It’s early February and with Winter 2017 wrapped up, Summer 2018 looms large for London-based menswear designer Nicholas Daley. In an industry where time operates on fast-forward, finding a moment to breathe between seasons is a luxury. Fresh off a plane from Copenhagen, Daley, now a regular at the city’s CIFF Raven tradeshow, considers the next stage, “I’ve been collecting swatches, trying to piece it together. It’s in a very embryonic stage but I think I know where I’m going.” While the line is in a state of uncertainty, one thing is almost guaranteed: as with every collection since Culture Clash, his 2013 debut, this next project will be deeply tied to Daley’s sense of self, part of an on-going project to both deconstruct and celebrate his own personal identity.
This decision - or perhaps impulse is a better term - to reflect the various cultures that form his heritage is a perfect example of the ways in which menswear can be both exploratory and meaningful. Whether it’s a story that simply resonates, as with his work alongside legendary punk/reggae DJ Don Letts; or directly stems from his own DNA (Winter 2015 Dreader than Dread a nod to his Jamaican father, Juteopolis Summer 2017 a reflection of his mother’s Scottish heritage,) Daley’s output is the very essence of autobiography. Each season meticulously researched, uncovering stories around his past and the subcultures that have always fascinated him, designing clothes without context has simply never been an option. Because of this, everything he creates has a special feel. The 27 year-old Central Saint Martins alumni found success early on. With BEAMS, quick to buy into his graduate collection, he now finds himself stocked at the likes of Dover Street Market and The Bureau. We meet at his studio and office in Seven Sisters, a busy corner of North London bordered by south Tottenham and the Walthamstow reservoirs. The area is steadily becoming an alternative base for those tired of east London life and its prohibitive price tag. Appropriately, Daley is dressed in his own creations, Summer 2017 layers that suit him to a T. Whenever we’ve met in the past, Daley is wearing Daley and this seemingly minor gesture encapsulates everything we go on to discuss. As well as designing about himself, he designs for himself in the literal sense, creating clothing he wants to wear, day in and day out.
A passion fuelled by his time working alongside Nigel Cabourn and his legendary archive, Daley is an avid collector of vintage, regularly weaving original designs into his own garments. From a British paratrooper trouser to a West African dashiki, Ghurka shorts to a Pentonville prison jacket, found pieces from all corners of the globe are subtly reworked in unexpected fabrics and adapted cuts. Favouring multiple loose layers, from tough corduroy to substantial waxed cottons, his trademark fabrics are generally heavyweight and characterful, dictating the ways in which each piece fits and drapes. The recent transformation of unforgiving jute into a wearable trouser demonstrates a willingness to experiment with traditional and often stubborn materials, a speciality of the UK. An integral part of his label, Daley has always favoured British mills and manufacturers. Years of experience in producing durable materials, these makers offer another layer of storytelling to accompany his own.
In conversation, it becomes clear that his approach to the label is a serious-minded one. A no-nonsense work ethic passed down from his parents pushed Nicholas to take every opportunity to learn and develop, a process that continues to this day. Constantly inquiring, while the Leicestershire native is concerned with some of life’s bigger questions, what makes his work so appealing is a sharp sense of balance and perspective. A level-headed approach to the industry has produced a designer reassuringly un-fashion. Quietly ambitious, committed to developing the brand at a steady pace, he is disinterested in the external noise and performance that has become part and parcel of the industry. In it for the long-term, Daley walks us through his very personal vision.
Tell us how you got started.
I did menswear at Central Saint Martins and during that time, I had various placements; from Paul Smith and Aitor Throup through to Savile Row. A real variety of British menswear designers who I felt I could learn something from, get a better understanding of the business as well as the design side. For my final show I wanted to do something that represented my culture, my heritage and me, so that became the Culture Clash collection. I was lucky enough to work with Don Letts, who’s a bit of a character. He’s been a cultural icon for many years so he brought his own energy and experiences to the collection. I think the combination of all that and my own storytelling was strong enough for BEAMS Japan to approach me and ask if they could buy into the collection for Tokyo. Of course I said yes. It was quite a shock. Actually I was so surprised that at first I thought the email was spam but it turned out to be from Tatsuo Hino, a buyer at the company. They’ve been amazing so far. They’re still a stockist and people I speak to regularly. Without their support and belief in what I was trying to say — even at that early stage — I wouldn’t be in this position so there’s a big appreciation there.
Was it an advantage having your first major retailer based overseas?
I’m lucky to have started my brand with a Japanese stockist because I think they have a very clear understanding of what I’m doing; from using British fabrics to the stories I’m trying to intertwine with my work. If you look at other designers — Margaret Howell, Nigel Cabourn — there’s always been a very strong connection between UK designers and the Japanese market.
How did you find your experience at Central Saint Martins?
The purpose of school, I guess, is to find out what you like but also what you don’t like. My experience was always positive. I’m originally from Leicestershire so moving to London and meeting new people, everything changed for me when I started at Saint Martins. It definitely gives you more confidence coming from an institution that’s so well respected. Nothing is perfect of course, but my time there was great. In my last year Chris New, who ran the BA Menswear course, would always say, “Just do you.” Of course they always wanted more drama, but they knew that I was incredibly focused on what I wanted to say and just let me roll with it. While I was there I managed to do some features with DAZED and Champ Magazine, which was amazing. So yeah, it was all just really natural.
I would say you have to be one-hundred precent committed at Saint Martins. It’s not easy. I have a strong work ethic and that comes from my parents. My dad’s from Jamaica — he joined the military and has worked solidly his whole life — and my mum is the first person in her family to go to university. From a personal perspective it’s always been about rolling your sleeves up and getting on with it; a typical West Indian approach I guess. So that became my ethos. It was ground into me from an early age.
How did you find your time at Nigel Cabourn?
After graduating I was doing my own label while also working for Nigel. At that point it was really important to try to understand the production side of things and just learn as much as I could from him. Cabourn being a small, niche menswear brand, I felt I could connect with what Nigel was trying to do. I’ve been collecting vintage for a few years, so his archive was something I was particularly interested in. He has a real energy. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s continued to be right in the thick of it for so long.
What was your history with fashion growing up?
I was very athletic: rugby, judo, golf and basketball, sportswear is something I was always really fascinated with. Drawing trainers, sketching and trying to create the next Air Jordan’s. Then I started at a store called Wellgosh in Leicester when I was 16, at a time when the whole skate culture thing was happening. That was my first introduction to streetwear subcultures. I was definitely a trainer-head for a while. From my dad’s side of the family, the whole traditional approach to the Jamaican “Sunday best” thing was definitely an early influence. He’s from a generation where looking presentable was important. I remember I had this pair of Diesel jeans and he ironed this massive, deep crease down the middle of them. I remember going to school and my friends were like, “What’s that about?” In the end, all of this would end up influencing what I do in one way or another.
How much did your time at Savile Row influence your work today?
It’s the birthplace of modern menswear. Everyone from kings to politicians ended up on Savile Row so I felt like it was something I should experience. It’s an important part of the make-up of fashion. It’s the couture of menswear. I always made sure that I was continuing to learn as much as possible outside of school hours. Saint Martins is this Holy Grail but it was important for me to seek out other people to learn from. I worked at Hardy Amies with Clare Malcolm. Just learning the history of the area was really interesting; to this day it’s still such a specific culture.
Obviously I had my own aesthetic. I was more drawn to the zoot suit as inspiration for my more tailored pieces in terms of silhouette and fabric. There’s always been some soft tailoring in my work but blended with all of my other interests, from workwear to vintage. I also worked for a smaller tailor, Joe Allen. He and his brother Charlie, who was also a tailor, had a massive wealth of knowledge. Both started out learning from their grandmother in Montserrat, a really interesting story actually. Joe taught me how to draft the first trouser pattern I ever made and that’s still the basic shape I use today.
Your collections are very personal in multiple ways. Are you designing for yourself or others?
Even from my days at college, I thought to myself, “I’m putting all this energy and finance into these collections, I want to be able to wear these clothes.” Ultimately, if I couldn’t wear it, how could I expect anyone else to buy into it? The designers I admire — Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo — there’s a transparency between the collection and the designer, everything just merges into one.
Even down to the silhouette. I’m quite a tall guy and I like my clothes to be fluid and less restrictive and I design with this in mind. I guess there’s a narcissistic element there, but most designers have that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You work is equally personal in terms of the role your background plays. Was that a deliberate move?
Again, it is this whole idea of transparency. I wanted everything to be connected: to have this link between my heritage, my DNA and the things I wanted to say or perhaps what I felt wasn’t really being said enough in the industry.
In order for people to truly understand your message, you have to be really clear and honest, especially with the times we’re living in now. Even from working with Don Letts and this mixture of punk and reggae, I was fascinated with that whole period in British history and subcultural history. I always try and connect the collections as much as possible with my own identity. The last few collections have been about looking at my West Indian heritage but for Summer 2017, I turned to my mum’s side of the family in Scotland. Being mixed-race is a blessing in a way as it gives me a personal connection to so many different stories.
We all ask questions of ourselves. Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going? For me, looking into my heritage is another way of unravelling and finding a deeper sense. There needs to be a certain energy for me when I work, I need to feel engaged with the topic. Finding a personal connection is a way of recognizing that I’m here because of all these people that came before.
What did you uncover during your research for the Summer 2017 Juteopolis collection?
Spending time in Dundee — at the factories and the Dundee library — was so interesting, I had no idea about half the things we uncovered in the process. We found my maternal grandmother’s work permit from the time she worked in the mills. Discovering all these strong, female characters was amazing. They went through so much to provide for the family in a harsh Dundee climate. It was known as a women’s city at that time. They were the ones who were heavily involved in the workplace and essentially ruled the town. We had two, possibly three, generations in the mills, which were really dangerous places. Women worked incredibly long hours and at that time, there was no such thing as health and safety. These stories certainly aren’t rose tinted. It was all pretty dark.
We used a lot of jute for the Summer 2017 collection. The families who worked on the jute plantations in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh - those were incredibly hard jobs for very little pay. There was this mirroring between their situations and what happened in Scotland. In the lookbook, I included an extract from “Jute Mill Song” by Mary Brookbank. It begins, “Oh dear me, the world is ill divided, them that works the hardest are the least provided.” That says it all.
The Halley Stevenson mill that I work with is a listed building. So many of the mills were demolished or converted and it’s one of the few still standing from that industrial boom in Dundee. There are members of the team who knew members of my family, and I think they liked that someone was coming to them with a connection.
Had you always intended to focus on a single fabric as the collection’s theme?
From the 1800s right through to the wars, Dundee was one of the richest cities in the UK because of jute. It was used by the military for industry during the Crimean War. I was really interested in the idea of focusing on one single fabric. Yohji Yamamoto is one of my favourite designers, and he always says, “Listen to the fabric.” It sounds a bit cheesy so I won’t go too deep. On the surface it’s a really mundane material, but now it’s seen as chic because of the whole coffee bean bag turned pillow thing. For me, I wanted to reinvent it, turn it on its head and make people look at jute in a new way. Making a trouser out of it was a bit of an experiment. People thought that no one would wear a jute trouser but they’ve actually been really popular. Juteopolis was a sort of nickname for Dundee at the time so that’s where we got the name for the collection.
How did working in retail at Dover Street Market affect your approach to your own work?
I think most people who want to get involved in fashion should have some retail experience. It’s always important to know how products are placed, understand how brands sit together and what the customers want to see. It was also a meeting point. In fact that’s how I met Stephen Mann, who styled my collections from early on and who always offered advice throughout. He’s been part of my progression from the beginning: he has a great eye and an amazing wealth of knowledge on product. My experience at DSM was great and now I’m lucky enough to be on the other side with DSM stocking my collection in London.
Is music an important part of your work?
Yeah, I always try and do a mix for each collection. I’ve worked with Don Letts, Throwing Shade and then with Tribe of Colin for the Winter 2016 collection KinDread. I wanted to incorporate music right from the beginning. My mum and dad ran a reggae night in Edinburgh back in the '70s. They were one of the few playing that sort of music. They collected vinyl from a lot of British bands like Aswad and Matumbi. My dad still has a big collection of vinyl that he’s really protective of. Music in general will always be part of the make-up of what we’re doing. We’ve thrown a couple of parties in Tokyo and Paris, which were great. It makes everything a little less formal. It’s a way of representing the brand without always talking about the clothes.
You seem to gravitate towards heavyweight, challenging fabrics.
I use predominantly British materials and with these materials, there has always been a common theme — the climate. It has to be tough and it has to be durable. I use a lot of wax cottons, corduroys and heavy cottons from a mill in Yorkshire; that company was formed on hunting clothing and riding coats. It was and still is fabric made to last. A big part of the philosophy behind British textiles and manufacturing is this sense of materials having longevity, from Shetland wools to melton used for Monty Duffles. Essentially I’m trying to find fabrics that tell a story.
For Summer 2017, the colour palette and the fabrics were very natural. I used a lot of organic materials, more than ever before: amazing quality John England Irish linen, Indian cottons, organic jersey, twill linen, hand knits, Halley Stevenson lightweight dry wax fabrics and of course, jute.
What do you think of the boom in “Made in England” clothing?
Everything has a positive and a negative. Personally, I like to produce everything here so that the people creating my clothing are within reach. Obviously made in Britain isn’t possible for every label but because of my size right now, I can make it work. There was definitely a big resurgence that went right from high street through to smaller brands. I don’t make a lot of noise about producing in the UK. I’m not pushing it as a marketing tool but if people appreciate British product, that’s a good thing. As designers we should not only be more conscious about where we produce but where all this clothing ends up as well. The fashion industry is a huge polluter globally.
What do you think about the current menswear scene in London?
It’s grown substantially over the past few years and it’s great to see other designers that I know succeed, like Kiko Kostadinov for example. If I’m being honest though, I’m not really part of that scene. People always ask if I’m presenting at Fashion Week but I’ve never really entered into that world. I’ve always just got on with my own work. I have a showroom during Paris fashion week and the CIFF tradeshow in Copenhagen is really good; I like to be able to meet people and keep everything quite personal and one-to-one. The London scene in general though? There’s a good diversity at the moment with Cottweiler, Casely-Hayford and people like Wales Bonner winning the LVMH prize. We all speak to each other because we’re all in the same scenario. Generally though, as things grow and progress with the label, the less time I have to think about everything happening around me.
What’s the end goal for the label?
It would be great to have a stand-alone store at some stage. That’s probably the goal of every designer: a place where you can communicate in a different way, in your own environment. I’d like to try more collaborations and introduce other platforms. I’ve been trying to develop things quite steadily at a pace that’s manageable. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan or regret anything. I feel like I’m in a good place. I just want to continue to learn, keep telling the story and keep enjoying it. I’ve still got the urge and focus and I still have things to say.
It’s an on-going process with this industry. There’s always something new to get your head around, but essentially it’s a balance between creativity and understanding the business. It’s about creating the perfect mix, learning as much as you can from different people, throwing lots of things in and hoping that what comes out at the end works.
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