Nicholas Daley simply doesn’t want to work in a world without music. From Shabaka Hutchings’ eloquent, saxophone-heavy tunes and his stars-of-the-21st-Century jazz group Sons of Kemet, to Culture’s grassroots reggae masterpiece Two Sevens Clash – and beyond – his is a world where proper fashion needs proper sounds… and vice versa.
We’re talking in his North London studio. One side of the room is lined with racks of clothes – some from previous collections and some we’re sworn to secrecy about – and the other is lined with cases of records. “There’s so much mental stimulus through playing vinyl,” he says, flipping through a box and picking one by Alice Coltrane. He’ll return to those boxes a lot during our day together.
Daley graduated with a BA in Fashion Design from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins in 2013. Since then, he has specialised in fresh, forward-looking menswear that thrives on eclecticism, marrying cultural symbolism with pragmatic wearability. And he’s always keen to propel the fusion of music and fashion, while also exploring heritage inspired by his British-Jamaican roots: Daley’s mother is Scottish, his father of Jamaican descent. Together, they ran Scotland’s first reggae club in Edinburgh in the 1970s.
Daley is just as eloquent in conversation as he is in the communication of his sartorial work. The eight collections he has produced under his own label encapsulate expressions of uniformity and identity.
The 29-year-old’s narrative-driven approach is fuelled by his painstaking research into his family’s musical history, his longing to create meaningful garments – pieces that tell a story – and his meticulous attention to craftsmanship and high-quality fabrics. This potent combination has led him to collaborate with numerous musicians of various genres for his Fashion Week presentations as well as partnering with brands including Adidas and Fred Perry. It also gained him support from the British Fashion Council under their NewGen initiative along with a nomination for the International Woolmark Prize.
Daley’s designs are shot through with personal memories and musical references, which often stir an emotional response for those wearing his clothes.
For his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, he was so enamoured of the burnt orange colour on Freddie Hubbard’s record sleeve for Red Clay, he named the collection after it. Guitar player Mansur Brown wore his rust-colored corduroy jacket and striped wool pants for the show. The fact that Brown came to him afterwards to tell him that by wearing his designs he felt more energized, “was probably the best takeaway from the show,” exudes Daley. “This whole idea of tribalism, if you’re all wearing a certain thing or certain garment, it reinforces this power. If I can somehow add more juice to this talent or what he’s capable of to make him play a bit harder, then mission accomplished.”
A life of music
Daley grew up in the Midlands area of the UK. “There was always music playing in the house,” he says. Daley’s parents instilled in he and his sister a passion for music, exposing them to a large and varied soundscape. His mother Maureen played folk music – Daley particularly recalls listening to Joni Mitchell’s album Blue – while his father Jeffrey put on dub and reggae by the likes of Aswad, Steel Pulse, or Musical Youth. “They brought us up to have an open mind with people and cultures and music.”
And he’s found that as he evolves as a designer, he re-engages with his family history. His parents founded the Edinburgh reggae club in 1978 in their late twenties. When Daley reached the same age, he launched his Slygo collection (‘Slygo’ was the name of his dad’s sound-system), a thought that puts a smile on his face. “All this mad stuff they went through to put up the club, trying to chase down the band or the bouncers attacking my father because he’s black, even though they, my parents, were the ones paying them…”
This spirit of gathering people together for their love of music and using it as a force of good was exactly what Daley has paid tribute to with his Slygo collection. He included badges and the reissue of the reggae club T-shirt that his parents made 30 years ago in their flat. “I knew straight away that I had to reproduce it to be part of the collection to really sing the story of what my parents did. They wore it as another way of showing unity and expression,” he says. “Even at that point, it wasn’t fashion, per se, but they were thinking about imagery and this whole idea of identity and what you represent. It’s just a T-shirt, but a T-shirt can say a lot.”
Daley extends this message through the production of his shows at London Fashion Week, from lighting and acoustics to the actual musicians performing live. He creates worlds for his audience to lose themselves in. This all-encompassing approach has become his hallmark: “It’s not just a fashion thing, it’s a culture thing.”
(Much) more than a fashion show
Daley never ceases to play within parameters. Besides Mansur Brown, he asked Shabaka Hutchings, Alfa Mist, Yussef Dayes, and James Massiah (British musicians who “aren’t even jazz, I wouldn’t box them into that”) to play at the presentation of Red Clay at The Swiss Church in London’s Covent Garden.
He was spellbound by the acoustics in the church and drawn to its historic ties to gospel music. When the artists took to the stage, there were only a dim glow of light. Just seeing them play in his gear, Daley “felt hairs stand on the back of my neck”. Normally, during similar fashion shows, the crowd dissolves within 20 minutes. Here, Daley reports, they loitered for up to two hours. “To have that calibere of talented artists all playing in this amazing church with all this natural soundscape. I kind of forgot it was my thing, I was so zoned into it, seeing these guys go and how the collection worked so well, all the colours. There’s a sense of power and uniformity because they’re all this sort of energy.”
With every collection, Daley delves into a new musical genre, taking his audience on sonic journeys. A working men’s club in Bethnal Green set the scene for Black Ark, his eighth edition. It was named after sound pioneer Lee Scratch Perry’s studio in Jamaica and inspired by bass culture, dub, and post-punk – a fusion between Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Perry himself and even goth-rock trailblazers Bauhaus.
The crossover was intentional: To Daley, Bela Lugosi’s Dead on Bauhaus’s self-titled album, plus artists like of Siouxsie and the Banshees, ignite a sense of empowerment. “Especially during London Fashion Week. It’s about the multi-sensory experience – what you smell, what you see – the soundscape, the feeling.”
Setting the mood
Daley also painstakingly researches the sartorialism of original greats, such as Miles Davis or Freddie Hubbard, and how their style fused fashion and musical genres. His mood boards for Red Clay are kaleidoscopic with soft tailoring or sharp tweed jackets, coats, and trilbies.
And the creations themselves are as vibrant as the trumpeter’s sounds: strong corn yellow, deep burnt orange, bright blue. Daley translated Blue Note record sleeves, and their use of strong, bold colours, into oversized, striking garments. “I see bits of creative gold and piece it together to make a collection that makes sense,” he says.
The individual garments for Red Clay were produced by original tweed manufacturers Lovat Mill in Hawick, Scotland (near the river Tweed, unsurprisingly). Daley compares the collaboration to playing a piece of vinyl for the first time: “to get the first press of something, something really well made excites me”.
But even getting to the point of selecting materials and craftsmen is a long, involved process. He composes his collections by immersing in sonic structures. The rhythm of tracks played during presentations not only reinforces the shows – to Daley, it also reinforces his seasonal designs. The very creation of which, Daley thinks, requires a vibe or rhythmic pace.
“Mine’s from a product and garment perspective, but then some of the musicians I collaborate with look at snares, hi-hats, and kick drums. I look at jackets, sleeves and hedge rolls and fusing and handmade shoes and hats,” he says. “Got too much hi-hat here, so maybe I need to do something else. You’re like, ‘how much do I put this in, does this really tell the story?’”
The analogy doesn’t end there. While you can come up with a great idea, the editing phase determines whether it communicates well. Looking back and forward from either perspective, fabric or music, cymbals or kick drums, or whether you want more reverb – once you master it, you experience accomplishment and, most likely, relief.
“Hopefully at that point, it tells something really strong and positive and truthful. Real people and characters, where the fabric is from, how it’s made, all these things are what I’m trying to put together.”
Text: Ann-Christin Schubert
Photography: Robert Rieger