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On Thursday morning, a 25-year-old by the name of Grace Wales Bonner scooped up the 2016 LVMH Prize, an annual competition for young designers that awards 300,000 euros and a year of mentoring to the winner. The award was just the latest accolade for the London-born designer and her eponymous brand, Wales Bonner. She received the L’Oréal Professionnel Talent Award for her thesis collection at Central Saint Martins, from which she graduated in 2014, and took home the Emerging Menswear Designer Award at the 2015 British Fashion Awards — the same year her line formally launched.
Wales Bonner's growing stockpile of trophies isn’t as important as what they point to: a design sensibility that produces clothing that’s as thoughtful as it is beautiful. Wales Bonner, whose parents hail from England and Jamaica, has focused her work on representations of black culture and masculinity, and in a manner that she feels isn’t prevalent in the fashion industry, she explained in an LVMH Prize video.
"I’m trying to approach the subject of representing race through imagery that I see as gentle and beautiful, because I feel like it’s often treated heavy-handedly or thrown into being exotic. The main thing for me is sensitivity,” Wales Bonner said to Tank magazine.
Among the points of inspiration Wales Bonner has mentioned in the past are the Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso, the painter Kerry James Marshall, and the composer Sun Ra. Coco Chanel, too: one of Wales Bonner’s signature pieces is a velvet jacket cut like a Chanel bouclé suit and embellished with Swarovski crystals and cowrie shells, which have been used as currency around the world.
The ’70s are a key era for the designer. "I wrote a 10,000-word dissertation this year on the turning point in black expression around the late ‘60s, early ‘70s,” Wales Bonner told DIS Magazine in 2014. “This idea of taking ownership of your representation, working inside established frames of reference to create something new. It was about real people taking out cameras and turning them on themselves and being like, ‘this is me, this is what Africa is — it’s not what you want Africa to be.’”
High-waisted, ’70s-style flares have cropped up in Wales Bonner’s collection from season to season, along with crisp tailored jackets and luxurious velvet separates.
The approach has been a hit with retailers. Matches, Opening Ceremony, Ssense, and 10 Corso Como count among her stockists.
“It usually takes years to develop a cohesive vision that encompasses everything from design to art direction and branding,” writes Brigitte Chartrand, the womenswear buying manager at Ssense, said in an email. “Yet Grace has quickly established herself as a new voice in menswear with a singular concept that’s rooted in historical references, offering insights into cultural codes, behaviors, and race.”
Chartrand and Federico Barassi, Ssense’s menswear buying manager, say they found Wales Bonner’s cross-cultural aesthetic and evolving vision of masculinity compelling. As have customers, apparently: Barassi says that the brand’s trousers have performed particularly well since Ssense started carrying them this spring.
Though Wales-Bonner has a name for herself as a young woman making menswear, and at a time when interest in men’s fashion has reached a fever pitch, she’s started to dedicate more energy to her female fanbase as well. Ssense will stock Wales Bonner in its women’s section for the first time this fall, including some crossover styles available in the men’s line as well as a wider range of womenswear. We’ll be watching to see how she grows both segments of her business — that LVMH Prize money has certainly got to help.