There are not many designers who I interview and leave with a reading list. But Grace Wales Bonner’s company is unapologetically highbrow. Thanks to her, I have now read James Baldwin’s 1956 novella Giovanni’s Room and want to read Gary Fisher’s notebooks, published after he died of Aids in 1994 at the age of 32. That’s the book propped up on her bedside table.

Rest assured, Fisher isn’t there for any opportune shelfie purposes. Fashion is a world in which a veneer of cleverness – wearing glasses with non-prescription lenses, for example – is often mistaken for actual intelligence. But 26-year-old Wales Bonner is the real thing: book-smart, almost academic, in her thinking.

“I am very interested in post-colonial theory, black literature and post-black literature,” she explains, in a quiet, determined tone. Writing and research is tangled up with designing. When graduating from Central Saint Martins, she voluntarily produced a 10,000-word dissertation along with a collection.

Wales Bonner is an anomaly in fashion, beyond her ability to think deeply: a female, mixed-race designer, designing menswear. Only three years after launching her label, Wales Bonner, in 2014, she is the undisputed star at London men’s fashion week, the menswear shows that took place last weekend. Awards are an annual occurrence: she won emerging menswear designer at the 2015 British Fashion awards, and the LVMH young designer prize, judged by Phoebe Philo and Karl Lagerfeld, the following year.

She has done all this with ridiculously little self-promotion, quite a feat when you consider that Wales Bonner is a card-carrying millennial who is supposed to love nothing better than talking about herself. I meet her – tiny, hair pulled back into a bun, wearing Adidas trainers and a jacket of her own design with a striped crochet collar – in the cafe underneath her Hackney studio. The interview took five months to arrange. This isn’t because she is difficult or even slightly diva-ish. It’s because, reading between the lines, she has far more important things to do than meet journalists. For her, work is the thing. She’s almost unnervingly self-possessed, the only time she even slightly squirms is when we veer off topic. What does she do for fun? Pilates, cooking, meditation. The kind of monkish pastimes that would sound Gwyneth Paltrow-ish if her mind wasn’t so radical.

The audience at a Wales Bonner show can expect to feel out of their depth and in need of Google. She has used references including Malik Ambar, who went from Ethiopian slave to Indian ruler in the 17th century, and Haile Selassie in the 1930s. Her most recent show, Blue Duets, took place on Saturday evening in a church in Holborn, central London. It came with a handout worthy of a university lecture, where famous names such as James Baldwin and Chris Ofili mixed with Carl Van Vechten’s nudes of young black men in Harlem in the 20s, an essay on Baldwin by Hilton Als and a poem by Essex Hemphill. It also included an additional bibliography. Not the usual press release knocked up the night before, then. The designer is now such a big deal in fashion, though, that she persuaded the great and good of the industry to forgo their beloved front row and stand up to watch her show, resulting in some wry smiles from notebook-toting reviewers.

A cast of mostly non-white models wore leather trousers, open shirts and bare feet, building on her reputation for clothes that are opulent, gender-fluid and slightly retro. Prints of Ofili’s and Van Vechten’s work featured on some of the shirts. The young men crossed each other’s paths in the space to the ominous strains of a post-minimalist Julius Eastman score. It felt urgent, languid and raw all at the same time – like a love affair. “It was sexuality instead of sensuality,” she said afterwards. “I was thinking about a day, and then there’s a transition and it becomes night and they dress up to go out. The finale is that they have stayed up all night and have learned something from the experience.” Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which chronicles a gay relationship with the backdrop of after-dark Paris bohemia, was an inspiration.

Wales Bonner is one of a number of non-white designers finally joining fashion’s elite. London menswear is leading the way – Martine Rose, Nicholas Daley and A Cold Wall’s Samuel Ross are among other notable names. Her own circle includes musicians Dev Hynes and Sampha, as well as painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who wrote a poem for her January show. The hiring of Edward Enninful, who was born in Ghana, as the editor of Vogue, has also been hailed as a triumph. Wales Bonner, in her old soul way, is wary of calling these changes a shift, however. “There’s still a long way to go,” she says. “I guess I don’t think of the fashion industry exclusively, I am more interested in the bigger picture.”

Wales Bonner is not overtly political, like some of her contemporaries in the industry. She doesn’t use her work to bang a drum, she’s not one to rant on social media. Instead, her work takes the long view. She is drawn to similarities across the centuries where black male identity is what she calls “gentler” – a contrast perhaps to the contemporary mainstream ideal of a black man, who is typically athletic in build and alpha male in character (see Idris Elba, Usain Bolt and, to some extent, Kanye West). By contrast, the models in Wales Bonner’s shows are mostly willowy and arty-looking. “I remember seeing these images from 100 years ago of these quite tender relationships between black men, being very beautiful, princely characters,” she says. “I don’t like to say fluidity, because it has been quite overused, but it is more about a kind of openness and a hybridity.”

The designer grew up in south-east London, between Dulwich and Stockwell, where her business-adviser mother still lives. She was the middle of three daughters that her parents had before separating, and she says that exploring her father’s heritage – his parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s – has fuelled her work.

“I have had to work things out, things haven’t been told to me,” she explains. “I have had to educate myself about my background so it’s always been something interesting to me, to make sense of things.”

Her own mixed-heritage identity seems to be where her mind naturally leads her. “It’s working out how I could be and that I didn’t need to prove anything to be who I was,” she says. “At school, I had some pressure to prove my blackness. It takes you a while to work out being ‘this’ doesn’t mean that you have to be ‘that’.” In fact, being neither definitively one thing or the other is where she feels most comfortable. “I have to be between places, because that’s a creative space for me,” she says. “I guess that is the foundation of what I am doing, a meeting point and collision of cultures.”