Grace Wales Bonner has just won the annual LVMH Prize, one of the industry’s most prestigious awards. Graduating from Central Saint Martins two years ago, the 25-year-old menswear designer has already become a formidable presence in in fashion, both globally and internationally, with a powerful mix of beautiful clothes and racial and sexual philosophy. Wales Bonner beat seven other finalists, including Vejas, Koché and Alyx, to the award. She was selected by a panel of industry figures including Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière, Phoebe Philo and Marc Jacobs. The fash pack kind of knew already; here’s what key fashion writers have said about Wales Bonner in the last two years.
Business of Fashion, June 2016: ‘The scope of Wales Bonner’s vision was defined by the title she gave her latest collection: Ezekiel. His Old Testament prophecies played a part in the elevation of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, as a new black messiah. Selassie was famously regarded as such by Jamaica’s Rastafarians, which brings us back to the Caribbean. Worlds bridged, as Wales Bonner observed in her shownotes. But worlds also bridged in Selassie’s integration of formal Western dress and his own ceremonial traditions, and that was one of Wales Bonner’s touchstones.
The clothes were a conversation between rigorous, linear tailoring, silken flou and artisanal handcrafts. If there was a sense of one kind of history in a priestly capelet or the line of a long, high-closing coat or the romance of a poet shirt, there was another in the crocheted collar on a black leather bomber, or the crocheted waistband on the trousers of the immaculately precise evening look with which Wales Bonner closed her show.
Her subtle integration of these different vocabularies has been a signature from the start, and it’s kickstarted her career, still barely two years old since graduating from Central St. Martin’s, to a spectacular degree. Quietly intense, Wales Bonner insists the attention has made her feel more confident, rather than pressured.
And there was at least one look in this new collection which illuminated her glittering future: a three-quarter-sleeved ivory silk shirt flowing over cropped leather motocross pants was a hybrid that so seductively bridged those cultures and faiths we were just talking about that it made you giddy with the heat of the crucible.’ (Tim Blanks)
Evening Standard, June 2016: ‘Smooth shouldered jackets with voluminous sleeves and neatly pinched waists combined with choir boy ruffles, crochet collars and glittering bead work in a collection entitled Ezekiel and inspired by the the crowning of the Ethiopian emperor in 1930. For Bonner, daughter of a English mother and a Jamaican father, the objective is always to celebrate her hybrid heritage in a formal, refined way. For the clothes on offer, this meant frock coats and romantic ruffles trimmed with intentionally kitsch palm motifs and oversized hoop earrings, reminiscent of Ethiopian tribalwear, presented alongside croc effect clutch bags. “It was a clashing of different things” said the designer after the show, “I wanted the Caribbean influences to feel like clichés but I wanted the collection to be more formal, more refined, more restrained. The tailoring is more European”. The result is a collection that includes some of the most exciting craftsmanship the British luxury market has seen in some time – and a new chapter for British menswear in which gender becomes a much more fluid proposition. Where Bonner is concerned, clothes should not be attributed to a gender but to the individual who wears them.’ (Karen Dacre).
Vogue, January 2016: ‘The breakout this season was Grace Wales Bonner – although having already bagged a British Fashion Award and global exposure, she was a sure bet who understandably didn’t stray far from her established formula. That formula is the decorated male, with specific reference to the West Indies; Wales Bonner has explored African-influenced themes throughout her career, which, although brief, has been intriguing.
Obsessed as she is with history – rich in stories and visually rich – Wales Bonner herself said backstage that she didn’t feel beholden to it. Hence the mash-up of 1970s with 1870s, of African-American slave songs, Bollywood, and the psychedelic Afrofuturists, the Nigerian Irish composer Tunde Jegede strumming a West African harp as the models walked. Those models wore another mash-up of Funkadelic wide-lapel tailoring, Victoriana crystal beading across silky tracksuiting, and shirts sharply tugged in at the waist, like cotillion dresses. Feminine? Wales Bonner winced. “It’s about bringing beauty and sensuality to menswear,” she said. But who says that can’t be masculine?’ (Alexander Fury)
Guardian, April 2015: ‘This work might only be two seasons old, but it is a bubbling cauldron of references, partly based on Bonner’s mixed race, black British identity, “the intersections between cultures”. She graduated from Central Saint Martins last year, winning the L’Oreal design award for a collection that mixed “influences of Coco Chanel with blaxploitation films and African craft techniques”. Her first post-university collection, shown under the Fashion East umbrella in January, developed these themes. Young, skinny black men lounged around reeds and carpets wearing a mixture of 70s sportswear, thick velvets and headdresses made of shells. It felt decadent, flamboyant and, above all, different. “My work is about a softness and a sensuality, being comfortable with that,” says Bonner. “I try to make my images as unstereotypical as possible.”’ (Lauren Cochrane)
Dazed, January 2015: ‘When Grace Wales Bonner’s BA collection – decadent pink mohair, cream bouclé suits, high-waisted flares and jewelled cuffs styled on a team of striking black male models – burst onto the Central Saint Martins graduate show runway, industry attendees sat up a little straighter. Her designs took their cue from black visual culture and critical theory, subverting both constructs of masculinity and the hallmarks of privilege that define European luxury fashion. For Wales Bonner … fashion constitutes a vessel for her own self-exploration. “My identity lies between the two different cultures,” she explains. “With the collection, it was about exploring the space between European ideals of opulence, elegance, and then something very real, very directly African.”’ (Elizabeth Neep)