In 2008, Vogue Italia made an announcement that its publishers must have thought might turn the fashion industry on its head. After months of debate around the profound lack of black representation in the fashion industry, Vogue would rectify this with an issue featuring only black models. Some cheered this develop-ment, some criticised it. “To be non-white is to be constantly relegated to a ‘special issue’, while the regular edition remains determinedly white,” pointed out Priyamvada Gopal in The Guardian. The consensus, if any, was that the topic of race in fashion is a complex one, and not easily solved with a single special edition of any magazine.
Seven years on, fashion’s conscience has changed incrementally. But one thing is clear: Vogue Italia’s stilted all-black issue would not make such a splash now. Inch by inch, more room is being made for diverse voices in fashion, and the positive response to people who are doing something genuine and/or meaningful with issues of race shows how far we’ve come. Grace Wales Bonner is a case in point. The 24-year-old designer has made a name for herself since her BA graduation from Central Saint Martins last year, on the basis of her deep, intelligent collections of menswear, shown on a diverse range of models.
For A/W 2015, her Ebonics collection used the work of Harlem renaissance writers and jazz music to interrogate the space between European and African identities. The result was shown in crushed velvet, long and languid silhouettes, and cowrie shell embroidery. It was masculinity separate from the dominant Western narratives we’re used to, and the result was startling in its polished cohesion, as much as in the questions it provoked.
When I meet Grace, those questions that her work asks come to life. She strikes me as someone who is always learning, always reading and always questioning. When she speaks about figures in African and Indian history, and about a recent research trip to Senegal, it’s evident that the research that goes into her collections is as important to her as the finished product itself. “I feel a big responsibility to be as thorough with the research as possible, because I think these are really sensitive subjects. I sometimes say I have a gentle approach to it, because I try to suggest things in a light-handed way,” she says. “The way the work is done is the way I want things to be perceived. I want to have a sensitive, gentle, thoughtful approach, and that’s the way I want to present blackness, too, as opposed to it being confrontational and aggressive. I still want it to have a quiet power of its own.”
It’s that quiet power that impressed many at her recent presentations. For the Ebonics collection, Grace looked to alternative representations of male strength. “I looked at 19th-century Orientalist paintings, these depictions of northern Africa through a Western, hazy gaze. It’s very romanticised; how the men interact with each other is soft and sensual. It was really refreshing to see that, 100 years ago, that’s how blackness was depicted, and it’s interesting how it clashes with the representations of blackness that I see now.”
So far, the fashion industry has been warmly receptive to Grace’s work, with Opening Ceremony stocking the collections in the US, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum choosing her for one of their Fashion in Motion catwalk events – a juxtaposition of African art with a European institution that Grace very much enjoyed.
Often Grace’s work seems to be concerned with putting academic ideas into practice, transforming tropes in art or music into a more concrete proposal in fashion. “The discussion has moved on from blackness being rigid,” she says. “It’s a very fluid term. My work is about playing with that fluidity of it, a playful way of working within European principles of beauty and African ideas of rhythmicity, and how you can use those things to disrupt.”
One particular example that the designer cites is jazz, and how her study of it influenced the A/W 2015 Ebonics collection. “When I think about jazz and the way it has used a hybrid of European classical technique and that African rhythmicity, that’s something that interests me. It’s how you can work within a structure that is recognised and respected, and disrupt from the inside, rather than from an outsider’s position.”
In all aspects of that collection, Grace eschews our typical notions of black masculinity as hyper-macho or hostile, and instead shows us black men as she sees them: complex, sensitive, beautiful and soft. In the clothes, there is a painterly quality of richness and texture that mimics what the designer says about Orientalist portraits. But what struck many attending the presentation was the casting.
“I was thinking about the casting from the start of the research. I wanted to show a real range of blackness,” she said. “The casting is the idea, as well – it is completely in sync with the concept. It’s not about getting some big name model. It’s about showing the other options, not just the very Anglo-African or Anglo-Caribbean muscly guy. I find it surprising that people talk about the casting, because it seems natural to me.”
I suggest to her that these are really big issues, which many young designers might find difficult to engage with as freely as she does. Were these conversations that she has always had? She thinks only for a second. “It’s quite personal. Being a mixed-race person in London, there are a lot of questions around things. I got quite into reading about identity and blackness, and it’s something that’s interesting to me. But also, because I am mixed race, I’m always thinking about how it relates to European history. It’s how I am a mix of the two things. My work is always a balance between two things.”
Many of those outraged by Vogue Italia’s all-black special saw it as reinforcing the idea that fashion’s default state is whiteness, and that beauty itself is a white issue. Today, many aspects of fashion still stubbornly look to the past, and Grace, rightly, doesn’t try to fix all those issues in her work. But that there’s somewhere for Grace Wales Bonner in, as she puts it, the space between two disparate things, is a testament to how ready many are for new definitions of beauty and of identity.
Photography Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie
Stylist Tereza Ortiz
Model Earl James | Nevs Models
Casting Jacob Mohr | Creartvt
Grooming Maki Tanaka
Photography assistant Kia Golsorkhi-Ainslie