On the fourth day of Fashion Revolution Week, John Alexander Skelton opened his studio at the Sarabande Foundation for a tour and a conversation about his work. Tamsin Blanchard, curator of the Open Studios initiative, lead the way as we discovered the techniques and processes behind the CSM graduate’s designs.
The evening began with a tour of the studio. Skelton and his team were still working the moment we walked in. White, black, and earthy-coloured fragments of different fabrics were hanging alongside threads, paper moulds and hats, in two little rooms where the weaving and sewing was done. The weavers were working on hemp from northern France for an outstanding order from the previous collection. It’s when we climbed the stairs and walked into the room where Skelton presented his last collection, that we were truly immersed into his world.
The setting of the talk recalled the environment in which Skelton presented his third collection, The Radical North – a dark corner covered with fabric and two hanging rails with his latest work on each side, inciting that incomparable feeling one has when discovering precious pieces inside a grandmother’s old wardrobe. On the side, the skeleton hat lay alongside the hand-made socks and gloves the models wore on the day of the show.
Sarabande’s trustee Trino Verkade introduced the talk by explaining and contextualising the mission of the foundation created by Alexander McQueen. “We encourage everybody to have the time to experiment with their creativity and to find the time to do something they love. John is one of our scholars and has an extremely strong vision and passion for his art,” she said.
Founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro, followed Verkade’s brief introduction, explaining the idea of the recent Open Studios initiative: “To be the opposite of a catwalk. We want to understand the team, the fabrics, the materials and the inspiration behind what will determine the change of the industry.”
“I think that it’s necessary not to be obsessed with sustainability and talk about it all the time, but to just get on and do it.”
Then it was up to Blanchard who began by highlighting how the designer’s work and his take on “history, traditional craft, authenticity, heritage, and politics is the antithesis of fast fashion.”
The conversation was mainly driven by the unquestionable fascination and curiosity of Blanchard and the entire audience for the details of Skelton’s work philosophy and the practical challenges faced by someone who fights the system with such distinction. “I discovered I have no interest in doing things quickly. I think that to create something that has a lot of meaning, it has naturally to take a long time to make. I would not enjoy rushing it,” said Skelton when asked about whether his work is a reaction to the way fashion is produced today.
The designer explained how the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester influenced his collection: “The set and the atmosphere of the show were really important, and we are sitting in a little corner of it.” Skelton wanted to create a secretive atmosphere reminiscent of the meeting places that secret trade societies used to have prior to the legalisation of trade unions.
The materials used were not just vintage, but antique textiles. “These are made from French and Belgian farmer’s trousers,” said the designer grabbing one of his pieces. Skelton seems to have a particular interest in mended details that allow garments to last through the years. “There’s something moving about the way these clothes were looked after, and mended out of necessity. I mean, people wouldn’t have any choice!” enthused Blanchard. “I know,” replied Skelton, “it’s so beautiful. That is the antithesis of today. Who would do that now? I don’t know… I would!”
The unconventional casting was also an important part of the show, as he and his brother Ryan – who serves as “a second pair of eyes” to his work – didn’t opt for young models. “We enjoy people who have a developed character already and that’s very difficult in someone who is eighteen,” Skelton explained. “I find it interesting to see how an older person carries my clothes in comparison to a younger one,” adds the designer, mentioning how the diversity and interaction between people affected the performance and altered the show’s atmosphere.
Next, Tamsin Blanchard asked about the process of sourcing fabrics. “It takes a long time to source materials,” said the designer. “It takes time to meet these people and build relationships,” explained Skelton. Finding these kind of professionals is still difficult, even in the UK.
Growth is another challenge for the young designer. “I’m trying to set up a way to produce my work on a larger scale and protect the handcrafted elements of it,” Skelton explained. “I would like to have a working atelier and do a lot in-house. That’s something I would like to build”, he concluded.
When it was time for questions from the audience, a young lady wanted to know whether the clothes are designed for men only, to which Skelton answered that he designed a menswear collection, but produced it as unisex.
“Could you tell us about price points in your work and what that means to you?” another member of the audience asked. “Well…” said Skelton looking slightly concerned. “It is very expensive. In my last collection there was a piece that took six weeks to make, so that would be worth about 25.000 pounds. But you can’t sell things for that price!” Skelton remarked. “But what do you do with them? What’s the point of making them?” Tamsin Blanchard questioned. “I guess for their beauty. Because I’m interested in making things that take ages.”
“I’m really interested in making things that take ages.”
Tamsin Blanchard continued. “I feel that your clothes are very different from what is out there. They feel as if they lived already.” Skelton enthused, “the clothes have a form of soul to them, and that’s very important to me. They have a kind of visible history.”
Another member of the audience wondered how to pass on the stories and the identity of the pieces to someone who buys them. “I would like to do it without saying it explicitly. It’s more important for me to just do it. And I think that it’s necessary not to be obsessed with sustainability and talk about it all the time, but to just get on and do it.”
By the time the lights went on and the visitors started to leave, the atmosphere was slightly altered, as if the historical and handcraft weight of the garments continued to fill the room. A new and personal way to learn about a designer’s work. We look forward to the next Sarabande event.
Words Maria Lopes Images Ryan Skelton