Representing the creative future

Between historical research and instinctive expression: a conversation with Nicholas Daley

The menswear designer talked us through the research behing his latest collection "Juteopolis".

As a designer myself, there is one particular thing which always strikes me in the work of a creative, no matter which fields this person operates in: clarity. As difficult as it can be to define what makes a designer, I do believe that it has to do with the ability to communicate any concept – no matter how intricate – in the most vivid way.

Nicholas Daley naturally seeks for transparency in anything he does and therefore embodies, in my opinion, the perfect example of a designer who exceptionally masters his media. Moreover, the consistency of his work suggests a deep and genuine interest in the subjects that inspire him. As I enter his studio in Tottenham, Nicholas introduces me to the womenswear designer with which he shares this beautiful space. I instantly understand that Daley is a designer who is fully invested in anything he does. Before sitting with me, he asks for a couple minutes to direct his assistant, who is taking care of production, by checking some technical details with him.

Juteopolis is the title Nicholas chose for his Spring/Summer 2017 collection. As I am puzzled by this unusual word, Daley starts explaining its meaning and reassures me that he didn’t invent the word himself. In fact, the city of Dundee was known by this name, when, around the middle of the 19th century, it reached its peak as a manufacturing centre for jute in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case since – Nicholas remarks sadly – for over half of a century, most of the existing mills have been relocating their activities to  India, in order to avoid the cost of importing jute. This has resulted in either the demolition of these industrial spaces or their reconversion into social flats. One of the few whom remain is Halley Stevensons, originally a jute mill which has recently diversified to waxed cotton and provided Nicholas with some amazing fabric for Juteopolis.

Nicholas explains: “I felt like continuing the storyline of what I have been researching so far.” His Juteopolis is therefore a historical journey into the rich Scottish heritage, as well as a further exploration of his personal background, as two generations of ancestors were directly involved in mill trade and his mother was born and raised in Dundee, Scotland.

Nicholas’ knowledge of the subject is impressive. He is a brilliant storyteller and treats me with an unexpected bit of information about Dundee. I am persuaded that he is thinking about his mother when he shares this with me: “Dundee has always had a history of strong female characters. Since there wasn’t a lot of work, except in the whaling industry, the women were working in the mills, bringing back the money, looking after the family. There are some exceptional stories of women entrepreneurs who, once the mills relocated to India, went there and had their own business.”

The extensive research Nicholas carried out in Dundee obviously informed his material choices. Jute is featured prominently in the collection, along with waxed cotton from Halley Stevensons, Irish linen and organic cotton jersey. The colour palette is deliberately tight, it focuses on different shades of beige, enriched by a multitude of textures subtly combined.

A similar approach has been undertaken in defining the style of the garments, in terms of details and silhouettes. Nicholas spent most of his time seeking for inspiration in the Dundee Heritage Trust library, where he came across pictures which had not been seen or published before. When asked about the way he researches, he adds: “You have to make it as personal and as tactile as possible, to speak to that author or academic, rather than sitting on a computer and photocopying images from books.” The result of his hard work is a consistent collection featuring a clever combination of workwear, South Asian shirts and jackets and trousers strongly inspired by vintage. Daley has achieved both visual and conceptual cohesion, with fabrication choices which tie in perfectly with his initial theoretical framework: “I liked this idea of two cultures far away from each other but united by this fabric, in harmony, with positive and negative in both worlds”

Another feature which distinguishes Nicholas’ work is the artisanal feeling of each piece. Ever since his graduate collection, when Christys helped him develop an oversized panama hat, Daley has spontaneously developed an interest for traditional techniques which he successfully fuses with more industrial processes. Nicholas believes it is the designer’s responsibility to inform their customers about the possibilities of craftsmanship which, he admits, are particularly appreciated by his Japanese fans. This is the case of the knitted jute bag he originally conceived for his look book only, and which unexpectedly became a bestseller at Beams in Tokyo. When I jokingly ask him if he feels he could be an ambassador for the crafts, he laughs and modestly replies that he is “only doing his bit.” However, Nicholas is definitely doing more than that, as he embarked on the making of a film showing the full process of waxing at Halley Stevensons.

By the end of our interview it becomes evident that discretion is one of the main traits of Daley’s personality. This is particularly clear when I question him about the apparently political resonances of his work. While he acknowledges being a “product of different cultures,” with his Jamaican and Scottish roots, Nicholas openly states that he is not himself politically engaged, when fashion is concerned.

As I wonder whether this is dictated by a certain scepticism towards the impact fashion can have on politics, Daley promptly counters by bringing up two examples which, from his point of view, prove that clothes can indeed have a deep impact in this field. With great admiration, he mentions the 19th century black activist Frederick Douglas and McQueen’s Highland Rape. He concludes by saying that “as designers, we should be aware and be able to comment in some way on what is going on, even if it is quite naturally.”

As far as I find this contradictory, I completely understand his point of view. Nicholas prefers to let his work speak. There is no need for any additional  explanation, as his vision is silently revealed and touches us, deeply.

Juteopolis is stocked exclusively in London at Dover Street Market and The Bureau Belfast.