When it comes to finding inspiration, the designer John Alexander Skelton is more likely to turn to museums and archives than the internet. After all, he got the idea for his MA collection at Central Saint Martins — which earned him the school’s prestigious L’Oreal Prize earlier this year — from the archives of Mass Observation, an extensive anthropological survey in the mid-20th century. “The British Library is an amazing resource,” Skelton says. “I love research because you enter different worlds and it’s so enriching. It’s interesting how intertwined textiles has been with politics and social history.”
Born in York, England to a mechanic father and a mother who worked in insurance, Skelton grew up skating and playing basketball. He didn’t discover fashion until the age of 17, when he worked at a luxury clothing shop called Sarah Coggles in his hometown. “Just seeing the clothes gave me a new perspective on what I could do,” he says. “From then on, I was obsessed.” Skelton studied art at Brighton University before moving on to study fashion at the London College of Fashion and then at Saint Martins.
Entering Skelton’s shoebox-size East London studio can feel a bit like stepping into another time. Pieces from his fall/winter 2016 collection — which are made primarily out of recycled materials like antique French sheets and old grain sacks — look like precious relics unearthed centuries after they were made. “There’s a certain rigor about the past which I’m attracted to,” he says. “But it’s important to know what’s in the past and take that to make something modern. Everything in the past is fodder for inspiration, from the ’90s to the 1790s.”
His recent fall collection illustrates this point: it was inspired by the history of the divisive cotton trade between India and Britain in the 1920s that culminated in Gandhi’s khadi movement, which advocated the hand-spinning and handweaving of cotton as an act of anti-imperialist protest. Skelton translated this idea into Victorian coats made with latex-coated cotton; and he embroidered 19th-century curtain details onto a waistcoat. He also sources all of his fabrics from antique sellers and markets around the country, then hand-dyes them with rust and leaves. He overwashed and painted a patchworked linen jacket and even buried the clothes in the ground to give them an aged patina.
He presented his fall collection (of which each piece is one of a kind) during the Frieze Art Fair in London with an installation at Hostem, one of his stockists, alongside hats made in collaboration with Stephen Jones. He stresses that knowing the provenance of his fabrics is important to his process. “Soulfulness is a really big thing for me — that goes all the way to where it comes from,” he says. Making one-off creations, he says, is a reaction to what he sees as the disposability and excess waste of much of fashion today. “I wanted to challenge the concept that sustainable fashion is bad design,” he says. “If I am going to put more clothes into the world, it has to be for the right reasons.”