Inside the Meditative Mind of Grace Wales Bonner

If you wear a Wales Bonner original, you may look like a spiritual guide, a sailor, or even Haile Selassie on any given day. The designer, Grace Wales Bonner, makes the most interesting use of her inspiration, more than any other designer I can think of besides Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.

Her fall/winter 2017 collection, called Spiritual II, was one of my favorites. For the show, guests sat around a stack of speakers borrowed from the Notting Hill Carnival, while models wore clothing influenced by street preachers and the designer’s trip to Senegal. Wales Bonner pulls from many, varied sources when creating, but her references never corrupt her vision. Nor do her clothes ever bastardize their inspirations.

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For spring/summer 2019, debuted in June, Wales Bonner departed in some ways from her usual precise tailoring and introduced tees, shorts, and roomy, wide-legged pants, in addition to crisp dress shirts and jackets. She was moved by a spiritual retreat in Goa, India, as well as the 1971 self-help guide Be Here Now, which she read in her first year at Central Saint Martins. “The messaging felt very important for the collection,” Wales Bonner told AnOther magazine. She printed iconography from the book onto her spring T-shirts. “It was about exploring states of being and it is a beautiful, rhythmic, and inspiring text with a universal message.”

The new collection also pulls from Alice Coltrane and Laraaji, black musicians who, at one point, dove into Eastern philosophies and culture to create new works. Wales Bonner used sound “as an access point to a new state of consciousness,” she told AnOther, adding that both musicians’ works, including The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, “took me on a journey thinking about how one can interpret Eastern spirituality, to then thinking about how different groups travel and interpret their environment, weaving their own histories within that of another’s.”

The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda  (1995/2017)

The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (1995/2017)

Wales Bonner’s previous collections have also taken inspiration from the painter Jacob Lawrence, writer James Baldwin, and musician Charlie Parker for past collections. It’s like Black History Month, but fashion (and all year round). I love it.

The fashion industry is full of tricks, but with her, there is no gimmick. Many of the designer "inspirations" that pop up during press time are the result of internal pressure from the C-suite to be able to package (and sell) the clothes, as well as a way to editorialize a collection. As a result, you get sad inspirations like “Flower fields of fantasy” and “GLAMPING.”

Wales Bonner could have easily let herself get carried away. In Be Here Now, Ram Dass writes, “We’re talking about metamorphosis. We’re talking about going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, we’re talking about how to become a butterfly.” Less inspired designers probably would have created wing-like clothing, to symbolize their new spiritual awakening. But Wales Bonner is a storyteller, her own sort of painter. Journalists who attempt to categorize the beautiful complexity of her work often associate her with the “right brain”: She’s been called serious, intellectual. Wales Bonner insists the opposite: “The way I do things is very emotional,” she once told Vogue. She finds inspiration rooted in her real experiences and in artists who have contributed to a cultural and historical canon, and it means something to her—and then she creates.