Grace Wales Bonner still describes herself as a fashion designer, but she is quickly becoming much more than that. The 28-year-old—less than five years removed from her Central St. Martins graduation—has already won the LVMH prize, emerging menswear designer at the British fashion awards and the British Land London emerging design medal. She has had her profile written by every elite fashion publication and her collections sold by every prominent international stockist. Her most recent work has even moved off the shelves of Selfridges and into the rooms of London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
On a brisk January evening in Hyde Park, Bonner opened her debut art exhibition, titled A Time for New Dreams. The show has since attracted thousands of visitors and extended its run nearly a month. Bonner curated the exhibition as “a space for meditation and reflection… to connect with ideas of history and ancestors’ lineage.” As in her work in fashion, her personal touch defines the collection. Bonner’s own work is featured lightly, with the bulk of the pieces coming instead from artists she admires.
Each facet of the exhibition offers an insight into Bonner’s exhaustive research process. Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Maternal Milk and Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa are hung on the gallery walls; musician Laraaji leads a meditation workshop in one room, and performer MJ Harper dances in another. The individual installations, which Bonner refers to as “portals into other times and other worlds,”are bridged with texts written by Nigerian poet Ben Okri, whose 2011 collection of essays inspired the exhibition’s name. Although the featured pieces are diverse in medium, they all inform Bonner’s work and outlook. As identity is the exhibition’s core, Bonner explores blackness from a variety of stances: “'My research is coming from a Black-Atlantic cultural perspective but I’m also looking at how that touches other spiritualities, other worlds, other identities.”
Bonner’s exhibition focuses on the transfer of Black cultures and practices, particularly across the Atlantic. This theme is further developed in her Autumn/Winter ‘19 runway presentation—titled Mumbo Jumbo—which was shown in the Serpentine Gallery on February 17. Bonner specifies the black intellectual and the artist as shaman as the central figures of her collection. The resulting clothes are classic with sprinkles of magic. Bold stripes and rounded seams are presented alongside feather trims and voodoo vèvès. Varsity jackets and silk scarves alike are embroidered with spiritual images meant to “imbue them with a sense of magic.” Even the white silk tuxedo jacket is garnished with a shell and coral brooch. The collection is robust and refined with a spellbound sensibility.
Indeed, Bonner’s clothes and accessories are impressive—but it's her process that transcends fashion. Perhaps Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine’s artistic director, puts it best: “Grace is a fashion designer, but she’s also a thinker, a writer, an editor. She makes connections between different fields, from music to art. It’s very important to break down these silos of knowledge and make the world more porous.” In February, Bonner said the idea of a fashion designer making art could be seen as “silly”—her debut exhibition and corresponding collection prove that it’s anything but.