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Frieze Week London 2023

Steven Stokey Daley Cuts Above

How London culture and the dress of the British Upper Classes influence the LVMH Prize-winning designer’s work 

BY Joe Bobowicz in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 14 OCT 23

Joe Bobowicz I am struck by your interest in the early years of the 20th century, the 1920s in particular. 

Steven Stokey-Daley It was a super-interesting time. I started the S.S. Daley brand by looking at public­ school uniforms. I was at university in Harrow, right next to the famous school, which sits on top of a hill. I lived down the other side, so I had to walk up to uni every day. I would see the schoolboys, bags in their left hands and straw hats in their right. I began looking at the school's uniforms from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. These changed a lot in the 1910s. Then, I looked at the films Brideshead Re­visited [2008] and Another Country [1984]. A lot of my references come from the past, but they transcend any particular era. We just did a men's collection that dissected the work attire of the artists David Hockney and Lucian Freud. 

JB Your work is often described as 'homosocial'. 

SSD I'd never come across the term until I was researching for my disserta­tion. I found an essay that looked at how institutions like Eton College and Harrow School would educate boys to be queer and then spit them out into a world where they're expected to assume hyper­masculine modes of power. The term was floated in that essay, describing how boys and men formed homosocial bonds with each other with the understanding that they wouldn't go beyond their lives at the institution. 

JB What is it that draws you to this aristocratic world? 

SSD It's not like my world. It started with Harrow, but then I couldn't get this idea of British heritage and what that means out of my head. It seems to evoke only a few things: stuffy, wood-panelled room, Fair Isle vest, old Tory man. I wanted to take those elements associated with the upper classes, whether a print or a vest or an aesthetic, and use them in a modern context. 

SS Daley by Rachel Lamb
Steven Stokey-Daley in his studio, London, July 2023. Photography: Rachel Lamb

JB With your own working-class, Liverpudlian background, do you find that people sometimes misconstrue your referencing of public-school culture and the aristocracy? 

SSD For sure. When I first started, it was a bit like, 'Stay in your lane.' People seemed to wonder why I wasn't referenc­ing working-class aesthetics. It's funny because, now, typically working-class aesthetics are celebrated by those who aren't typically working class. It began as a real interrogation, but everything I do is meant to have levity. It's about process and observation. 

JB It almost feels as if, within a whole collection, there is a cultural analysis of class. 

SSD Yes. I'm not damning and I'm not extreme, although I think that some people would get it more if I was. I really enjoy observing things, twisting them and putting them in different lights. 

JB I want to talk about your own beginnings in the creative industries. You joined the National Youth Theatre when you were 14.

SSD It was amazing. I was always inter­ested in drama and I've always been an excitable person – even more so as a kid. The National Youth Theatre gave me an opportunity to live in London for nine weeks over the summer and complete a short course with people from all over the country. Obviously, you had to pay for it and I didn't have any money at the time, so I wrote to Virgin Trains to get free train tickets. My school also gave me a grant. That was my first experience outside of my hometown and in London, and I just knew that I needed to be there, that I needed to do something creative. 

Theatre was my first love, really, because it was my first experience of true creative output. In theatre, you have total free­dom to do whatever you want and to be whoever you want to be – and people are there to believe in you. I suppose that has translated into my fashion career. When you have a show, people are there to be­lieve what you're saying and you have the opportunity to tell a story. I think that is really exciting.

SS Daley SS24
S.S. Daley Spring/Summer 2024 Menswear Collection. Courtesy: S.S. Daley

JB After your art foundation course, you studied at the University of West­minster, which has an extensive mens­wear archive with everything from teddy-boy suits to original Dior men's patterns, fireproof coats and cricket sweaters. Was this facility useful as you built your own design language? 

SSD Massively. Archives tend to be centred around womenswear and it was difficult to find menswear in such abundance.

JB Which particular pieces or peri­ods did you find yourself looking to?

SSD They've got a crazy collection of vintage men's swimsuits. We're talking fully fashioned, knitted bodysuits with flaps and holes and buttons. It was an interesting thing to look at and apply to underwear, vests, tops or shirts. It was also invaluable to see how trouser design in menswear has progressed over time.

JB In 2022 you won the LVMH Prize, which awards a substantial grant and mentorship. The judges included Kim Jones, Stella McCartney and Jonathan Anderson of JW Anderson and Loewe. How did that help you?

SSD Although it was only a year ago, my brand was in a much younger place than it is now. The grant is great, but the most valuable part is the mentorship. We had an incredible mentor in Sophie Brocart, CEO of Patou. I had almost weekly sessions with her, which covered every single aspect of the fashion business. Structurally, it gave me a sound under­standing of where to invest the prize money and how to plan in such a volatile market. I did a design degree and the mentorship brought me up to speed on the business side of things. I still speak to Sophie all the time, and it feels like they've got my back in a way. It's been incredible.

SS Daley by Rachel Lamb
Steven Stokey-Daley. Photography: Rachel Lamb

JB Your brand has been adopted by some key figures in popular culture – Harry Styles is one, Sir Ian McKellen is another. 

SSD Ian's on the board of the National Youth Theatre. He came up through it himself and is incredibly generous in helping younger generations access theatre. I wrote to him years ago, saying that I would love for him to come and see one of my shows. He got in touch with me a year ago and we started chatting over email. In February, he was on tour with the Mother Goose pantomime and got a midnight train to London the night before my autumn/winter 2023 show. There was an incredible moment when he came to rehearsal on the day, an hour before the show. Everyone was in tears because Ian is such a lovely, generous person and we had just witnessed something so special. That's an extraordi­nary part of having a business like this: you get to meet people that you'd never imagine meeting, people you've admired your whole life.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline ‘The Progress of Trouser Design’

Main image: Steven Stokey-Daley in his studio, London, 2023. Photography: Rachel Lamb

Joe Bobowicz is a writer and curator working between fine art, fashion and popular culture