Last Friday, on what was for UK school children the last (T-shirt weather type) day of a two week Easter break, Grace Wales Bonner became the latest designer to present her work at the V&A as part of the renowned Fashion in Motion series.
A Central Saint Martins graduate – and winner of the 2014 L’Oreal Professional Talent Award – with just a single Fashion East Menswear Installations appearance to her name, Wales Bonner’s turn was not about showing off a grand archive of ideas, as per the traditional ‘in Motion’ model.
Unlike labels that preceded hers, the Sibling’s, Meadham Kirchhoff’s, Kenzo’s and Missoni’s of this world, Grace’s presentation was instead an introduction to her aesthetic, a public invitation to immerse one’s self in the Grace Wales Bonner mission statement. For free, without booking, at one of four showings throughout the day.
As the south Londoner noted ahead of the event, “The V&A feels like the perfect space to present the hybridity in cultural representation, which I aim to explore through my work. I am really excited about opening up the conversation to a wider audience through Fashion in Motion.”
Indeed, having already wooed much of the industry with her ‘Afrique’ BA graduate collection (soundtrack here), and the rest in January with her ‘Ebonics’ AW15 collection (marking her London Collections: Men debut), Friday was a chance for those not on the BFC’s guestlist to witness first hand the work of a designer already being touted by many as important, a nod of approval reserved for few.
Why? Because her pieces – all 17 looks – take their inspiration from representations of the black male experience via art history and political movements. Her SS15 collection for example, focused on the idea of Coco Chanel via Lagos. She is interested as much in the social commentary of dress as the aesthetic qualities of a garment, if not more so.
Hence to date the public address, if you will, of her work has been cast exclusively on black and mixed race men, many of whom have walked, sat or stood at all of her now three presentations, wonderfully swamped in traditionally feminine attributes such as diamante and crushed velvet, handbags and ballet pumps.
“Her designs,” the programme’s curator Oriole Cullen reasons, “are not only beautifully crafted but also conceived from important concepts and themes.”
At the V&A on Friday, Wales Bonner’s audience were invited to sit cross-legged in the vast Raphael gallery before a sunset flavoured set that mirrored Studio Maud’s initial AW15 set up. Unlike the latter however, here was a single attraction demanding the undivided attention of those present, which they subsequently offered.
Save for the sound of camera clicks, the accompanying St James Catholic Church Choir turned a stunning visual into a full on Imax experience, serenading the room (an inclusive mix of gender, age, race and presumably, social background) with a unique soundtrack that juxtaposed the traditional ‘Babylon’ by Giovanni Palestrina with Western re-workings of black spiritual and revolutionary music.
As the 11 men posed, carefully transitioning between tableaus referencing 19th century Orientalist paintings, the Raphael Cartoons and Samuel Fosso’s self portraits, an enthralled group watched, consumed by the 24 year old’s imagination; the word ‘beautiful’ has since attached itself to numerous Insta posts.
While the finale drew each of the models to the front, filling out the semi-circle of a stage, a quiet contrast could be drawn with 2015’s ‘other’ prominent image of black men: Kanye West’s Brits performance. On a different scale, with varying context and an opposing gaze, both promoted a strong visual with regards to black male identity.
Without hovering around the word zeitgeist – ugly if not demeaning in the context, and, moving forward, hopefully not true – it is perhaps worth noting that elsewhere in the V&A (in-between the queue and the doors to ‘Savage Beauty’), a photo exhibition celebrating the black British experience titled ‘Staying Power’ runs until 24th May; the Oxo gallery meanwhile, hosts ‘Jamaican Hidden Histories’ until the 17th May.
Grace Wales Bonner’s work then, is painting a powerful image away from any trend, flares aside, that is authentic and real. It just so happens that society too, is tuned in and ready.
Words: Zoe Whitfield