Representing the creative future

Beyond Blackness: Grace Wales Bonner’s Fashion East SS16

While Charles Jeffrey and his LOVERBOY were raving the downstairs lecture hall of the ICA, young designer Grace Wales Bonner steered Fashion East in a very different direction, in the Nash & Brandon rooms on the third floor. Through her clothes, the Jamaican-British Londoner investigates the aesthetics of post-colonialism and the black male body in fashion. She graduated from CSM’s BA Fashion Design with Marketing one year ago, and has already acquired international stockists and showcased her work at the V&A’s Fashion in Motion.

Speaking with her casting director Joyce NG the day after the presentation, we discuss the politics of casting and how it becomes central to the overarching story behind the collection. “Casting has always been important to Gracie,” she tells me, and together they did a combination of agency and street casting. “We realised that no one casts Somalians — as well as less conventional types, such as Indians or Pakistanis.”

There is a clear meditation on ‘blackness’ and the black body in Grace’s work, a meditation that is effective and radical in the context of London, where the fashion world is hopelessly unrepresentative of the rich multiculturalism that the city enjoys. However, with this collection, Grace goes beyond ‘blackness’ being just ‘non-whiteness,’ or ‘non-whiteness’ being just ‘blackness’, and explores the further layers of race and ethnicity that can exist in fashion and all visual culture, like the colonial and quasi-ethnic narratives between the South Asian and African continent. Researching for the collection, she looked into the particular history of Ethiopian migration to India – a community that, through centuries, worked their way up from the bottom of society, and ended as regal families in the country (and is still traceable in the Siddi community of Gujarat and Andra Pradesh). Race, then, becomes increasingly complexified as it clashes with geography, religion and trans-national movement, beyond that of colonial Europe. For the presentation, they cast a mix of half Indian/Pakistani/British models, some of whom had never modelled before. “It was important to us to choose models that could bring out the story,” Joyce explains.

This complexification of the non-white male subject in fashion is suitable and important, for as Joyce reminds us, “Africa is a continent, not a country.” She doesn’t see the supposed ethnic diversification in runway casting that the industry insists on, arguing that we’re still very much seeing single ‘token black models’ walking down the runway. There is a real risk that ‘Africa’ remains as an exotic gimmick, instead of the occidental fashion world rethinking what ethnicity means within fashion representation.

The actual clothes were notably less extravagant than last season’s loud and extraordinary explorations into eveningwear of GWB-figure. “You’ll notice that this season is much more real,” Joyce explains to me, “this season is all about realness.” The slightly oversized, toned down suits and patterned shirts in earthy tones indeed seem real – and wearable – in a historical as well as completely contemporary manner. Still, her trademark seashell detailing was visible, thus connecting her SS16 collection to an increasingly established, truly political and incredibly touching oeuvre.