Tank : Grace Wales Bonner
Transbluesency: with radical self-consciousness, Grace Wales Bonner is redefining menswear
Born in southeast London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, the menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner uses her work to tap into identity – her own, and more general representations of blackness in Western culture. Her autumn/winter 2015 collection, shown as part of Fashion East, featured a cast of skinny, black male models dressed in high-waisted flares, halter-neck tops, jewelled skull caps and crushed-velvet bouclé suits embellished with Swarovski crystals and cowrie shells (once a form of currency in certain parts of Africa). Wales Bonner’s clothes both conform to and break stereotypes, and seeing them felt like coming up for air. “The collection explored the space between European ideals of opulence and elegance, and then something very real, very directly African,” she says. “I’m trying to approach the subject of representing race through imagery that I see as gentle and beautiful, because I feel like it’s often treated heavy-handedly or thrown into being exotic. The main thing for me is sensitivity.”
Growing up between two cultures caused her to consider who she was. “My black aunties would do my hair and traditional Jamaican family values have been a big part of my life,” she says. “You know, eating together, music and celebrations. But I guess I’m quite different to my family as well. I’ve had a very different experience of life to a lot of them.”
It was only when she entered secondary school that she started to become racially self-aware. “At school I never thought about my race, but as a teenager with certain groups I always felt pressured to prove a certain kind of blackness,” she explains. “As I got older, I realised that that was one specific side of blackness and one that I didn’t necessarily need to be like. So the politics of identity and who you align yourself with are things that have always been on my mind. Like, where do I sit in this equation? Getting involved with art and visual culture was another way for me to look at history and how I relate to it.”
Wales Bonner published a zine, Everythings For Real, as a print manifestation of her various historic references, interspersed with poetry and collages that inspired the autumn/winter collection. “My work is really informed by literature,” she says. “For the last collection I looked to Harlem Renaissance poets such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. Last season, I studied authors from the 1960s and then moved towards gay writing and academic sources on the African diaspora and the Indian Ocean.” African-American writer Amiri Baraka has also shaped Wales Bonner’s thinking, and while they work in different media, the two share a gift for raising consciousness.