Wales Bonner SS23 was an ode to forgotten Black history
The collection was inspired by Alessandro de Medici, one-time ruler of Florence and Europe’s first Black head of state.
Images courtesy of go runway.com
Yesterday evening, as the harsh Florentine sunlight softened and dappled into the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Wales Bonner staged its first physical fashion show in over two years. The location was not just special, but historical — for the first time in its 577-year history, the Palazzo was the setting for a catwalk show. As the guest designer of Pitti Uomo, Grace, the label’s namesake founder, managed to secure the space, only to invite the artist Ibrahim Mahama to cover it entirely in a giant tapestry of jute sacks used to trade cocoa beans, which he sourced from the markets of his native Ghana.
Florence was a city of trade, after all, and the show was a homage to its one-time ruler and resident of this particular palace. Alessandro de Medici was Europe’s first Black head of state, a prince from the Florentine banking dynasty whose mother was a ‘servant’ and whose father was either Duke Lorenzo or Pope Clement VII. History forgot him — or at least preferred to forget one crucial detail: his race. So, Grace decided to make a collection with him at the forefront of her mind; to give him his flowers, as it were.
For Grace, Black history is an endless fountain of inspiration for the stories she chooses to tell through fashion — and in doing so, she’s changing its course by building a fashion house with Afro-Atlantic culture and heritage at its heart, a stark contrast to most European brands. Before the show, she explained how Sankofa, a bird-looking-backwards symbol of Ghana’s Akan people, became a talismanic motif for her approach: “It means going back to go forward. It is not about being nostalgic or historical. It’s about taking something from the past in order to pass it forward and make it useful for the future — and that’s the spirit of this collection.”
There couldn’t be a better ethos to describe Wales Bonner’s official mission of proposing “cultural luxury that infuses European heritage with an Afro-Atlantic spirit”. Indeed, the collection was fit for a Black Medici, past and present. A T-shirt Grace designed in collaboration with superstar artist Kerry James Marshall opened the show, taking its rightful place in a palace built for patrons of Old Masters. She also worked with Charvet, the best purveyor of chic cotton and silk shirting in Paris, as well as the legendary Saville Row tailoring firm Anderson & Sheppard on cashmere tuxedos and a broad-shouldered camelhair coat — which were shown alongside hand-dyed jerseys made by artisans in Burkina Faso and macramé dresses strewn with precious recycled-glass bead and crystals made in Ghana.
Red satin collars came dotted with silver studs, baroque pearl jewellery adorning the collars those cashmere tuxedos and delicate silver studs tracing the shapes of Renaissance doublets on semi-silk kurta-length shirts and a bright cobalt suede jacket. However, for all the sartorial codes of old-world richness and formality, athletic ease diffused the vulgarity of wealth. Tracksuit tops, raw-hemmed linens and slouchy blue denim grounded it all in the here and now — in the present-day reality of Wales Bonner’s loyal customers.
What makes Wales Bonner special is that, in the truest sense of luxury, there is a distinct commitment to handcraft and tailoring. Her ongoing collaboration with Adidas Originals, for instance, isn’t just another product of the luxury-sneaker industrial complex, but rather a return to a time when sportswear was handmade, just as equally considered as a Saville Row suit. Her latest patent leather football boots, with their extended tongues and contrast stitching, were entirely made by hand, stitched together just like the jute sacks that comprised the set. How do you even do that on an industrial scale? At the insistence of Grace, they’re handmade in German ateliers with similar techniques that are used in Italy to make, for instance, the zebra calf loafers and snakeskin boots elsewhere in the show.
Handcraft is something that Grace always been focused on, right from her Central Saint Martins graduate collection in 2014. Seven years later, she’s at the stage where she can look back at her own canon of work in order to decipher a new direction for her independent label. “It was about connecting with elements of the history of Wales Bonner, as well as thinking about ideas in history of black reputation in Florence,” she said after the show, her explanation of the Sankofa symbol still lingering in the air. “It was about going into the archive and thinking about some of those early ideas or aspirations that I had within Wales Bonner, and translating those with a different sensibility that I have after maturing and defining how I work.”
Ultimately, beyond the symbolism, what makes Grace’s mission so powerful is that it looks magnificent, more elegant than any other menswear (or indeed womenswear) on catwalks right now. At Wales Bonner, nothing is ever too literal or clunkily conveyed. The nobility of Black history, and its unsung stories, are subtly displayed through beauty so refined that in doing so, it feels as if Grace is giving her community’s forefathers their long overdue flowers. For a generation of customers for whom these stories resonate, that is what makes Grace such a leader for her community. In her hands, and the many she invites to join them, getting dressed becomes an radical act of defiance — a celebration of the beauty of Black history in the face of its very un-beautiful context.
All images courtesy of go runway.com