Charles Jeffrey and Grace Wales Bonner take us on a journey from club culture to the African diaspora across the Indian Ocean.
Fashion East was maybe, just maybe, the most exciting show this season. Held over two floors at the ICA, Charles Jeffrey and Grace Wales Bonner - both Central Saint Martins graduates - presented us with two completely opposing worlds. Go downstairs and you'll be hit with the smell of flowers, the blast of block rockin-beats and the infectious energy of the club kids dancing on a stage in handmade Savile Row shorts splattered with paint, tailored trousers shredded down the front and tights pulled up over their T-shirts. As well as harking back to the club night Jeffrey used to run in Dalston called Loverboy, it was a collection that held two fingers up to the hierarchy of the arts education and fashion system. Jeffrey doesn't adhere to the traditional drawing board way of designing, instead he built on the world he is already a part of, celebrating the characters that helped create it - they were his models - and showing the freeness you evidently can still have in fashion if you only let loose from it's commercial restraints.
Head up three floors and it's like you've traversed across dimensions - from an underworld buzzing with chaos and energy to the serenity of, well, absolute heaven. Grace Wales Bonner's second outing with Fashion East looked at the 16th century, Ethiopian slave, Malik Ambar, who went on to become a ruler in Western India. Continuing her investigation of the black diaspora, Wales Bonner presented the cross-cultural purity in pearly crushed velvet, battered silk, terry cloth shirts and wide linen trousers. It was regal elegance contrasted with the immediacy of market- style fabrics. Meanwhile, guarding the doors between the two rooms she took over, were two interpretive dancers, gently rubbing their arms and hiding their faces, in a physical reinterpretation of the journey from poverty to prince.
We caught up with menswears hottest new designers at yesterday's show…
What's the whole idea behind the club down there?
I had started a club night, it was a birthday party that ended up becoming something that had a bit of substance to it. Then it started making me quite a lot of money, so it went into funding my Masters. I was about to drop out because I had no money left. It also became a vehicle for me to start experimenting with other people. Every month, we did a campaign for it, and it was just an opportunity to start working with a lot of my friends who were at art school. We were doing loads of photography and working with artists who built sets inside the club. It was at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston, and the owner was really great. It was kind of a blank canvas and we could do whatever we wanted to it. All of this creativity started feeding into my work a little bit.
Then there was that idea of nonchalance, when you're ready to go out and you put your things together but you don't really care. I think what I was trying to achieve with this was to showcase that you can still have that approach to fashion, it can still have that nonchalance to it. I think with young designers, you're put in a position straight away where you have to reach the same level as everybody else but for me I'm like fuck that, I don't have the money to be able to produce those things, but I still have an opinion on fashion. There are so many great people around me, who have this great way of working and wearing clothes; they just have this energy. I wanted to react to that. For me, this collection was about bringing that nonchalance to menswear.
Did you look back at any club culture?
There are a few references to the 60s and 70s, I looked at Boombox when I was younger and we tried to recreate that at a club night in Glasgow, it was that new rave kind of like, new horror movement. And I guess when I moved to London it was the latter stage of Ponystep so I got to see some of that and got a feel for it, so there are some references to that idea of really dressing for the club. It's almost like a universe I want to work around.
Who are all the people on the stage?
If you look back at all the stuff we've done, they're all the people we photographed, and we started making movies as well, interviewing them and putting them on a pedestal slightly. I really want to continue doing that as a reference to my work, kind of keeping it in your own world. People and brands, like Gosha do that same thing, but obviously within a completely different world. He has those kids who he reacts to and he does photography as well and showcases that world and puts it forward alongside his clothes. I would like to try that as my proposal for my brand. It's all just natural. It's easy. "Nonchalance" is a word I really kind of - it's not like I don't care - but it's just very much like, it just works. You don't have to pin it down with anything. There's a lot of anxiety when it comes to having to pin something down, you lose a lot of your natural taste when you get to that kind of level. You do always have to be critical in order to curate and make things, I do appreciate that, but you do always need that freeness.
How does all of this actually translate into the clothes?
I tried to express that a lot through the painting, for me that's a very cathartic process, we had the set up in Vogue Fabrics, which was where I worked to create a lot of the clothes. We laid out all the denim on the floor with dust sheets and I was just like, "guys, leave me alone for a few hours," and just had a moment of freedom essentially. It's not just like a punk concept, there's a lot of things that are just so frustrating. The fact that you're coming out of uni with £40,000 or £50,000 worth of dept, just to better yourself, it's kind of out of reaction to that. Essentially the energy throughout is just like, fuck it, lets just do it! Who cares, lets keep the tape on that, looks great… Why do you want to try and be like everybody else that fucks you over anyway, what's the point? There's a bit of anger, a bit of "fuck you!" in there as well.
Grace Wales Bonner
What's the whole idea behind the collection?
There are quite a few strands to it but it kind of stemmed from this idea of a character called Malik Ambar who was an Ethiopian ex-slave, who moved to India and became a ruler. It's just about this story of transition, it was a lot more fluid in India to move up the ranks. It's kind of about migration and the cross-cultural mirroring effects you have. The idea of an essential black style and what is created in the margins of that space, between the Indian Ocean and the African diaspora. Another element, when thinking about essential black style, was James Baldwin, about how he puts things together in a really essential way. It was trying to pull things back and pare it down to what's essential in terms of clothing. It was trying to keep a really cool sense of serenity and calm in the clothes; a real sense of comfortableness, and also about the elegance and the beauty of the guys, which is a really important thing to be pushing I think.
How has it evolved from your last collection?
I was trying to be a bit more real, I just came back from Senegal and a lot of what I was thinking about was these odd things I found in the market, they're from a prince's wardrobe but they're found in the market. It's kind of the idea of something very street, and immediate that you can pick up. It was that interplaying with my world of very adorned guys, but also it's just about playing with the margins of those kind of things.
It's so zen in here.
Yeah, I wanted it to be very calm, it's quite intimidating having two rooms because I was like, what am I going to do with it? But I'm really happy with it.
Who are the dancers?
One of them is from Michael Clark, and the other is from Wayne McGregor. My friend MJ choreographed this piece. It's a physical representation of the journey. It's basically about preparing yourself to become a prince, so they're cleaning themselves, washing themselves and they're getting ready to be adorned. It's kind of like a welcoming into the other room. It's about preparing and the postures you have to carry to become this regal, elegant prince, how that physically manifests itself.
Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Anabel Navarro Llorens