The first time I met John Skelton, in his final months as an MA student, he talked me through sheaves of photographs of Bolton in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The next time, there was a detailed discussion of colonialism in India post-1857, then the Peterloo massacre of 1819. It’s no surprise that since then he’s built a reputation for himself as a designer obsessed with the detail, the history, and the construction of his clothing. From inspiration to fabric creation and processes, attention to the smallest elements is minute and meaningful. The history lesson John gives at the beginning of an interview is consistently a joy, as the passion he has for his work shines blindingly obvious through the extent of his knowledge. It also helps to contextualise the work, like the cheat sheet to a roman à clef that demystifies its complexities somewhat.
The prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum had asked John to appear as part of their Fashion in Motion series: a programme that sees designers invited to host a catwalk show in the museum, bringing haute couture to a wider audience. The implication of the all-important context ‒ sharing a space with some of the UK’s most important collections of fine art and design ‒ is that the clothing can be deconstructed and interpreted as works of art. The alumni list is impressive and wide-ranging, including Alexander McQueen, Erdem, Vivienne Westwood and Grace Wales Bonner. “It’s an amazing accreditation and validation of the work that I’ve been doing. I don’t think there’s another museum that I would rather do it in,” John acknowledges later.
The V&A talks about the Fashion in Motion series bringing the “catwalk experience” to the museum. Catwalk could apply only in the most generous terms to what turned out to be rather more a piece of immersive performance theatre. To those who assume a fashion model’s occupation involves simply being aesthetically pleasing and walking in a straight line, come to a Skelton show.
In this instance the models, masked, followed an operatic performer in a hypnotic lurching dance, a slow-motion tumble of bodies with leaden feet that moved at a glacial pace in circuits around the Raphael Gallery. As a piece it was both challenging and confrontational, the models eventually interacting with the audience, removing the eery obscurity of their masks to reveal their faces and voices. In fact, they felt almost like provocateurs, and more than a little punk in the aggressive if not threatening way they forced the viewers to become engaged.
This performance, developed specifically for the Fashion in Motion series, was inspired by the Spring Equinox rituals of fertility and rebirth, drawing heavily on the pagan figure of the Green Man, “a warning of nature rather than a light-hearted symbolic thing,” explains Skelton, “but it was something that Christianity could take quite easily and incorporate, so it became popular to have on churches in the 15th and 16th century.” Banners adorned with depictions of the leafy figure stood in the gallery, and the hats and masks of the models reflected the Green Man within masonry.
To begin there was some bafflement, some unsettled laughs, some awkward glances, but soon the spectators were mesmerised by a performance that turned them almost into participants. With the mystic singing voices occupying every corner of the gallery, it took on the reverence of a ritual that we were all taking part in, there were no mere observers.
The clothing, with knitted red and black immediately grabbing attention, felt quite a bit punk too, with homespun embroidery, fingerless gloves, the occasional rip, tear, or fray, along with its break from societal norms of how men are supposed to dress. The coats, as always with Skelton’s work, were the standout pieces, and almost obscenely beautiful. Though tonally amongst the quietest pieces of the collection, they demanded to be touched, to be worn, to be admired, expertly straddling the line between art and functional design.
The show finished, we exit from the performance gallery through the echoing deserted galleries of the museum at night, and come to the backstage area, which is brimming with excitement, warmth, and a sense of community between the models, assistants, and John’s immediate family. There is a particular buzzing atmosphere about his family: his mother, jovially asking one of the models to have a drink ready for her in the pub, visibly exuding pride; his brother Ryan, taking pictures of the performance.
With the models changing and clothes being packed up, we finally find a room to speak in. Costume, in the end, is what it boils down to, or rather where it all sprang from. The slightly more nebulous period John had in mind for this collection was the heyday of British folk theatre. The aesthetic lands somewhere around the Victorian era but reaches as far back as the pre-Christian period, and takes inspiration from theatre costumes that were initially elaborate, but slowly reduced down to “a ribbon on a jacket” or similar, a progression Skelton dismisses as “really boring.”
Having previously touched on folk symbolism in the North, delving into pre-Christian British traditions has become a theme for Skelton, a rallying point for a more intrinsic culture of the United Kingdom, “No one knows anything about British folklore generally and it’s such a huge part of our culture,” he laments, “I think that they should.”
What he is attracted to, at the heart of it, is what he has always been attracted to: communities. A group of people bound together by shared activities, joys and spaces. People who learn to live together despite personal differences, in acknowledgment that the community, on the whole, has a power and importance than an individual does not.
“It was about a sense of community, working together and making their own costumes and doing it outside of their labour work, for fun essentially, which is something that is really missing in our current society,” Skelton admonishes, “I think we could definitely benefit from learning how to work together rather than this capitalist society insisting on the individual being better.”
In terms of lessons drawn from the past, Skelton feels strongly not just about the redevelopment of communities around folk traditions, but also the lost art of ostentatious dressing for men, which declined with the Victorian period. While the community and folk element stood out most strongly in the performance, this “pleasure in dressing” has had a bigger impact on the clothing as objects. The pieces are in no small way the imagined wardrobe of “the Victorian gentleman who would wear a striped waistcoat and check trousers, both very bold.”
While individuals, particularly in London, may experiment with colours and silhouettes, there is a certain homogeneous colouring and stylistic uniformity to the vast majority of male clothing. “I wanted to delve into the psychology of why men have started to not be able to dress with colour or in a bold way, and it was new for me,” he explained, acknowledging that his previous collections have focused on more subtle colour palettes.
One has to wonder, with clothing that has always been flamboyant in cut and style, and now also in hue, whether this kind of purely creative label can be financially successful in a highly commercial world? “Every day I’m faced with a different challenge but I’ve been lucky enough to gain a support network that I can go to for those things that I wouldn’t necessarily know already,” he offers, admitting that the business nonetheless “going well” and unable to think of a single brand he could be happy working for rather than leading and shaping his own.
He is currently working on another collection and I have to ask, “are you doing any historical research right now?” A pause. The furtive, cheeky grin. “Maybe.” John jumps to his feet, alarmed, and starts to dart from the room. “They’re taking my clothes” he explains, as they disappear down the corridor, where his creations have been dragged, “I have to go.”
Considerately, he pops his head back in “was that enough though?”
Yes. Despite not having time for the leisurely history lecture, I will settle for the Cliffs Notes version.
And so he leaves, racing after a rail of clothing, and, onwards, to the pub.
Words Elizabeth Brauders
Images Ryan Skelton
Hats in collaboration with Stephen Jones