grace wales bonner explores heritage and tradition, magic and ritual
Her autumn/winter collection is self-assured, thought-provoking and inspiring.
Among the post-show backstage fashion journalist scrum, dictaphone in hand, hanging on every single one of Grace Wales Bonner’s words, was one Naomi Campbell. It was quite the sight, but then this was quite the show. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be here and hear just want Grace had to say about her autumn/winter 19 collection, Mumbo Jumbo.
Staged at the exhibition Grace curated at the Serpentine, A Time For New Dreams, the models twisted and turned through artworks by Eric Mack, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Liz Johnson Artur. The show opened with Ben Okri, who gave the title to Grace’s exhibition, reading a new work written especially for this show called Invocations For The Shrine. He spoke of new miracles and a brotherhood of dreams, “the more they keep us down the greater we will grow”. Ishmael Reed played the piano throughout, a soft and gentle jazz abstraction. It all set the scene for an incredible show, self-assured, thought-provoking and inspiring.
The clothes Grace created for autumn/winter 19 – back on the LFW schedule after skipping a season, and switching from men’s to women’s weeks – were easily some of the most quietly moving and powerful and interesting we have ever seen her create. The collection took as a starting point Howard University, a historically black college in Washington DC. But through a prism of Americana and Ivy League, Grace explored heritage and tradition, magic and ritual, revelations and mysteries. She looked through Howard University yearbooks to identify staple garments – varsity jackets, wide and loose tailoring, macintoshes, sportswear – that she turned into her collection. “I wanted to imbue these very classic American staples with a sense of magic and spirituality of ritual that comes from another place, from West Africa and the Caribbean,” Grace explained. “I was trying to create a hybrid between very recognisable forms of American college clothing and to transform it, give it a sense of magic, embed it with a new meaning.”
This new meaning, for Grace, was the artist as shaman, the writer as oracle. Clothes came decorated with talismans and mystical symbols alongside the more standard American college name insignia. Even that, though, was transformed, paying reference to James Hampton, an American artist who created a secret shrine in a garage in Washington inscribed with quotes from the Book Of Revelations. Grace transformed him into a St James logo that ran through the collection. “It's also very much thinking about how art can be a very direct form of spirituality, how you can kind of channel spirituality in the processes.” James believed he was receiving messages from God to create. “He also kind of created his own language. I'm interested in these kind of figures that have created, in such synchronised ways, representations of spirituality.”
This has been at the heart too of a lot of what Grace has done. A great fashion designer creates their own language, a great fashion show can often feel a little religious. But at her Serpentine exhibition, Grace has revealed the depth and knowledge that goes into doing what she does. She’s assembled a world of like-minded creators, artists, musicians, writers and poets whose work illuminates and expands her own. It’s like stepping into her brain briefly, overhearing all the dialogues and conversations that go into a collection. Of course, the magic that Grace brings to it is that she transforms it into such beautiful clothing. And this was a collection of truly beautiful clothing.