Upon arriving at his North-London studio space, I find Nicholas Daley tall and strikingly-clad in his own garments. Bustling around the studio, on the phone to buyers and overseeing a delivery to Japan. “You’re getting a glimpse into just how much of a one-man job this fashion game is,” he tells me as we sit down for a coffee, ready to embark upon our discussion, which quickly turns to our mutual homeland of the Midlands.
Hailing from the small town of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, Nicholas’ first engagement with fashion was routed in the very subject which dominated his Central Saint Martins graduate collection. It was that of subcultures, he tells us as he reflects on his humble beginnings within the Midlands’ skate scene: working part-time, aged 15, at the renowned retailer Wellgosh in Leicester where he was a self-proclaimed sneaker-head and lover of street-wear.
He thinks of working in retail whilst studying design as a dual mechanism which nurtured his artistic approach and his understanding of fashion as a commodity, as throughout his time at St Martins he worked at Dover Street Market. “I had CSM and DSM, I had the cism,” he laughs. It was an exercise which allowed him to question who his customer is, and which designers he wants to sit next to. “It’s the end destination to my garments, so obviously having the experience on the shop floor helps,” he states. This approach originates back to his time at Wellgosh, where selling brands such as Carhartt and Stussy established his passion for Menswear which he explored whilst studying Textiles at A-level, where he was incidentally the only boy in the class.
“All the models I had at CSM were just friends, and obviously the whole Don thing added a good bit of drama.”
During this time, he crafted a jacket which integrated speakers into the hood. Using ‘ex-military fabric’, he fondly reflects: “I called it speaker-flage or something random like that,” but goes onto to reveal how the design led to him entering a national competition and becoming runner-up. “That whole experience of going down to London and showing my work,” made him realise the tangibility of a career in Menswear design. “In essence that was the first Nicholas Daley design thing,” he speculates.
Sparked with a thirst for more, Nicholas’ open-minded approach was heightened during his foundation studies at De Montford, from which he attained a place on the menswear pathway at Central Saint Martins. “If I’m honest, womenswear scared me and I ultimately just wanted to design stuff I wanted to wear.” A concept which resonates with many great designers, including Yohji Yamamoto, who Daley has been a fan of for years. “When you see designers like Yohji, without them even saying anything they are their brand.” It is to do with identity and understanding the basic principle of how to express the self through clothing. “It’s a bit black and white but if can’t wear it I won’t make it”. Black and white it may seem, but this straight talking attitude makes way for garments which are profound and affecting: easily worn and timeless in palette.
“When you look at other designers like Paul Smith, Christopher Nemeth and Margaret Howell, it was the Japanese market which picked them up and started their brand. Maybe I’m following a fairly ritualistic process with my brand too.”
“Keeping it true” and genuine is Nicholas’ mantra, and something he did throughout his time at St Martins. “My tutor Chris New was very nurturing and supportive,” and “he just let me get on with it” as he explored his own identity and heritage: his father coming from a small village in Jamaica, “right up in the bush”, whilst his mother was born in Dundee. Quite the contrast, his graduate collection was dubbed ‘culture clash’ but he seeks to harmonise: “I’m trying to take the best of what I see from being where I am. From a manufacturing point of view to a cultural point of view,” as he sources many of his materials from within the UK. “I’m doing the made in England thing but in a subtle way.” Lacing cultural identities and histories through his fabrics and construction, his work is truly multicultural and consequently evocative of a real Britishness.” It can be a Yorkshire fabric with a Lancashire corduroy but then I’ve done it in a slightly more unusual way, subverting classics. Whether it’s the cut or the silhouette or the man which I’m choosing to put inside the clothing, there are always different elements.”
One man who can be seen in Nicholas’ garments is Don Letts, a figure who was revolutionary in fusing reggae with punk rock during the 1970s. He’s become somewhat of a poster-boy for the brand and solidifies the ageless wearability of the collections, as Daley’s customers are just as diverse as his influences. We remark upon how the role of the wearer adds another dimension to the garments, in this case the majority of business comes from the Japanese market: after a London-based buyer for International Gallery Beams arranged a meeting and bought his graduate collection, kick starting his business. “I don’t think many retailers would have gone to the extent that they have, supporting a young designer like me. They’ve really pushed my clothing in terms of PR,” securing appearances in Japanese publications like Eyescream alongside a two-week installation of Nicholas’ work in the Shibuya store in Tokyo. Having his work and name reach the country when he is yet to visit, is ‘weird’. He states it only makes him all the more eager to visit, as he’s “pretty much been obsessed with Japan since the days of Tamogotchis.”
“I’m all about made in England, using Yorkshire wools and waxed fabrics or tweeds from Scotland. They really like the authentic component side mixed in with my authentic story with cultural references.”
When I confess my adoration of his finely crafted hats, Nicholas tells me that his Japanese buyers equally love them. He worked with established milliners Christys’ London to create an oversized panama which he wanted to “fit Don or someone with dreads,” he smiles, highlighting once more his ability to subvert classics. He only achieved this feat through using a large hood, a special block and then a police hat for the height, all prior to Pharrell Williams’ collaboration with Westwood he assures me.
Success in Japan is no surprise given Daley’s broad knowledge and appreciation of the history of Menswear design and tradition, which was heightened during the 6-month placement at Hardy Amies of Savile Row, an integral part of his education as he deems the street to be the birthplace of modern menswear. He also spent time with internationally recognised Aitor Throup, who is also heralded for reflecting his multicultural background in his work. And “being a midlands boy” he interned at Paul Smith for 6 months, reinforcing his understanding of tailoring for the modern man.
Unassuming, humble and grateful, Nicholas savvy approach to the industry is striking, as he carefully treads the line of the necessity of growth whilst ensuring his collections are thoughtfully created. “At the end of the day, it’s pretty much me on my own,” he says, “if you want to get things done in this industry you have to be very driven.” I’m only left asking where I can get his stuff? He assures me that from February, his friends at Hostem will have his stock, and I for one cannot wait.
Words by Lilah Francis
Studio photography by Jackson Bowley for 1 Granary
Lookbook photography by Iain Anderson, styling Stephen Mann
Follow Nicholas on Instagram @nicholas_daley