Representing the creative future

The Masters: John Skelton

John Alexander Skelton doesn’t do bullshit. He doesn’t do slick media-prepared answers, or polished veneers. He does long, honest rambling explanations that you find yourself nodding along with. He does beautiful, sustainable clothing he hopes will last forever, and he does it with an obsessive passion that allows real engagement. His aesthetic reflects this authenticity, there is a rawness to it, not because it seems unfinished, but rather because it gives the impression of a life already lived. “I just want it to have a soul,” he explains.

The inspiration for this collection, which won Skelton the L’Oréal prize, came from the lives of Northern England’s working classes in the mid-20th century via the archives of Mass Observation. The project was an extensive anthropological survey run by a collective of surrealists, eager to document a largely unknown social group. Dissatisfied with press coverage of the abdication crisis, their main goal was to observe and record the opinions and everyday life of Britain’s ordinary people.

Amongst their collaborators was the photographer Humphrey Spender, who captured the inhabitants of Bolton, codenamed Worktown by the group. His photographs document everything from youthful crowds of striking apprentices, to the “small but attentive” audience of a visiting production of Madame Butterfly, a catalogue of frozen workaday moments.

John’s final collection, shot by his younger brother Ryan Neil Skelton 

Models: Andrew Wyatt and Jack Appleyard, Styling by John Skelton

When I first meet John, to begin work on a documentary of his creation process, it’s the coat that grabs my attention. The flamboyant shape contrasts with the soft subdued brown wool that has been specially woven in British mills to Skelton’s specifications. His enthusiasm is infectious as he leafs through Spender’s photographs and talks animately about these sources of inspiration. Later, the importance of these visual prompts is revealed when I discover that John doesn’t usually draw out his designs before he begins working. The excitement of this first encounter belied a startling ability on John’s part to withdraw silently into his work.

A certain emphasis on control also becomes apparent. His telling reaction to being officially granted the opportunity to show at London Fashion Week is to return quietly to his desk-space and continue cutting and sewing, despite the fact that he is surrounded by his peers embracing each other through tears of joy or disappointment.

John meticulously constructs his collection around images that inspire him, some photographs from Spender, some phantom pieces he carries in his mind’s eye. This level of involvement makes him extremely attached to his clothes, injecting them with his personal sense of integrity. When the time comes to create a lookbook and take some editorial shots, he styles each look and paces, concerned, at every click of the shutter. His own emotions are usually kept in check while he focuses on the manual act of creating, an idea that obsesses him, inherited from ancestors who have always worked with their hands. “A lot of my family do, and have done, trade jobs”, he enthuses, moving his ever-restless hands a lot even as he explains this, “My grandfather was a really amazing welder and would make fine, intricate work. All my family make things, everybody has a very hands-on approach.”

He speaks extensively about sustainability, his disgust at the modern fashion industry, and endless overflowing landfills, fuelled by a culture of mass consumption, and trend-driven purchases, what he calls “nothing-clothes”. He has a collection of idealistic visions that would seem naive coming from most people, and expresses a principled desire to contribute to the creation of a better and more authentic world. Despite the lofty ideals, he speaks with an innocent conviction that makes everything he describes seem eminently possible. He wants to participate quietly in his own way, rather than to lead a revolution. His plan of action is simply to create and find beauty, to save discarded vintage materials from rubbish dumps, and work slowly on creating those timeless items of clothing. Even more than he hates trends, he hates the trend for ethical fashion, and the co-opting of the Made In England label as a nationalistic marketing gimmick.

John’s research and development images

A lot of the disillusionment he exudes comes from his time working as a designer for a popular Scandi-cool label, where felt clothes had to appeal to such a wide customer base they became “bland, uninteresting, so basic there was no area of interest in it for me.” It crystallised his hatred for the rapidly-moving trend cycle, and opened his eyes to the mass-manufactured ethos that creates sterile, lifeless pieces, devoid of a past or heritage. Though Skelton is happy to identify with the label of fashion designer, rather than some kind of sustainability revolutionary or an artist, he maintains a contradictory disdain for trends and the fashion system that is close to the heart of his motivation. He expresses the desire for his clothing to have a “dream-like” quality as well as a realness, for them to be imbued with a timeless beauty that is also intensely relevant to the period of their creation. This ability to breeze through binary oppositions and casually integrate them, is indicative of Skelton’s belief not just in himself, but in a burgeoning backlash to mass production, ready to explode, a genuine need for his style of working.

For this collection, he has repurposed fabrics from the most unusual and sentimental places, from his grandmother’s bedsheets to his girlfriend’s tea towel (the signature mischievous smile appears when he admits this last one). He’s used them to create pieces that do reflect his own personality, but are also remarkably reminiscent of the singular aesthetic of his younger brother and collaborator, Ryan, who buys only second-hand items and whose personal aesthetic proffers a beautiful middle-finger to gendered clothing on a daily basis. They live and work together, researching for the collection, and creating lookbooks and photoshoots as a team. When we interview them separately, they often give the same response or wry grin to our queries.

Beyond the coat that first caught my eye, and that I continue to lust after, the rest of the collection presents a compelling narrative by itself as one explores a beauty that is extremely subtle, yet manages to hold its own on the catwalk. Some fabrics have been dyed with wine, or buried in the earth, and there are hand-knit jumpers that lovingly recreate the homemade styles of Northern England in the mid-20th century, another contradiction with its industrial landscape. Despite the newness of the clothing, each piece feels steeped in history, pre-loved by some fantasy owner who exists only as a concept in Skelton’s imagination.

With a wild bundle of black curls often tossed to great dramatic effect, and a long upturned moustache incessantly smoothed to his cheeks when agitated or nervous, John’s own style seems to belong firmly amongst the surrealist observers, though when he speaks it is obvious he identifies with their unknowing subjects also. He, much like his collection, straddles the border between flamboyant surrealism and a humble work ethic that seems to encompass the entirety of Mass Observation’s contradictory cast of players. At first John seems very grounded and open, far from the elusive or artificially-mysterious artiste we were perhaps expecting from a designer, then he surprises me with a very dreamy sense of time-keeping and charmingly impetuous outbursts when faced with criticism or pressure.

He welcomes me to his home as he pads about in the carpet slippers favoured by grandfathers nationwide, and prepares mugs of strong tea, then swiftly starts buttering stale bread to fill a custom-made Stephen Jones hat with sandwiches, as though it is the most natural thing in the world. The easy confidence I see so often on campus actually dissipates on John’s home turf.

The thing that strikes most, away from the studio, beneath the usually calm demeanour, is that John Skelton really cares. Cares about the integrity of his collection, cares about the opinion of those he respects, particularly course-leader Fabio Piras. He also cares about the future of the fashion industry, despite his current unfavourable opinion. Against the odds, he is realising his visions in an industry it is easy to dismiss as shallow or unthinking, a notion he has dismissed with the very depth and detail of this latest collection.