This Friday at the VA, the Fashion in Motion series, which has featured designers ranging from Alexander McQueen to Peter Jensen, welcomes a new name. Grace Wales Bonner, a 24-year-old menswear designer with only two collections behind her, has curated a presentation in the grand old museum. It is, as Bonner herself admits, “an incredible opportunity. I’m using it as way to introduce my work.”
This work might only be two seasons old, but it is a bubbling cauldron of references, partly based on Bonner’s mixed race, black British identity, “the intersections between cultures”. She graduated from Central Saint Martins last year,winning the L’Oreal design award for a collection that mixed “influences of Coco Chanel with blaxploitation films and African craft techniques”.
Her first post-university collection, shown under the Fashion East umbrella in January, developed these themes. Young, skinny black men lounged around reeds and carpets wearing a mixture of 70s sportswear, thick velvets and headdresses made of shells. It felt decadent, flamboyant and, above all, different. “My work is about a softness and a sensuality, being comfortable with that,” says Bonner. “I try to make my images as unstereotypical as possible.” They are reminiscent of the studio portraits by photographers Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso, and similar compositions will be in place for Fashion in Motion.
Bonner says she is interested pushing black male identity in fashion beyond the streetwear we have become used to. “I don’t relate to the street representation, that urban character who is very masculine,” she says. Instead, the 70s, and the heroes of blaxploitation movies, provide inspiration for something less “regimented”.
“It was OK for men to wear makeup,” she says, “people were freer in how they dressed. I hope that is becoming the case again.” With designers such as Bonner on the scene, it is definitely a possibility.