Wales Bonner creates its own bold new language for AW21
The lives and works of Caribbean poets and intellectuals, and British sartoriality come together to create the label's most powerful collection yet.
Photography Sean and Seng. Courtesy of Wales Bonner
‘Black Sunlight’ is the final part of Wales Bonner’s trilogy exploring the sociohistorical threads that bind the UK and the Caribbean. In the past two seasons, the focus of Grace Wales Bonner’s research was primarily on music (dub reggae and lovers rock for AW20, and the origins of dancehall for SS21). These were collections that resonated with a wider cultural appetite for reflections on the complex relationship between the erstwhile colonial power and its liberated former subjects, Steve McQueen’s recent Small Axe series being another case in point. For AW21, the London-based designer pushed this conversation further, “thinking more about Caribbean thought and intellectualism, about a school of writing and poetry that has shaped post-colonial discourse, as well as an idea of Caribbean and diasporic identity,” in her own words; about poets and thinkers including Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite and Stuart Hall, and the intellectual legacies they left behind.
The works of Derek Walcott, the Saint Lucian poet and 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, left a particular impression on Grace, acting as “a grounding point” for the collection’s research. Recitals of his poems ‘Exile’ and ‘Star’ soundtrack the collection’s accompanying film, Grace’s second collaboration with Jamaican director Jeano Edwards. Writing in 1985 that “the English language is nobody’s special property, it is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself,” Derek was a key figure of a Caribbean literary school that sought to explore how a language inherited from a colonial power could be reimagined and refashioned “to communicate what it means to be from different places, and to create identity in the in-between spaces,” Grace says.
The body of work that she unveils today, then, is perhaps best thought of as her attempt at doing just that. She asked herself: “How can you soften an institutional framework? How can you actually dismantle or disrupt it from within?” Her responses come in the form of peak-lapelled dinner jackets, rowing blazers and trousers with hybrid boating stripes. Made in collaboration with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, they were liberated of their Oxbridge primness; loosened to give way to a sense of calm confidence and ease.
If the tropes of British sartorialism that Grace has hacked this season seem a little Brideshead Revisited, that’s entirely intentional. Another key point of departure for her fabled research process this season was Pamela Roberts’ Black Oxford, which maps out the history of Black students at the ivory tower of British learning over the past hundred years. “It started to make me think about people who have come to Britain from West Africa, from Jamaica, from India, specifically for education,” she says, noting how they subtly integrated their own codes into British university dress. Those dinner jackets, for example, and preppy checked knit jumpers are worn as naturally over paisley-printed kurta tunics as they are over striped cotton cashmere oxford shirts.
Wales Bonner’s intellectual weight is, of course, one of the things that make the label so distinct. What makes the message so convincing, though, is the level of sophistication and attention to detail with which it’s communicated, rivalling (and in some cases excelling) even the most storied luxury houses. A delicate hand-crocheted skirt, a striped scalloped knit dress, and the hand-stitched detailing on buttery leather and shearling jackets bespeak a dedication to craft and handwork, and, in turn, a humble reverence for the subjects Grace chooses to cast light on through her work.
That sense of consideration extends to the latest iteration of the label’s Adidas Originals collaboration. This season, Grace sought to create “team uniforms,” she explains, the kind that “you might wear if you were on a university sports team.” The three-stripe motifs along the sleeves of a pullover with an ‘Adidas Originals Wales Bonner Literary Academy’ crest are knitted, and sneakers are imagined in fine leathers, a romantic invocation of the fabrications and silhouettes of vintage sportswear.
At first glance, this collection might feel a little more outwardly proper than what we’ve seen from Wales Bonner in recent seasons, but that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of compromise on Grace’s part. Rather, this feels like a bold levelling-up in the approach she’s tirelessly honed since her arrival on the scene almost seven years ago. Much like the thinkers and poets she turned to for inspiration, this is surefire proof that Wales Bonner is forging a new space and language entirely of its own.