In a crypt, by candlelight. The sound of hobnail boots on cobbles. The strains of a harp being played somewhere in the depths of an unseen tunnel. The bell of St. Pancras Church tolling the quarter hour above.
The spectacle summoned by John Skelton cast its fully creepy spell over the congregation who gathered to partake of his performance on a dark January night in London. Gray haired and grizzled, or younger yet made up to a vein-cracked pallor, each man pushed his own trolley containing a tungsten light to illuminate his face. Passing glimpses of Skelton’s clothing flared in the gloom: striped tailoring and swirling crushed-velvet coats, shirts stamped with British folkloric symbols—the whole thing suspended between the living and long-passed culture of the 19th- and early-20th-century English workingman.
Skelton is a non-belonger in London fashion whose appearances are rarities. “I wouldn’t really say that I’m nostalgic, but there are some things that existed in the past which were really amazing,” he explained, ducking out the crypt. “It’s not so much the past as a slightly separate universe than the one that exists today, which I find really dull and mundane.”
A Yorkshireman, Skelton was one of the first student dissidents—a canary in the mine—who decided while studying for an M.A. at Central Saint Martins (class of 2016) that he didn’t want to join the dysfunctional fashion system. Instead, he plowed his own furrow in low-impact, local-production-supporting garment making, building relationships with Yorkshire and Scottish mills, using deadstock fabric, and researching and reviving the proud history of lost generations of craftsmen, farmers, and factory workers. “There’s a romanticism, a real beauty in it,” he said. “It’s a magnet. I can’t pull myself away.”
There’s nothing saccharine about that. In a way, Skelton stands in the long line of British fashion tradition with the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood in his resurrections of the British past, but his performances are always gritty confrontations with regional and working-class masculinities. Pre-pandemic he put on a staging of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in a Victorian chapel in London. The audience walked in and was confronted by the sight of sheet-shrouded bodies, which eventually rose from the dead wearing Skelton’s collection.
Before that, he pretty much made his reputation when he invited people to a drink at an old Fleet Street pub and let loose a carousing crew of 18th-century wastrels on them—obligatory audience participation, whether you liked it or not. Some of his latest crypt inhabitants were recognizable as the selfsame characters, blokes of all ages who convincingly carry off Skelton’s rough-hewn, handmade, pin-tucked, and patina-textured clothes as if born to them.
This time, according to Skelton’s notes, they were channeling his research about Pollock’s Toy Museum, originally a Victorian toy shop in London. “It was my fantasized version of who Mr. Pollock was and what his wardrobe looked like.” Linking past to present, the Mr. Punch and Jumping Jack screen-printed shirts were etched in copper-plate artwork by the great-grandson of one of the museum’s owners.
It’s Skelton’s 11th collection. There was a time when industry observers might have been skeptical about the commercial viability of his slow-fashion methods. He’s proved them wrong but on his own terms. Over time, he’s built a network of relationships with 30 stockists, ranging from Japan to Berlin, Vienna, and New York. “I’ve found stores that I like that sell my clothes. A lot of them sell them with antiques and furniture,” he smiled. “Not multi-brand stores.” Where there’s an alternative way, it turns out, there are men for all his seasons.