The London-based Yorkshireman’s Autumn/Winter 2020 collection draws inspiration from Under Milk Wood. Mark C. O’Flaherty talks to him about the influence of Dylan Thomas’s poem on his recent work, and why he’s content to remain a fashion-industry disruptor
John Alexander Skelton’s January 2020 show at the Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town was, as usual, the most exciting menswear show of the season. Also, as usual, there was little to compare it to in terms of mainstream fashion. The largely grey collection of artisanal pieces was literally unveiled, character by character, by Skelton’s brother Ryan, who performed Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood in its entirety. At a time when fashion is working out what place it has in the modern world, Skelton is doing just fine. He knows precisely what he’s doing, and so do his followers.
Mark C. O’Flaherty: I remember being scandalised by Under Milk Wood at school, and it always stayed with me. And I felt a shiver when I realised what you were doing at your Collection VIII show. When did you first encounter the poem, and what struck you most about the text?
John Alexander Skelton: I must have been about 21. I was talking to a friend about what we listened to while working and he mentioned that he would listen to poetry occasionally, including Under Milk Wood, so I thought I should give it a go. With that first time it was very obviously unique in a plethora of ways, and in its darkness and black comedy I found a great joy in Dylan Thomas’s imagination. I love how he projects the secret lives and mysterious doings of all the characters who feel very familiar when you think about an isolated country village and what its inhabitants might be up to behind closed doors, or out in the fields where there’s nobody watching. Dylan’s use of language also has this beautiful, almost mystical and folkloric bent to it. He fuses Welsh and English text seamlessly with words that he conjures from his imagination, but which make perfect sense in the text.
Are there other texts that haunt you? That you might take to a collection?
My brother Ryan put me on to the work of Ted Hughes, and I recently did a shoot for a magazine inspired by one of his poems. I love how you can sense Hughes’s connection with and understanding of all sides of nature, from the brutal to the most delicate.
There are so many visual elements in that poem, about dress and character – what elements made you decide to make a collection from it? And which characters interest you the most?
things like Dylan Thomas wearing his sister’s scarf as a thickly knotted artist’s necktie
I struggled a lot with this, actually. For a long time I had it lodged at the back of my mind as an idea for a collection, but that was mainly about how it would work great with the performative aspect of the show rather than the actual clothes. I love this era of clothing, though – the postwar years of Soho and all its characters, John Deakin, Bacon and all of their artistic associates, and the way they led lives that were full of extravagance. Demob suits were so prolific then, and I was interested in how artists would make themselves distinct with very few means – things like Dylan Thomas wearing his sister’s scarf as a thickly knotted artist’s necktie, along with a host of other accessorising that would signify that these were artists.
When it came to conceptualising what I wanted to do, I decided I wanted to take quite banal elements and work to elevate them into something interesting. I found a parallel between that and the way Under Milk Wood is written, with Dylan essentially projecting onto what are most likely quite banal characters.
And how did you interpret them and turn them into shapes and garments and total looks?
In terms of silhouette I didn’t find it interesting to just take the original shapes of that era and refabricate them. Instead I fused patterns with the more historical shapes that I’ve become known for using, to create an iteration that’s new and more modern but still holds the glamour and flamboyance of that time. I’d never used grey before, and had always considered it quite a dull colour. However, when I was researching the many UK sheep varieties that produce naturally grey wool in shades that have a really interesting depth to them, it became apparent that here was a resource to make great fabrics that would combine all these shades.
And why so much black for the follow-up collection?
That collection was dedicated to my late grandmother, and inspired by the colour palette of her wardrobe. She only wore combinations of black and white as a strict rule, and with her passing as I started the collection it seemed apt.
Your brother Ryan is always a part of your work. How did you develop that show with him? What does he bring to the label?
Ryan’s a great sounding-board for me and brings perspectives that I maybe wouldn’t initially consider. We mainly work on the extensive research behind each collection and the show performance. We were a little bit bored of using models for the shows, and we liked the idea of mannequins that had an almost lifelike appearance. There’s something quite unsettling about them – I was thinking of the times when I’d see one in the corner of my eye in the studio and for a second think there was someone else in the room. The idea also of them all being lying down asleep and being awoken by Ryan with the audience at the start of the show not necessarily knowing if a human was underneath the sheet was quite appealing in a cheeky way.
In terms of Ryan’s reciting of Under Milk Wood, we knew from the start that this would work better as mostly a one-person performance, since the complications of timing with a streetcast cast – as I’ve done in previous shows – would have been too much for this one. Ryan had also been writing and performing his own poetry for a while, which really impressed me, especially his skill in delivering a one-person monologue with changes of character throughout, so he was a perfect fit.
Everyone thinks about Richard Burton when they think of that poem, but your brother did it in such a unique way. What tone were you looking for?
We wanted something a little more dramatic and I suppose playing it a little darker and wickeder brought more satisfaction. I love the Burton version but in places it lacks a certain excitement, which I think is needed for a live performance.
People were really blown away by that show. You’re doing something so apart from anyone else – not just by only doing one show a year, but in the way you do it. It’s always a performance, and never geared towards the easily disseminated photograph of clothes. What are you saying?
For me it’s very simply just a pace at which I think I can sustain the same, if not better, level of work each time. I need time for an idea to distil, for it to become something tangible in my mind. I don’t want to rush that – I very much dislike the idea of having, say, an allocated two-week slot in which I have to come up with an entirely new collection. So usually in January, after the show, I begin to think about what I’m interested in doing next and how that will work. That gives me until about August to figure it all out and to collate new information and discover new areas of interest. By that point it’s not really so much about the clothes but rather the world that you have created for them, with the show as a portal into that world so that the viewer can understand the essence of the collection. And although I don’t have a really direct message, I think it’s easily deductible that it shows that it can work to follow your own path at your own pace.
I like to have my shows at night, so that people can make an evening of it
In terms of the performance element, people are always going to be able to see images of the garments or looks afterwards anyway, so I don’t see the point in a really basic presentation. Plus who wants to go and see that? I like to have my shows at night, so that people can make an evening of it. Usually after the show we have a reception in the venue where those attending have the opportunity to drink and view and feel the clothing, which I think is important as a lot of my work is textile focused.
There’s a sensibility to your work that’s absolutely anti-urban (but so Milk Wood). Which parts of the country inform the work most, and why?
I like a mix of the country tradesman and the flamboyant lunatic aristocrat. Historically, I feel both were very true to themselves in the clothes they wore – one for purely practical reasons and the other because they had a lifestyle in which they could wear anything virtually.
The prints – what story are you telling there? It’s amazing to see Dave Baby involved – I think he’s so underrated. And the prints for Milk Wood – the handwritten shirt and the mural image – are incredible.
I like the idea of working with different artists each time and seeing their imaginative interpretation of the narrative in the Winter collections. I’m very involved in providing the base source material for each shirt and helping with composition as working on a garment is very different to a canvas.
Yes, I met Dave Baby a while ago – he modelled in one of my earlier shows, at the V&A, and we became friends, so it was really nice to be able to work with his drawings too. They are for sure underrated, but Dave likes it that way – it’s part of what makes him a genuine character and someone who I’d want to work, with rather than someone who is just out for how much they can earn and how much exposure they can get from it.
Finally – would you call the work pagan? There have been so many elements of folklore over the last few seasons.
Not by definition, really. Personally I’m agnostic, but I feel close to a lot of paganism, especially respect for the earth and its nature. Visually it’s very rich and diverse too with so many cultures having their own interpretations, art, music, costume… It’s hard not to be seduced. C