London designer Wales Bonner making waves

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London designer Wales Bonner making waves
Designer Grace Wales Bonner poses for a photograph before the catwalk show for fashion brand Wales Bonner on the second day of the Autumn/Winter 2020 London Fashion Week Men's, in London on January 5, 2020. Niklas HALLE'N / AFP.

by Pauline Froissart

LONDON (AFP).- At just 29, Grace Wales Bonner is one of London's most promising designers, exploring black male identity through her eponymous menswear brand with looks that have caught the eye of celebrities such as Meghan Markle.

Wales Bonner, the daughter of a Jamaican father and English mother, unveiled her 2020 autumn/winter collection on Sunday at "London Fashion Week Men's", with a clear nod to her Caribbean roots.

"My grandfather came to London in the fifties so it is about the second generation who grew up in London" in the 1970s, she told AFP.

"I was really interested in the youth community and how people embrace British traditions but also how they perform their identities or connections to the Caribbean.

"It is also looking to the multiculturalism in Britain at that time."

Dubbed Lovers Rock, from the name of a style of romantic reggae born in the British capital and popular in the 1970s and 1980s, her collection was partly inspired by the photographer John Goto.

Goto captured the British African-Caribbean community of Lewisham, in southeast London, in 1977. Wales Bonner also dug into her own personal history.

"It feels like an inevitable collection for me to do, it is like coming home in a way," said the designer, who grew up in south London.

Her cuts recall Savile Row, the prestigious road of bespoke tailors synonymous with English style since the 1960s.

Caribbean symbols such as gold buttons on a serge reefer jacket are displayed with pride.

The cross-cultural look can also be seen in hats made from Scottish wool from the Shetland islands but in Jamaican colours.

"It is a mix of very traditional, recognisable British fabrics but also trying to disrupt them a little bit," said Wales Bonner.

She also reinterprets the works of Frank Bowling, the British abstract painter who was born in Guyana. A retrospective of his work was displayed at the Tate Modern art gallery last year.

His colourful Swan I and II paintings are printed on silk shirts, the bird symbolising the irrepressible desire for freedom.

Sunday's catwalk show, backed by an impressive sound system, resembled a family or street party with the public, including young and older members of the African-Caribbean community, sitting at round tables sipping hibiscus tea.

Early success
Wales Bonner had only just left the Central Saint Martins fashion design college in 2014 when her graduate collection "Afrique" won the L'Oreal Professionnel Talent Awards.

Her first autumn/winter collection in 2015, "Ebonics", was critically acclaimed.

The same year, she received the best young talent for menswear at the British Fashion Awards, following up 12 months later with the LVMH young designer prize, for a collection evoking the 1930 coronation of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

The endorsement by some of biggest names in the industry, including Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière, was the spur she needed to develop her own brand.

'More visibility'
Another welcome piece of publicity came last May when the wife of Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, chose one of Wales Bonner's creations in photographs introducing the couple's new son, Archie.

"There's definitely been more visibility, more awareness around the brand, it's been very positive. It was a gracious thing for her to do," Wales Bonner said.

"I think it is quite amazing how she uses her platform to support other people, other women as well. She has been very clever and seems to be very generous and sincere in her intentions."

Wales Bonner, who cites Coco Chanel and British designer Phoebe Philo as role models, is passionate about the issues of identity and representation, delving into art, literature, music and black history for ideas.

"It (fashion) feels like the most direct and easiest way for me to communicate and to express myself," she said.

"I am always looking at this very refined, beautiful, vision of masculinity."

© Agence France-Presse

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