Grace Wales Bonner Has Set Her Sights Beyond Fashion

Grace Wales Bonner’s approach to fashion can sometimes feel more like that of an academic rather than a designer.

Her collections for Wales Bonner, the brand she started in 2015, are informed by dazzlingly intensive research spanning critical theory, music, literature, history and mysticism. With a particular focus on Black identity and conversations about race, her sharply tailored, finely detailed clothes intertwine traditional African craft techniques with references to figures like the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the writer James Baldwin and the artist Theaster Gates and settings like the ballrooms of early 20th-century Harlem and the dance halls of 1970s Jamaica.

Her clever embrace of so many perspectives and personalities, and her proudly Afro-Atlantic approach to fashion, has made Ms. Wales Bonner, 33, an increasingly influential figure in field. She has an ongoing partnership with Adidas and has designed uniforms for the Jamaican men and women’s soccer teams. This year, she began showing her collections in Paris, the creative and commercial epicenter of luxury fashion. When major jobs open up at top design houses, she is often rumored to be in the running.

But Ms. Wales Bonner is also a polymath with artistic ambitions outside fashion. This week, after more than four years of research, an exhibition she curated will open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show, “Spirit Movers,” includes more than 40 works from the museum’s collection and is part of MoMA’s Artist’s Choice series. Artists include Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Betye Saar, Moustapha Dimé and Terry Adkins.

Before the Nov. 18 opening, Ms. Wales Bonner sat down in her London studio to talk about the appeal of institutional curation and the importance of sound in her work in fashion and beyond.

Michelle Kuo. a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and Grace Wales Bonner at work on the installation of “Spirit Movers,” which includes some 40 works from the museum’s collection.Credit…Jonathan Dorado

You have said that clothing is your most direct form of communication. So why choose to do an art exhibition?

I see my research as an artistic practice — it really is the foundation of everything I do — and clothing is a very direct way to communicate some aspects.

But curating is something that I like doing because it’s on a very different timeline to fashion, which is very cyclical and has a certain pace to it. I like it — it makes me productive — but I think there are certain limitations to what you can explore intellectually.

The MoMA show is something I’ve worked on for years. I’ve also worked with MoMA on a photography book called “Dream in the Rhythm,” which is designed to be viewed alongside the exhibition, which is potentially more lasting. So it’s been really exciting to create experiences for people that are very different from those I produce for the fashion space.

What is this show about?

The exhibition explores how sound can be translated into different mediums and charge objects or images with meaning. I looked for art that I think has the ability to translate some kind of sonic or spiritual potential. The title, “Spirit Movers,” is a nod to this idea that art works aren’t static but are dynamic entities connected to ritual, devotion and collective experience.

How does rhythm manifest in your own work?

I’m very drawn to sound and experiences, and music plays a central role in my research. As a designer, I’m always trying to articulate a sound through clothing or image-making, the idea of bringing rhythm into cloth. It’s a real challenge, which is why I keep coming back to it again and again in my work.

Can you give any examples of key pieces?

One work that is key to the show is called “Last Trumpet,” by Terry Adkins. He created these very elongated horns using different parts of old musical instruments, linking to this idea of sonic potential and performance but also a new state of being. I’ve been told that he meditated with a lot of his pieces, and I think you can feel his presence in them. They have a spiritual quality.

Terry Adkins. Last Trumpet. 1995.Credit…Courtesy of the Estate of Terry Adkins

Is your own research work a meditative state?

Working through archive material and spending time with creations of people who came before me is like an engaged spiritual practice. It enables me to access the sentiments and attitudes of different generations. It makes me feel very guided on a personal level. The translation into design is a different process, but I would say that is very pure and directed as well.

What was the most challenging part of putting on the show?

Because the MoMA collection is so vast, it was easy to get excited and distracted and not be focused in terms of a theme. So editing and refining and creating a coherent story, or feeling, was the challenge. I really wanted to create space around the artworks and allow for some imaginative potential.

Editing is a big part of what I do with Wales Bonner. Output is one thing. Refining is another. That’s what makes it storytelling.

Much of your fashion work focuses on spotlighting the Black diaspora. Is that also the case here?

The Black diaspora is a constant inspiration to me. But what I like about this exhibition is that I was able to make it broader and very international.

David Hammons created this quite incredible artwork with human hair and paint called “Afro Asian Eclipse (or Black China),” exploring Afro-Asian connections. That work then opened up the possibility of thinking about different Asian artists like Yasunao Tone, a Japanese artist who was also part of the Fluxus movement and who created a musical composition piece called “Anagram for Strings.”

David Hammons, “Afro Asian Eclipse (or Black China),” 1978.Credit…David Hammons

Are there inspirations from the fashion world?

In the accompanying book, I am looking for works that express a sense of beauty or an understanding of Black style. A lot of the time, even with design, it’s real people, or documents of real people, that I’m inspired by — how they wear clothes, how they embody style and reflect an identity through it.

So there are certain photographers featured, like Roy DeCarava, who was known for capturing the Black urban American experience. Photography has basically built my understanding of style. Knowledge isn’t given to you. You’ve got to spend time creating threads for yourself.

When I was in high school, I never thought I would have a career in fashion. I actually wanted to be a historian.

You now show your fashion collections in Paris. Why?

When I started my brand, I wanted to bring a very elegant and refined vision that elevated the location of Blackness within culture. A lot has changed in the landscape of fashion and art since then, so in many ways that mission has been realized. Now we are trying to build an important institution with Wales Bonner, which means being in and showing in Paris. I don’t see what I do as being an outsider. You can have more influence being part of something and disrupting from within.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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