The Renaissance splendour of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi – the Medici dynasty’s first commissioned residence – provided the backdrop for Grace Wales Bonner’s latest collection, shown in Florence as part of Pitti Uomo (she was this season’s guest designer). Across the floor of the 15th-century palazzo’s central courtyard where the show took place, and across the walls of an adjoining room, were hundreds of jute bags, once holding Ghanaian cacao beans, each roughly stitched together by hand – part of a vast artwork by Ibrahim Mahama, commissioned for the occasion. 

London-based designer Wales Bonner called it an intervention. ‘I was thinking about the history of Black presence in Florence, and for me it was important to make an intervention within the history, to acknowledge a very sophisticated presence within Black heritage,’ she said the morning prior to the show. Of Mahama’s work in particular, she noted that ‘it was important to physically intervene with the architecture, to have a balance of representation within the space’. 

Wales Bonner S/S 2023 at Pitti Uomo, Florence

Wales Bonner S/S 2023 at Pitti Uomo

Wales Bonner began work on the season by looking towards the figure of Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence, who spent much of his life in the palazzo. A hereditary ruler, he is said to have been born to a servant of African descent who worked within the Medici household; as such, he is considered modern western Europe’s first Black head of state. For the deep-thinking designer, it led to a rabbit-hole of research, which spanned Renaissance Italy to present-day Ghana, where she had travelled in the run-up to the collection. ‘I think my references a lot of the time I have these fragments, or memories, things I’ve read,’ she says. ‘But it’s not fully developed, which is helpful to me. If you know too much, it limits the possibilities.’

Indeed, the confirmation that she would show in Florence as part of Pitti Uomo – a process over two years in the making, when discussions first began with organisers – led to further discoveries. A fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli in the palazzo’s Magi Chapel features a depiction of a Black archer, for example, while meetings of family patriarch Cosimo de Medici’s ecumenical councils would feature Moorish, Berber and African presence (‘a spectacular coalescence of cultures bringing new crafts, customs and clothing’, as the notes described). ‘I wanted to acknowledge that presence, but also think about this idea of arrival,’ said Wales Bonner of the collection. 

Wales Bonner S/S 2023

The idea of arrival was inscribed into the collection’s garments, beginning with a T-shirt imprinted with the work of American artist Kerry James Marshall (with whom the designer has recently collaborated on a limited-edition capsule of clothing). Wales Bonner said she was thinking about the Medicis being patrons of the arts; for her, Marshall is ‘a master painter of our time’. Such a feeling of ceremony ran throughout – the first five models entered on mass, as if being introduced to court – in flared Renaissance-style collars (delicately decorated with metal studs), rich silk-jacquard outerwear (the design developed by the historic House of Charvet in Paris), and an array of tailoring (cashmere tuxedos, a camel-hair coat) created in partnership with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard. 

Elsewhere, a rich array of handcraft was utilised throughout the collection, from Indian macramé and hand-dyed fabrics made in Burkina Faso to Baroque pearl, rock crystal and recycled glass beads from Ghana (even the collaborative Adidas Originals trainers, she noted, were hand-stitched in the Adidas studio). ‘I think over time, when I was developing Wales Bonner, there was some [handcraft] that I developed to a certain point, and now I feel like I can go back to some of those things but with a more refined sensibility,’ she says. ‘I think it was about going into it with the same spirit as my student work.’ 

On the front of a booklet left on each attendee’s seat, the designer referenced Sankofa – a principle which derives from the Akan people of Ghana and means that in order to make progress in the future, one must remember the past (it is often symbolised by a bird flying forwards with its head turned backwards). ‘Melodies ring forward like the flight of a bird – Sankofa arrives, adorned in the radiance of the past, pointing towards new paths, alternative processions for an eclectic cast,’ it read. 

Such words could define any one of Wales Bonner’s collections, which are always adorned in the past, but are never weighed down by it – though here, amid the palazzo’s near-six-centuries-old walls, and in Florence, a city where Renaissance treasures can be seen on every corner, such expression felt more pertinent than ever. ‘It’s an important moment for Wales Bonner,’ said the designer after the show, which crystalised her desire to achieve ‘an elegant and evocative harmony [between] European heritage and Afro-Atlantic spirit’ in electric fashion. Her own arrival, of sorts. 

‘It’s about taking something from the past in order to pass it forward and make it useful for the future,’ Wales Bonner defined Sankofa in her own words. ‘And that is the spirit of this collection.’ §