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Wales Bonner: Menswear Through a Cultural Lens

In the world of fashion, designers constantly strive to create unique and captivating collections that push boundaries and challenge conventions. One designer who has been making waves in recent years is Grace Wales Bonner, who has risen to prominence through her African, sports-style inspired menswear collections. 


Since launching her brand in 2015, the 32-year-old South London native has won just about every important fashion prize there is, such as the LVMH Prize in 2016. In an interview with GQ, the designer established an aim, she said, of “bringing an Afro-Atlantic spirit in European luxury.” In her words: “to establish a luxury house that represents a broader cultural perspective.” 


The British designer opened Paris Fashion Week with a Fall/Winter 2023 collection titled, “Twilight Reverie.” Drawing her inspiration from the City of Light with a coed lineup inspired by three figures who left their mark on its cultural scene: James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and the Maharaja of Indore. The result was a debonair mix of upscale tailoring with sportswear-inspired elements: such as a Jamaican soccer jersey, part of her ongoing partnership with Adidas Originals, paired with tuxedo pants and snakeskin boots.


As commented by Hypebeast Magazine, the show staged in the 17th-century Hôtel d’Évreux “transported the collection into opulent realms evocative of the grandeur in which the show took place.” Her plays towards art deco sophistication and extravagance mixed with an Afro-Atlantic approach to European luxury has created a recognisable brand image that has earned her much accreditation. 


This strong success didn’t occur overnight; in fact, her reputation has been developing for many years. Her SS15 graduate collection Afrique won the L’Oreal Professionnel Designer of the Year Award. Her AW15 collection Ebonics was included within Fashion East’s London Collections: Men programme, known for highlighting London’s future design talent. Inspired by exoticism and 19th-century depictions of black men, the collection proved impressive and brought many eyes to her craft.


Wales Bonner has also utilised collaborative work as a platform to both develop her personal brand and increase her offerings. In 2020, she worked with renowned fashion house Dior for their Cruise 2020 show to offer her a distinct interpretation of the emblematic silhouette of the Bar suit.


Maria Grazia Chiuri, the maison’s current artistic director of womenswear said it was the perfect setting for a collection seeking to act as a site of cultural exchange between the European house and African traditions. To this end, she involved a team of global collaborators including Wales Bonner, who designed her own iteration of Dior’s hourglass-waisted Bar jacket. This event marked the first time that Dior had invited another fashion designer to reimagine its most iconic look.


For this project, she looked at archive photography of the 1940s and 1950s Afro-Cuban tailoring – a source of inspiration for a past collection. In an interview with AnOther magazine, she said “That was where I could see Dior silhouettes resonating in a world that was more familiar to me.” Wales Bonner’s resulting design references the past yet feels contemporary, incorporates traditional techniques, and speaks to the cross-cultural dialogues fostered by Chiuri.


However, her most successful collaboration lies with Adidas Originals. Launching in 2020, She has reimagined Adidas’s sporting and lifestyle heritage to blend timeless aesthetics with elegant sportswear aesthetics. The designer said in an interview with UK Fashion Network: “It was amazing to get into the archive with Adidas, and really study how it has been interpreted by different cultures across times. I was interested in elevating the familiar, and bringing an evening wear and tailored sensibility to this essential collection”.


The AW20 collection consisted of Adidas tracksuits, long-sleeve football jerseys, and multicolor knit rollnecks that serve as an ode to timeless 1970s style. Rounding out the selection are two soft cotton tees with satin sleeves.


Of course, this being Adidas, footwear is also included and there are two Wales Bonner takes on the SL72 silhouette and two different versions of the Samba sneaker, both of which reimagine the classical silhouette with hand-stitched detailing. The Samba sneaker in particular became an online sensation, with resell comfortably sitting at £500


Fast forward to 2023, and Bonner has recently presented her latest collaboration with Adidas for Fall/Winter 23, titled “Land of Wood and Water”. As seen during the designer’s SS23 runway show, the collection is one that adapts vintage silhouettes and draws on both iconic Caribbean colours and contemporary touches. In turn, Wales Bonner creates a summer-ready uniform underpinned by cultural nuances, informed by Jamaica’s landscapes. 


The collection introduces nylon tracksuits, toweling jerseys, sweater vests, and knitted geometric rollnecks. The clothing develops, with metallic silver sparkling on an anorak and low-inseam shorts, while Jamaican icons like the Harrington jacket and flared trousers are given the Adidas spin.


While the clothing is stellar, her latest adaptations of the Samba and SL72, have intrigued many customers. The Samba comes in either a formal nubuck take with leather stripes, or a playful silver leather upper with crochet stripes. As for the SL72 Knit, Jamaica is honoured once more with a knitted upper arriving in authentic hues of green or brown, and orange.


The collection released on the 9th of June through Adidas Confirmed and on selected online retailers, with the Samba iterations completely selling out online. Bonner has once again proved the powerful allure of her unique blend of cultural icons in Afro-European culture through this latest capsule.


Even through her marketing for this latest collection on Instagram, the designer has shown she is proud to embody her African heritage. The collection comes with a visual campaign shot by long-term collaborator Harley Weir, as well as a film by Durimel, which features Caribbean models involved in soccer - a nod to her orientation in design language with Adidas.


If anything can be taken from the ongoing success of Wales Bonner for any up-and-coming designers, it is to champion one’s identity and channel that powerful culture into daily life. Bonner creates clothes for the people who are proud of their identity, or who are proud to support another. Perhaps this approach is the key to opening the door to a more inclusive space in fashion.

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