Grace Wales Bonner’s AW18 collection, Des Hommes Et Des Dieux (Of Men And Gods) launched on MATCHESFASHION.com last week. To celebrate, the British-Jamaican menswear designer spoke with one of her many collaborators, New York based artist Erik Mack, about challenging one another’s processes, an “orchestrated freedom” that comes with collaboration, and re-defining black masculinity.
5 Carlos Place, a townhouse in Mayfair, is luxury retailer MatchesFashion’s new residency, and upon arrival on Friday evening one could glimpse part of Erik Mack’s sculptural installation, re-hung for the space after first featuring in February at the AW18 Wales Bonner show. Grace Wales Bonner’s collections and the narratives behind them explore her own mixed heritage and challenge, she explains, institutionalised notions of the black male as “aggressive, very hypersexualised or ‘street’”, setting new definitions for black masculinity. Des Hommes Et Des Dieux is about a sailor returning home, influenced by the Martician poet Aimé Césaire’s book ‘Notebook of a Return to My Native Land’ (1939), and the idea of his arrival back in Martinique from Paris, of being in-between places. Mack’s installation helped to frame Bonner’s garments within an imagined space, between identities, between masculinity and femininity, and between departure and arrival.
The idea of hybridity is central to Wales Bonner, notably when it comes to collaboration. For previous shows she has partnered with individuals including musician Sampha, knit-wear designer Serena Gili, and writer Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who wrote a poem for her AW17 show. This season sees her working with Mack. “Erik shows me a broadness of what this world can be” Grace explains, as the artist brings a different perspective to the studio which they shared whilst making the collection, his is a different approach to materials. Whilst Bonner challenges the limitations tailoring can bring, re-seeing French couture and 70’s flares via an exploration of cultural identity, Mack approaches materials with a “different energy and attitude.” His discipline allows him more time to think and play with materials and ideas, time, perhaps, that the fast paced fashion industry simply sometimes does not allow for within the framework of production and post-production. Erik told us, “I can feel at home in Grace’s studio…[collaboration] provides an orchestrated freedom”, and the harmonious result is evident in the room around us as the garments and the installations sit seamlessly within one another.
The show in February saw models flown over from Jamaica walk among Mack’s installations. Exquisitely cut sailors jackets buttoned to the top, met hooded rain jackets and t-shirts, the word créolite printed on the breast, making claims to language, the Caribbean and hybrid identity. Flared trousers hung low on hips, and gave a swagger to the male models as they walked, illustrating the confident yet soft black masculinity Bonner has so beautifully developed for the past seven seasons since her BA collection Afrique caught the industry’s eye. It is a depiction of gender less specific, although no more or less valuable, to that of her contemporaries, many of whom explore queer identity, and as a female designing men’s clothes (she released a womenswear capsule earlier this year), there is some distance between her and her subject, allowing for her to articulate an exploration of heritage via the male body so effectively. It is ultimately an exploration into beauty, something the designer often talks of, describing it this evening as “a very specific, classic idea of beauty” that she is constantly trying to push and re-interpret via the black male body.
On Friday evening, the new collection hung on mannequins and golden rails, which extended from brass instruments, Bonner having spoken of her interest in jazz for it’s place as a “hybrid between traditional African music techniques integrated within European classical limitations” (DAZED). Together, Grace explained, herself and Eric work towards “finding a link or timelessness through aesthetics.” The hanging installations saw fabrics mix as flawlessly as Bonner’s multiple references, a blue sail was sewn into swathes of opaque cotton and translucent silk. The structure cradled the small audience within Bonner’s world, within the faint sounds of jazz music, the prose of Césaire, and a gentle movement across the sea as Bonner continues to explore and re-define both her own and black masculine identity.