The fashion world, dominated by legacy fashion houses that have attained an unprecedented commercial scale made possible by advancements in technology and the digital revolution, is a billion-dollar industry. But it still falls short in terms of environmental sustainability. Although numerous brands have responded to climate change, culminating in the Fashion Pact that commits the biggest houses to reducing carbon emissions and restoring biodiversity, the lack of legal accountability and transparency in the production chain leaves much to be desired. For smaller independent labels, more radical approaches to tackle the issue of a warming, polluted planet is by comparison easier to implement due to smaller scales and lower hegemony of power.
One such player, rising gradually but surely into prominence, is John Alexander Skelton, whose work might be small in size, but intentionally so. With just two collections a year and amassing just eight collections since starting in 2016, the British designer is nevertheless achieving greater relevance internationally for an unbridled sense of individuality in terms of craftsmanship and approach to sustainability. His yearly show has become a must-see, though it shows off schedule at London Fashion Week — a testament to the will of a highly individualistic clothing brand, and a recognition that, although commonly celebrated, Skelton takes with firm indifference.
Courtesy of John Alexander Skelton
Skelton takes a highly hands-on approach with his collections, photographed here by his brother and collaborator Ryan Skelton.
T Singapore spoke with Skelton about sustaining his craft, upcycling materials, the influences that shape his collections and why he is staying true to his decidedly modest ambition for the brand.
TERENCE POH: You believe in taking time to develop your collections. How do you sustain your craft today, when even luxury fashion is producing at breakneck speeds?
JOHN ALEXANDER SKELTON: What I do is very different from mainstream luxury fashion. What I produce is much more artisanal and it would be more like couture, if it was to be compared with something else. I’ve always worked at my own pace; I don’t really think about what everybody else does. I just do what I’m interested in doing, and when I want to do it. When I started, I wanted to set my own parameters for my work and did not follow what other people did. It’s really benefited me because I don’t have that pressure, and it kind of worked out for me.
TP: How did you find a way to make this mode of operation sustainable?
JAS: Well, the simple answer is through a lot of hard work. Because I wanted to be completely independent and not have to rely on, or not be held to account by anybody. I just started small and did what I thought I could manage. I do a show in the winter, and then in the summer I just do a lookbook. That allowed me to sustain and do one winter show that I thought was really good.
In the winter, I will develop all of the fabrics for the collection. So that means I need to start much earlier than most people do. And then the actual production for the show is usually quite elaborate. Generally, because I like to involve performance within my work and that’s another thing that I’m interested in, almost kind of separate from fashion. For me, it’s more interesting to show an entire world when I do a show, and to bring people into a completely different environment. It’s my worst nightmare to do runway shows; I guess I’ve managed to be able to sustain it by doing things on my own, on my own terms.
And then in the summer, nearly all of the collection is upcycled. I use a lot of antique linen. I take all the shapes that I developed for the winter collection, I change them, and reimagine them for the summer by just doing things like taking out the linings, and remaking it in a fabric which is appropriate for the summer.
Courtesy of John Alexander Skelton
The collection features upcycled materials sourced from vintage stores or antique dealers all around Europe.
TP: So where do you source antique linen, and all these materials that you upcycle?
JAS: I work with a lot of antique dealers that operate throughout Europe mainly, predominantly in France and Belgium, and they collect things for me all year round, essentially. Then, they present me with what they’ve got, or we work together. If I have an idea of something that I would like to do or something I found in an antique market and I want to source more of them, I’ll send the dealers pictures. Or, whenever I meet them, I’ll give them a list of the things that I’d like to work with. It all has to kind of go quite far in advance. So I always have a continuous list of things that I’d like to do because I do more than just linen. Like in the winter collection, there’s often like one or two pieces that can be upcycled from anything really.
TP: Do you employ any special techniques that you’ve developed for yourself?
JAS: I do lots of natural dyeing, some of it is specific to myself, because I developed colours using different natural ingredients. So that’s one of the main things that I do. And then, my involvement within the textiles, because I think it’s quite rare for a designer, especially of my size, to design all of the textiles themselves. I have my own loom as well, and we create textiles on that too.
TP: Do you have a team that you work with?
AS: I have a team, but it’s very small,soIdoalotofitmyself.I work a lot with my brother, Ryan. We do a lot of the research together for the collection. He’s like a sounding board for me creatively.
And then I have various other people who do a lot of hand- knitting. I have six or seven knitters, but the numbers fluctuate depending on how much I’m doing at that time. They’re just based around the UK in different places and they work from home. And then I get various other people, helping with textiles and a lot of different things.
TP: Can you tell me a bit more about where your influences come from?
JAS: Well, when I was in school, the subjects that I was interested in were history and politics. Although I was quite creative as a person, I didn't study any creative subjects at that point. I had no plans to go study fashion. I wanted to either do something in politics or do something in history. That probably stemmed from my childhood and my mother, who has a really keen interest in history just in general, and she stressed the importance of learning about our own histories. And I think that that's really influential in my work because Ithinkthatinaway, what I do is kind of trying to understand the world as it is now. Or maybe smaller than that, Britain as it is now, how it's been shaped by history, by different events and different peoples, and how that affects the world we live in now. And I'm from a very historic city. So I think that subconsciously, all this has fed into my work and where my interests lie.
TP: Because you have strong opinions on politics and on history, do you think that fashion is a way for you to communicate those ideas?
JAS: I suppose, from the political side, I think it's quite important to be political, during the time that we live in. Not in a very extreme way, but I think that you can imbue your values within your clothes without it being overbearing for somebody.
I think it's important also for other people who either follow me or buy my clothes, for them to be able to associate with what I do on a deeper level.
But also, I am obsessed with really well made, beautiful clothing and textiles as well. I have a need to create these things in a way and that just feeds my own self-satisfaction. Because I think that from the political side, that's something that I'm doing for everybody else. But in terms of the clothing, I think it's really personal. And it's also, I suppose, kind of a selfish process, because I'm making things that I really like.
I think that I produce my best work when I'm doing things that are completely true to myself, and my own vision. I wear these clothes every day, it's like a constant journey from what I'm looking at for inspiration and also what I'm going to be interested in wearing.
Courtesy of John Alexander Skelton
John Alexander Skelton.
TP: For your Fall/Winter ’20 collection, you unveiled it alongside the play “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas. Can you tell me more about staging it as a theatrical performance
JAS: Every collection that I've done has had an element of theatre. I suppose, in this one it was more pronounced because it was one narrator that was performing. And all the clothes were at first concealed and on mannequins, but I wanted it to be almost like an illusion or a surprise that the clothes were not on people. It was because the collection was based on that poem “Under Milk Wood”.
The interesting thing about this poem is that it's very visually evocative in its language. And so that kind of did help me translate it into a collection. Before I thought about any clothes, I knew that it would make for a very, very good show.
I'd also been to the venue where the show was and thought it would be great for a show. It used to be a Methodist chapel. And it's now an art gallery but it feels a lot like a theatre in many ways. I wanted to do something where the audience was above the performance so they were looking down into it as if they were viewing it from another world. Because the poem is based on this small fishing village in Wales, whilst the inhabitants are asleep and they're dreaming, and it feels like the narrator is viewing these people from above, deciphering their dreams.
TP: Where do you want to take your brand in the future? What is success to you?
I think, to me, it's being able to do what I want without any sort of restrictions, and without having to overwork myself to be able to achieve those goals.
To have a supportive network around me that can facilitate and that can inspire me as well. I don't really think about it in terms of size. Just something that can be run as a sustainable business, without becoming too big or commercial, without doing the things that other designers seem to think they have to do to keep growing and expanding. I think that like there'll be a certain point where I won't want to expand anymore.
I wouldn't want to do things watered down in my collections. I just like to, in a way, keep it to two collections a year that I feel really happy with.
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