreal Professionnel Talent Awards.

Her first autumn/winter collection in 2015, Ebonics, was critically acclaimed. That same year, she was also named best young talent in menswear at the British Fashion Awards.

She followed that up 12 months later with the LVMH young designer prize for a collection evoking the 1930 coronation of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

Endorsements by some of the industry's biggest names - including Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquiere - spurred her to develop her own brand.

Another welcome piece of publicity came last May when Meghan Markle, the wife of Britain's Prince Harry, chose one of Wales Bonner's creations in photographs introducing the couple's son, Archie.

"There's definitely been more visibility - more awareness - around the brand. It's been very positive. It was a gracious thing for her to do," Wales Bonner said.

 
 

"I think it is quite amazing how she uses her platform to support other people - other women - as well. She has been very clever and seems to be very generous and sincere in her intentions."

Wales Bonner, who cites Coco Chanel and British designer Phoebe Philo as role models, is passionate about the issues of identity and representation. She delves into art, literature, music and black history for ideas.

"It (fashion) feels like the most direct and easiest way for me to communicate and to express myself," she said. "I am always looking at this very refined, beautiful vision of masculinity."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2020, with the headline 'The London designer making waves in menswear'. Print Edition | Subscribe