Grace Wales Bonner demands a lot of her guests and fans. For a young designer, she’s done well to establish a position where she’s calling the shots. Tickets for her show were scarce - established journalists were turned away. Some will huff, but so be it. That sense of exclusivity is important to the success of her label - for all the sparkles and embellishments, her work is not attention-seeking or try-hard. Maybe intimacy is a better word than exclusivity. After all, including and spotlighting those who have long been ignored by the fashion industry is her focus. Wales Bonner’s work is about inviting us into a world. It’s about diversity, openness, honesty. Today, she spoke of looking to, ‘a realness, a thread connecting the streets of Paris to Dakar, Kingston to London.’
There was an urgency and a pace to today’s A/W 17 show. Models walked so fast one almost couldn’t take in the clothes. It felt like one was observing a busy metropolitan street; people going about their day. And didn’t they look comfortable in their clothes! In the past Wales Bonner’s work has veered towards costume. There’s something so rarefied and archaic about aspects of it that one wondered if its rightful place is a vitrine rather than a shop floor - tellingly, she’s exhibitioned both at the V&A and the Serpentine. But this was a broader offering - notably that she emphasised firmly ‘the street’ in her given inspirations. This is a collection that can have a life off the runway - those tracksuits, vintage-look leather jackets and easy pieces of shirting were more accessible designs than we’ve been used to from Wales Bonner.
The collection was called Spirituals II. Indeed, there is something of a cult around Wales Bonner. It’s been beautiful watching her grow her flock. Today, her collaborations spoke of the esteem in which she is held. Master milliner Stephen Jones crafted the headpieces, which nodded to the 16th century. Legendary shoemaker Manolo Blahnik crafted the sandals and boots. Turner-prize nominated artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye contributed a vaguely impenetrable poem Over-Song for a Seer, while Sampha, one of the only men with a voice haunting enough to do Wales Bonner’s clothes justice, composed an original soundtrack.
At the show, there was much buzz around the set - an installation of sound systems borrowed from Notting Hill Carnival, around which models lapped. Appropriately, many read this as a link between Bonner and the Afro-Caribbean community in London. I couldn’t help but also think of British artist Mark Leckey’s 2003 first sound system performance BigBoxStatueAction at the Tate Britain. Here, he confronted Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, Jacob and the Angel, with a towering sound system blasting songs such as Beach Boys’ Our Prayer and Throbbing Gristle’s Persuasion. The sound systems today also confronted Wales Bonner’s clothes - their potential for disorder and interruption contrasting with the serenity of her designs. It made also made me think of how Wales Bonner confronts the industry she works in, holding a mirror up to it and, respectfully and stoically, calling it out on its priorities.