In a ravishing show on Sunday, menswear’s bright star Grace Wales Bonner showed London how it’s done.
The young star of menswear right now is Grace Wales Bonner, who presented her first standalone runway show on Sunday in London. And if those facts make you think of abandoned warehouse venues and last-minute backstage glue-gunning, you're obviously not familiar with this young designer. The invitation said Grosvenor Place: the strip of palatial townhouses the Queen calls her neighbors. Inside, the heavy stucco of a small ballroom was painted optical white contrasted only by the gold of gilded friezes framing each ceiling. Panels of mirrors scattered across the parquet floors reflected the light of enormous, icy crystal chandeliers. The show notes opened with the sentence, "The coronation of the Emperor of Ethiopia," and when it was over a tails-clad string quartet scored an intimate champagne reception in those regal rooms.
In a time when the term "cultural appropriation" gets thrown around casually on social media and the wrong hairstyle will make people label you "culturally insensitive," Grace's sheer courage is amazing. A multi-racial but predominantly black cast ceremoniously swayed through those halls in what Grace called a "Pan-African" collection with "Caribbean influences." Granted, the free interpretation of those cultures across continents is perhaps less scrutinized when a designer of Jamaican descent does it, but it doesn't change the delicate nature of the subject in a fashion world where only last year, some criticized Valentino for using the word 'tribal' in its show notes — without defining precisely to which African tribal culture it was referring to. Grace seems to have no such worries and that's what makes her work so excellent, such a tribute to the cultures she interprets.
"I felt like I needed to do something quite restrained, because it gives me the freedom to then do some other things. I wanted to do something that was just very elegant and pure," she said after the show, which fused a baroque, almost fairytale idea of Pan-African court dress with more street-like elements from Caribbean nightlife. Tailoring was light, skinny, a bit Oxford-in-the-20s in a way that could also be described as colonial. Casualwear was princely, delicate, some of it encrusted with jewels, a few hints of Renaissance dress here and there. The models looked like porcelain dolls and walked like they were emperors on their way to that coronation. The collection was utterly decadent, the show completely enchanting. It was emotional, for its beauty and its guts, and in a gentrified London fashion landscape once so courageous and experimental, Grace reminded us how it's done.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Mitchell Sams