Lukhanyo Mdingi, Bianca Saunders and Grace Wales Bonner have been recognized for their innovative and influential work in menswear.
Mdingi, Bonner, and Saunders: The New Leaders of Menswear
By Ranji Mangcu
Steeped in age-old rules and traditions, menswear has struggled to escape conformity. It’s a medium steeped in rules and tradition, rooted in an understanding of men’s fashion as needing to be rational and unchanging.
These rules offer both designers and wearers a sense of safety – goalposts to meet in order to make a garment acceptable. But it is through re-imagining these very traditions that menswear narrowly dodges staleness, becoming endlessly open to thoughtful, imaginative, yet practical interpretation.
If fashion has proven anything in the last two decades, it is that most things that are evergreen only stay that way when we have the ingenuity to embrace their evolution – experiment with them. Menswear designers are perfectly poised for this job.
South African designer, Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Paris Menswear Fashion Week collection for Fall/Winter 2022/23
In the past twenty years, a transformative spirit around menswear has made strides within the broader conversation challenging traditional masculinity. Designers such as Rick Owens and Helmut Lang walked a long road so that today’s guard – the likes of Bianca Saunders, Grace Wales Bonner of “Wales Bonner,” Peter Do, Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson, and South Africa’s own Lukhanyo Mdingi, could run.
In re-engineering the traditional design codes of menswear to communicate an introspective softness and sensuality, designers, stylists and your everyday consumer are not only creating a dynamism that keeps menswear interesting. They are thoughtfully interrogating masculinity; challenging the status quo of safety and sameness that threatens play and innovation in men’s fashion.
Models presenting designs by Lukhanyo Mdingi, Grace Wales Bonner and Bianca Saunders. PICTURES: Vogue Runway
Three designers from the African Diaspora stand out amidst a growing guard of designers producing subversive and thought-provoking menswear – Bianca Saunders, Grace Wales Bonner, and Lukhanyo Mdingi. The most crucial thing that each of these designers does is align menswear with their consciousness of beauty and sensuality. In doing so, they present the world with an expanded vision of what menswear can be and look like.
Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Burkina is the culmination of a project undertaken by the label, in collaboration with a community of textile dyers and weavers in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso., known as the CABES Textile Community. The collection is named in honour of his collaborators, who worked alongside Mdingi to produce most of the collection. This is a key element of the Lukhanyo Mdingi brand – honouring the collective labour that has his collections and drives the success of the brand.
Conceptually, Burkina is a tender tribute to youth. It's a menswear offering that features a soft and sensuous collection of knit pieces, trouser suits, pleated skirts and sportswear.
From the gender-neutral styling of pleated skirts and silk scarves, to the brilliant blues and oranges of a loose-fitting, double-breasted two-piece suit, Mdingi is direct in going against the grain of traditional menswear in the collection’s silhouettes and colours.
The collection makes references to Burkina Faso’s street style in vibrant tones of ochre, yellow, lavender and green. The saturated turquoise of the two-piece T-Shirt and shorts embody a “team-sports” aesthetic that evokes the nostalgia of childhood.
All of these elements in Burkina’s menswear offering demonstrate a sentimental ode to youth. In the softness and sensuousness produced by Mdingi’s knit and textile explorations, the garments demonstrate the designer’s aim towards a liberated way of dressing, that defies traditional menswear codes.
Grace Wales Bonner
At the core of Grace Wales Bonner’s eponymous brand, Wales Bonner, is the designer’s desire to inject an “Afro-Atlantic spirit to an idea of European luxury”. This notion is tied to her mission to both pay homage to Black male style – the elder flaneurs and Dandies whose style influence continues to resonate across the African diaspora, even today. Wales Bonner elevates this style through luxury craftsmanship, carving out a place for it in the canon of European luxury fashion.
Wales Bonner is known for its ability to inject the everyday with an air of romance, through silhouettes that experiment with traditional Western proportions. Facilitating a meeting between precise tailoring, retro-influenced cuts, and non-traditional materials, the designer creates a language of her own. One that, in its cross-cultural homage, also plays with the boundaries of luxury menswear.
There’s a soft-spoken beauty that is now synonymous with the London-based label. In their presentation at Paris Fashion Week, their most recent collection, titled “Marathon”, presented a balance of traditional Savile Row tailoring and offbeat elements.
A sleeveless black suit with the shoulder-padding poking out swerved the rules of traditional suiting, creating a stylishly haphazard, incomplete look. Styled over a white vest and calf-length black running shorts, Wales Bonner set traditional suiting against the youthful dynamism of sportswear.
Wales Bonner consistently embraces elements that are often shied away from in menswear, where taste and restraint have historically been communicated in much more sombre tones.
Sometime in Mid-May, Bianca Saunders took to Instagram to offer her audience an exclusive detailed look at her SS23 “Reverse 23 Jeans”. Pulled back by an attached belt and buckle feature, this pair of high-waisted denim jeans features a white-stitched seam reaching around the trouser leg, ending in precise triangular cuts at the cuffs.
“Deceptively detailed” isn’t quite sufficient to describe the oeuvre that Saunders has built in her relatively young career, playing with menswear tradition to produce garments that are contemporary and innovative. The signature of Saunders’s eponymous label is subversive tailoring that eloquently twists the traditional anatomy of menswear pieces. There is always much more than meets the eye.
Saunders is proficient in using draping to play with the seemingly minor details in garments’ wearability, fundamentally re-orienting traditional bodily relationships between person and piece. This experimental approach was front and centre at the Met Gala, where the label’s current muse, Usher, wore a broad-shouldered gabardine suit with detachable sleeves. With its shoulders detached slightly slouched, the suit had a slightly slouched, boxy appearance.
Appearing alongside the R&B icon, Saunders herself wore a corseted black reverse-blazer dress with its own white detached sleeves. Saunders’s stunning tribute to Karl Lagerfeld balanced traditions produced by Lagerfeld himself, against Saunders’s own mark – exaggerated features and subtle twists in the fabric. Her experimental approach towards the traditional tailoring and forms of menswear disrupts the stiffness and rules built around its utility and wearability.
Bianca Saunders's collection for Paris Menswear Fashion Week. The collection expresses Perry’s mesmerizing view of spirituality, Jamaica, and joy.
Saunders most recently showed at Paris Menswear Fashion Week, where her Spring 2024 collection was a collaboration with Farah and At. Kollective, and incorporated the visual language of musical and visual artist Lee “Scratch” Perry.
The same anatomical play that is key in Saunders’s own visual language is present in the collection’s shirts, lightly ruched and folded at the waist to accentuate the male models’ waists and emphasize their shoulders. Relaxed trouser-legs were embellished with pleats, while the wrap-around seam made its return in another pair of denim jeans.
The success of designers like Lukhanyo Mdingi, Bianca Saunders and Grace Wales Bonner is a testament to the power of innovation and true artistic vision. Through their unique approaches to design, they have challenged traditional fashion boundaries in order to create truly captivating clothing.
Their recognition within the menswear industry shows that creativity can be a valuable asset regardless of gender or race. We look forward to seeing more from these inspiring figures who are helping make fashion more reflective and inclusive for all genders alike.