Inside Grace Wales Bonner's Unwavering Commitment to Art
Text by Daphne Milner , January 25, 2024
— People, Design
In an industry as transient and boundless as fashion, designers often scour cultural archives, found documents, mixed media, and other sources to imbue their creations with meaning. For Grace Wales Bonner, the designer at the helm of her eponymous menswear brand, the marriage of aesthetics and intellect comes quite naturally.
Renowned for her ability to seamlessly weave a tapestry of artistic influences into her designs, Grace has carved a niche that transcends conventional fashion paradigms. Her label, which is synonymous with a discerning blend of sharp tailoring, cross-cultural richness, and a celebration of traditional craft, has garnered acclaim for its ability to marry convention with modernity. In the world she is building through her visionary practice, Grace’s distinct notion of luxury—as she puts it—exists at the intersection of “European heritage [and] Afro Atlantic spirit.”
With her latest collection for Spring/Summer 2024, Grace extends an invitation into her creative process. What inspired the collection was the enduring traditions of marathon running in Ethiopia and Kenya—and honouring the undeniable significance that long-distance running continues to hold in both countries. The success of regional athletes is in part down to training in high altitudes as well as access to healthy local foods and ideal running terrain, which has seen Kenyan and Ethiopian runners repeatedly lead global long-distance running contests. “I was interested in [these] running traditions, but particularly in the tranquil figure of the long-distance runner,” Grace said. “Since I was very interested in these traditions of marathon running, I was naturally drawn to technical clothing, clothes to move in.”
This thematic exploration extends beyond the sartorial, becoming a metaphorical journey into Grace's personal and professional odyssey. The marathon becomes a symbol, not just of physical endurance, but a reflection on the path she herself has traversed in establishing and evolving her brand. “The theme of the marathon and the idea of endurance allowed me to reflect on my journey so far and focus on the aspirations and values of the brand. I thought a lot about how this idea of a marathon could be extended to art-making and the holistic commitment to a life’s work,” she said.
After all, Grace’s commitment to art transcends fashion. Just last month, the designer presented her debut show for the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the institution’s Artist’s Choice series. The exhibition, titled Spirit Movers, included 40 artworks from the gallery’s collection, and were curated by Grace as an exploration of Black cultural heritage and the aesthetic practices of the African diaspora. The show opened after four years of research by the designer, and was accompanied by a catalogue, Grace Wales Bonner: Dream in the Rhythm—Visions of Sound and Spirit in the MoMA Collection, that showcased 80 works with multi-sensory connections across artistic practices.
In many ways, Spirit Movers was yet another example of how Grace’s commitment to archival research is as much a creative practice as it is a form of spirituality; a belief; and a way of life. In the lead-up to her Spring/Summer 2024 collection launch, Grace spent time with long-distance runners in Iten, Kenya, in order to learn more about marathon running and its importance in local communities. The trip “continued to inform my understanding of Marathon,” she said.
Her time spent immersed in the landscapes of Kenya also shaped the colour palette of her designs, which reflect the muted green and brown tones of the Earth. It’s just one way the designer has woven local terrains into the fabric of her creations, offering a visual representation of the spirit of marathon running across the plains and rolling hills of eastern Africa. “I was thinking about passages through the outdoors,” she said. “And of craft traditions in those places.”
It’s not just the landscapes of a place, or the local textiles, that Grace draws inspiration from—but also literature as a wellspring of creativity. “I think about books as a portal into different worlds and at the same time something that allows for a kind of self-exploration. During the research for this collection, I was reading The River Between by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,” she said. “I was particularly drawn to his descriptions of landscape and vignettes of gathering. These things may not have a very literal outcome in the collection, but they help me imagine an aesthetic world around the characters I am thinking about.”
Grace's ambitions are transformative. Over the years, her cultural practice has encompassed many worlds and even more dreams, opinions, outlooks, and experiences. And the resulting work is a testament to the power of art as a means to envision new futures. The starting point, she said, is getting comfortable with unexplored intersections. This could mean investigating the dichotomy between the familiar and unfamiliar or examining environments that are simultaneously observed and historically unseen.
By focusing on cultural crossroads, Grace is pushing past small definitions of belonging. Instead, she creates new expanses of mutual understanding and nurtures a more compassionate appreciation of what it means to be part of a community; of a collective space; of home. “I think about interior worlds and holistic experience alongside creation,” she said. “Some of what we do must exist in a space that is familiar and real, but I don’t think it’s home. An environment that feels familiar yet unseen or unknown is interesting to me. I am interested in the commonalities and uniqueness of places at once.”
It comes as no surprise that Grace once dreamed of being not a fashion designer, but a historian. Her meticulous attention to detail, research-driven methodology, and sincere recognition of context as an integral component of authentic storytelling embody the requisite qualities of an academic. But as a designer in an industry often accused of being devoid of substance, these same qualities foster new, necessary pathways; they allow her to tell unheard stories, present overlooked histories, and convey a multitude of emotion and experience through the garments we wear. It’s the work of an exquisite curator and designer. And also, of a scholar whose life work is to synthesise fashion, art, and music into an all-encompassing canonical archive of contemporary culture.
Photography: Zoë Ghertner
Styling: Camilla Nickerson
Creative Direction: Juan Duque and Nima Habibzadeh
Art Direction: AMILE
Hair: Dre Demry
Models: Joao DePaula at Margaux The Agency
Binx Walton at NEXT
Set Design: Spencer Vrooman
Production: Connect The Dots
Photo Assistants: Milan Aguirre, Bailey Beckstead, Arvin Rusanganwa
Styling Assistants: Emilia Fishburn, Megan King
Set Design Assistants: Roland Cosio, Jesse Hotchkiss
Tailor: Susie Kourinian
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