Often abused and misused, the term "collaboration" has become a key word in the fashion industry. Grace Wales Bonner at London Fashion Week Men's turned to two extraordinary collaborators - Stephen Jones and Manolo Blahnik. The former worked on the headgear that accompanied the designs and that elevated the models to elegant men from Renaissance paintings (even though one of the inspiration were actually itinerant monks from the Middle Ages rather than the Renaissance...); the latter designed the sandals and patchwork boots.
Further collaborations included spoken words by Elysia Crampton, a composition by singer, songwriter and producer Sampha, and painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who wrote a poem for Wales Bonner, and who was sitting in the audience.
Leaving behind the African ceremonial her fans have become accustomed to, Grace Wales Bonner turned to a more urban inspiration: the stack of speakers that towered on the runway space at the Royal Institute of British Architects was indeed the original sound system from the Notting Hill Carnival and pointed towards real everyday life.
Yet there was still a spiritual element in the collection (entitled "Spirituals II") represented by street-preachers, but the urban mood was emphasised by another inspiration, Patrick Cariou's pictures of boys in Dakar, Senegal (from the shoot "Dakar Chic: an homage to the people of Leopold Sedar Senghor", for Vogue Hommes International, Spring/Summer 2002). Wales Bonner actually visited Senegal last year, spending time on a retreat at the Josef Albers Foundation.
The collection resulting from these experiences and visual inspirations included the designer's signature tailored suits, zip-up silk tracksuits, crinkled skinny shirts matched with black ties, tops with spliced sleeves, duffle coats and handmade leather trousers in a harlequin check. Wales Bonner's trademark extravagant embellishments included this time Masai beading for houndstooth polos and crystal embroideries on a bejeweled suit with a cropped jacket.
According to Wales Bonner, there were four main stereotypes on her runway - spiritual preachers in white linen inspired by friars and monks, effeminate dandies, intellectuals and rockers - but the offer included both men and women's wear (some men's wear pieces will probably turn into more desirable garments for women).
Yet at times Wales Bonner's investigations of black male identity and sexuality doesn't seem to convince and, while the clothes seem to be made with genuine intent, they often end up looking like newer and more polished versions of the garments featured in the wardrobes of the kids portrayed in Cariou's images.
Wales Bonner was born in Southeast London to a Jamaican father and English mother, and she has therefore got a mixed-race heritage that allows her to have a divided identity and understand the benefits of a cosmopolitan society, but she risks of pigeonholing herself not into her authentic studies of the black identity, but into specific silhouettes, shapes and embellishments.
Besides, at times, it looks as if in her collections the designer didn't completely follow her heart, but was lost on an exploration of male dress and flamboyance as presented in books focusing on black dandyism and the styling of the diasporic identity.
In her first collections she started indeed with prince-like baroque figures and dandies to then move onto street heroes, as if she were going from W.E.B. Du Bois to Harlem Modernism and Black Cosmopolitanism, but, despite having some good intentions, her messages seem at times philosophically empty and abstract and this collection looked interesting but weak and may led critics to wonder if her passion was actually a merely aesthetic masquerade.
This is not her fault, though: hailed as a British emerging talent, Wales Bonner is quite young (she is 25) and has been so far awarded in 2015 the Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards, and was the recipient of the 2016 LVMH Prize. Like other designers currently hailed as the new wave of London based designers (Craig Green, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy...) she heads a very young label that is not even five years old. Somehow you wished she had been allowed to grow up and mature a bit more before being thrown up into the spotlight as her current faults in her designs risk of turning her crusade for a cultural black Renaissance into a marketable statement on blackness.