Backstage after her Paris show, the British menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner said she wasn’t interested in the rumours spreading across the French capital.
The 31-year-old, who is mixed-race, is said to be the frontrunner to take over at Louis Vuitton, which would make her one of the youngest creative directors at one of the world’s biggest fashion brands.
“I’m really just focused on Wales Bonner,” she said, referring to her own label when pressed on her future. “For me, there’s still a long journey to go with that.”
The rumours are justifiable. There aren’t many designers who can enlist the Pulitzer prize-winning musician Kendrick Lamar, the Turner prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid and the Jamaican national football team to work on a collection. And even fewer who could have their name dropped in a song specially written for the show by Lamar.
In the hubbub and gilded glamour of the Hotel D’Evreux, Wales Bonner was cool and to the point: “I’m just an admirer of Kendrick, and Lubaina, that’s all. They’re the artistic visionaries of our time, and I wanted this collection to be about that,” she said.
Her show included silk tunics hand-painted by Himid. “It’s a collaboration, really,” said Wales Bonner.
There were just 32 models (many shows can feature double that) on the catwalk, challenging notions of how men’s clothing can move from the black African diaspora to Paris fashion weekand the wider world.
This is a common theme in Wales Bonner’s work. She was born in south London; her father was the youngest of a family who came from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation and this heritage has always informed her work. In this collection, she also wanted to pay homage to black icons who found creative freedom in Paris, such as the writer James Baldwin and dancer, singer and actor Josephine Baker.
Despite their class and race connotations, Wales Bonner does not see a huge difference between silk Savile Row suits and a football kit. “I see everything in one world. I’m interested in hybridity,” she said.
Wales Bonner used the show to launch a home kit and an away kit for the Jamaica team. Instead of showing them at the end, these clothes – Wales Bonner used to be a long-distance runner – dotted the collection. For every boucle tweed coat and double-breasted cream silk jacket dripping in cowrie shells, there was a top in the Jamaican yellow and a pair of Adidas trainers (Wales Bonner works with the sports brand, but made no comment on the spoof demo that took place in Berlin on Monday).
Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, launching her brand in 2015, and in 2016 winning the LVMH fashion prize – the Oscars of rising stardom in fashion circles – Wales Bonner has used her collections as a way of not only connecting black theory, history and fashion but pushing them into the mainstream. She also uses almost exclusively non-white models in her shows.
Wales Bonner focuses on menswear, but there were a few women’s pieces at this show, including a layered tasseled skirt and a tweed dress. The designer knows the commercial reach of womenswear – when Prince Harry andMeghan introduced their son, Archie, to the press, the Duchess of Sussex wore one of her white trench dresses.
In 2019, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that just 10% of fashion brands are run by women, and of those, only a handful are not-white. Even fewer have their own name label. Another one of them, the much-hyped 30-year-old Bianca Saunders, is also showing in Paris on Wednesday morning.
Regardless of whether Wales Bonner heads to a major label such as Louis Vuitton – the brand shows on Thursday so an announcement is expected soon – that these women are not just showing at Paris fashion week but have won it over, remains no small feat.