Nicholas Daley’s Feel-Good Fashion | Esquire

Ira T. Martin

February

On a cold Tuesday morning inside a Tottenham studio – up the stairs and turn left – crammed with nearly-finished new-season samples, shelves of books, beaded rugs, incense and rails of beautiful clothes, Nicholas Daley is spinning a lot of plates.

There are the buyers, over from Japan to catch-up on orders; the PR agency, who are calling in regular updates on samples needed in time for a presentation to the LVMH Prize judges in Paris ⁠— there’s a train leaving from St Pancras early tomorrow morning. An assistant scrambles between rooms tying it all together. And me, asking him what it’s like to be a designer on the cusp of all of… this? His phone rings, “Sorry, just a sec.”

“What was your question again? How did I get started?”

Nicholas Daley photographed inside his London studio, February 2020

Finlay Renwick

Five years into starting his eponymous label, Daley’s clothes are now stocked in Goodhood, Brown’s, Mr Porter, Dover Street Market and around the world. He’s big in Japan. His London show – part catwalk, part jam session, with an open bar and sticky floors, hosted in live venues and town halls, where ‘if you know you know’ musicians let loose in full looks – has become a fashion week highlight.

There are ongoing collaborations with Fred Perry and Adidas, with whom he has designed special edition Superstar trainers and baker boy hats made out of deadstock track pants. He’s also garnered a nomination for the LVMH prize: the ultimate accolade for a young designer. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this industry,” he says, with a smile and flat, Midlands vowels. Then, an easy laugh. “Huh-huh-huh.”

“When I was 16, I started working in a shop called Oh Gosh in Leicester. I’m not from the city, so I used to get a bus for an hour and a half, through all the villages. It was like making the pilgrimage. They were the only shop with brands like Stüssy, Carhartt and some of the Japanese labels. I was in the stock room putting away trainers, out behind the till. I used to love all that.”

With a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother, Daley’s clothes are a way for the 30-year-old to “explore Britishness through fabrication.” He remembers his uncles in three-piece suits, trilby hats, cravats and Clark’s. “I never saw my grandad out of a suit. This idea of the West Indian community looking ‘church’ smart.” His father, an ex-military man, used to iron “massive creases” into his Evisu jeans. “My mates would look at me like I was mad. I guess all those little things: why we wear clothes and how we wear them. Sub-cultures. How things intertwine, that’s what got me interested in designing. My mum still knits all my hats. She calls herself the ‘Head of Knitwear’. It’s great to have her involved.”

nicholas daley

Models walk the improvised runway inside Dalston’s Earth music venue for the Nicholas Daley A/W20 show

Getty Images

nicholas daley

Getty Images

What could seem parochial is, in reality, just another example of Daley’s dedication to craftsmanship. “With one of my coats, the buttons will be hand-made in Gloucester,” he says. “The tartan is from Scotland. There’s always a tartan in the collection. I’ve got to be able to go back and see my aunties up there. I like working with brands like Tricker’s because they’re a traditional Northamptonshire shoemaker – I’ve got to rep the Midlands. Then there’s my love of live music, plus my appreciations for other cultures, especially Japan.”

His moodboard features cut-outs of characters from Dragon Ball Z, pinned next to photos of Jimi Hendrix and a poster for the artist Frank Bowling’s 2019 Tate Britain exhibition. A plush figurine of Totoro, of the cult Studio Ghibli animation, sits on the bookshelf, staring towards the window. “I’ve been going [to Japan] every year for a while now. After London, Tokyo is my favourite place in the world.”

Along with the likes of Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, Samuel Ross, Bethany Williams and Paria Farzaneh, Daley is at the forefront of a new generation of young, cool fashion designers who are gaining traction for their version and vision of contemporary British style. Before starting his own label, Daley worked for Paul Smith, as well as on the shop floor of Dover Street Market, and he was mentored by Claire Malcolm at Hardy Amies on Savile Row. “I was trying to absorb as much as possible into my fashion vocabulary, if you can call it that.”

“As a designer Nicholas is supremely talented,” says Joe Brunner, junior buyer of Next Gen at Browns, “however what draws me to him is the ‘feel-good’ fashion factor, breaking down primitive industry barriers which, personally, is something that’s been missing for such a long time. It’s evident in all his shows, from the music and the encouragement to dance. He wants you to enjoy yourself, and not take fashion too seriously.”

london, england   june 11 models perform at the nicholas daley presentation during london fashion week mens june 2018 at the swiss church on june 11, 2018 in london, england photo by stuart wilsonbfcgetty images

A typical Daley fashion experience will feature music, dancing, clothes and an interesting space, like his June 2018 show, held inside the Swiss Church in London’s Seven Dials

Stuart Wilson/BFC

“From the beginning I was pretty focused and clear on what I wanted” says Daley. “The models for the first show were all my friends and I reached out to Don Letts: DJ, producer, cultural icon, whatever you want to call him. I just asked if he wanted to make a mix and walk in the show as he was one of the muses for the collection. That idea of referencing a ‘character.’ Even using Irish linens and handmade stuff from the UK. Christie’s, who make the baker boys for me now, did some Panamas for my first collection. The foundations from my grad show are still present in what I do.”

Daley graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2013. Beams Harajuku, the Tokyo brand, store and institution, bought his first collection and has continued to do so ever since. “There were these brands like Loewe, JW Anderson and then they had Nicholas Daley. I was so overwhelmed. At the time I’d just graduated and was working for Nigel Cabourn during the day and then I was only making clothes for Beams, so that it was manageable. It was me and one or two machinists and that was it to start with.”

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Chris New, Daley’s tutor from his time at Central Saint Martins, remembers his early forays into making clothes. “Nicholas always stood out as a good designer,” New tells me over email. “At college, students are often very conceptual, producing almost art pieces. Nicholas, however, was able to combine originality and fresh ideas with a level of credibility and believability — designing and making garment that you could actually imagine men wearing. His work encompassed tailoring, workwear and military, but also influences from his own mixed heritage background.

“The way he launches new collections is also very clever, through staging music events where the artists are wearing his collection. People go along and stay an hour or more, listening, enjoying and looking at the clothing. That would never happen at a fashion show which is over in minutes.”

nicholas daley

Getty Images

“Determination? Hard work?” Daley is listing off what it takes to ‘make it’ as a designer today. “How many people go to CSM? How many creatives are there? There are people who draw better than me. There are probably people who design better than me, but I have sacrificed a lot. My friendships have gone wooosh.” He makes a narrowing gesture with his fingers. “I’m serious! I don’t want to do Excel spreadsheets on a Monday. I was here until 11.30 last night and in at 7.30 this morning. But this is how it is. Because it is an industry which just pound, pound, pounds you, which sounds terrible, but it’s true.” He laughs and reaches for a tired eye, before thinking better of it.

The Japanese buyers pop their heads through the door. “Bye, see you soon.” Daley waves them out. He’s put on one of his Adidas baker boys and adjusted the numerous pins on his vest. We talk about holidays. “Me and my girlfriend bought a National Trust card, it’s great. Stately homes, get out the city.” We also discuss the coronavirus, which has recently made increasingly frantic headlines. We’ll be OK, though, won’t we? “I hope so. We’ll see.” He shows me to the door, “I’ve taken up karate recently, I can’t get enough of it,” he says, as he shows me out. “Everyone needs a sport to take their mind off things.” We descend the stairs, him chopping thin air.

One last chop, and then Daley disappears behind the heavy studio door. We make plans to catch up in May, to see how the new collection has progressed.

london, england   june 08  nicholas daley walks the runway after the nicholas daley presentation during london fashion week mens june 2019 at st mary at hill on june 08, 2019 in london, england photo by tristan fewingsbfcgetty images for bfc

Tristan Fewings/BFC

The original concept for this story was to trace Daley as a designer on the up, from winter, to spring, culminating in his June show and inevitable celebration. A portrait of a young designer through six months of work. Unless you’re Jared Leto off his rocker in Joshua Tree, you’ll know that, from March onwards, most of the world’s plans ended up somewhat scuppered. LVMH decided to split the prize between the eight finalists. He had to postpone his summer show and pare back the collection as the fashion world entered into something of a financial and existential crisis; the long-held notions of designing, shopping, manufacturing, showing and consuming having all been brought under intense scrutiny. What, in a world riven by pandemic, do clothes mean? Dries Van Noten called for a revamp of the whole fashion calendar. Gucci announced that it was going ‘seasonless’ with Creative Director Alessandro saying, “I think these are stale and underfed words … clothes should have a longer life than that which these words attribute to them.” Cult brands like New York’s Telfar lamented the missed opportunities, just as things were looking stable.

May

“A lot has happened since we last spoke, hasn’t it?” Daley, wearing a tie-dye camp collar shirt, beams in from that same Tottenham studio via video link. “It’s been really disappointing. I think I had some good momentum, things were progressing in the right way, so it’s added a bump. A big bump. It’s terrible about the life lost, that’s the most important thing. This is the reality now, what might have been us backstage is now over… Zoom.” He laughs sardonically.

Instead of a summer ‘moment’ in London and Paris, Daley has had to settle for a playlist that he’s created for the British Fashion Council’s first ever digital fashion week. “I’m still working on the Spring ‘21 collection, I’m aiming to have that wrapped up by July. Obviously, the collection itself is a lot smaller and tighter. I guess as a designer the temptation is always to do a little bit more or add that extra jacket, rather than stepping back a bit, so maybe that’s something good that has come out of this? Perspective and all that.”

Over the last few peculiar months it has, much of the time, been just Daley, working alone in his studio, planning runs to Wilko for antibacterial supplies and signing for other people’s deliveries. “I’ve become the sort of de facto postman, they all know I’m here. All of this is worrying, but it’s been good to see that the likes of the BFC and Adidas are still open to working with us, they’ve haven’t shut up shop and vanished.

london, england   june 08 a model backstage ahead of the nicholas daley presentation during london fashion week mens june 2019 at st mary at hill on june 08, 2019 in london, england photo by tristan fewingsbfcgetty images for bfc

A model wears Daley’s S/S20 collection, including tie-dye shirt

Tristan Fewings/BFC

“Of course I wouldn’t say that I’m relieved that I’m not showing,” he adds, “but that last show: physically, mentally and financially, it took it out of me. It was my first proper runway in the biggest space possible. I was super proud of the team, it was amazing. At the same time, doing that all over again? Especially how I approach it, it’s like doing a fashion show and two events on the same night. It’s a lot.”

“When I think back to when I had my own label in the early Eighties, it was far easier,” says Chris New, Daley’s old tutor. “Menswear in particular at that time was pretty basic, or very traditional. If you walked down Oxford street it was hard to find anything of any value, so it was easy to do something different and be successful. Today It’s not enough to design and make beautiful things, you need people to see it and to be able to buy it to be successful. In fact, for a small designer starting from zero, you need a range of skills: design, marketing, production, accountancy.”

For his next collection Daley has made “about 70 per cent of the clothes with Japanese manufacturers” and is working on his next series of collaborations with Adidas and Fred Perry, as well as a shopping function on his own website. “I’ve also been nailing the karate. So that’s been good.

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“I think it has highlighted the sheer, mad scale of the modern fashion cycle. I think we’re oversaturated at the moment. I guess there’s currently a lot of debate about it, isn’t there? It’s given us lots of time to think. What is essential? What do people want from clothes now? That’s a positive to end on, isn’t it? That’s positive. I think we’re well positioned to deal with things. We’ll handle it.”

A countdown clock appears on our Zoom screens, ticking away the last minutes of our conversation. Daley disappears back to the realities of his studio and designing a first collection for our brave new world. The Nicholas Daley fashion party, with its music, dancing, noise, colour, free bar and free jazz isn’t cancelled. It’s just been put on hold for a while.

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