Text by Lionel Ong
Photography by Ryan Skelton
Hovering over the quiet hills of Northern Yorkshire, England’s autumn skies hang
remarkably clear; its doe-eyed clarity stretching beyond the horizon. From the peak
of the rolling hills, the craggy descents open up into a vast and verdant landscape,
the earth laid bare in all its earnestness. John Alexander Skelton stands stoically
with his hands clasped in that of his brother’s, the languid glide of the skies behind
them making the earth’s movement seem almost palpable. As the sun sets, the cool
autumn breeze carries in a fog, rolling in like a deep sigh from England’s distant
past. It is difficult to fathom, amid the earth’s quiet and poetic movement, that
approximately 80 kilometres southwest of these hills, lies the industrial centre of
Britain’s controversial past.
History, Histrionics, Historicism. The first is the parsing of stories, the investigation of Britain’s 19th century cotton industry and its colonial legacy in India. The second is the detailing of conflict, the theatrics of blood-stained mutinies and non-violent resistance that colour our understanding of history. The third is the imperishable thread that connects the past to the present, centuries of Anglo-Indian dialogue carried over to present. History, Histrionics, Historicism: these three strands of the past are brought together in John Alexander Skelton’s Collection II, woven into a dense narrative that references the past while providing for a sustainable future.
When it comes to the insular world of fashion, Skelton, a Central Saint Martins graduate, stands firmly and decisively apart from its glossy displays and glittery excesses. As a designer, Skelton’s collections reflect a lucid awareness of the wider world beyond his rustic hometown of Yorkshire, presenting collections that are richly steeped in history and sharply tinged with socio-political sensibilities. Through reflexivity and re-evaluation, the notion of history permeates Skelton’s collection because “to know what has come before is to provide a solid basis for creating something of true modernity”. In believing that “fashion and clothes have an extremely powerful role within society”, Skelton looks to harness its beauty while “contributing towards a better society”. In his graduate collection, Skelton studied and referenced Tom Harrison’s Mass Observation Survey, an anthropological documentation of the working class living in the city of Bolton. For his second collection and his first since graduation, Skelton once again casts his curious eye back to the past, poring obsessively over historical archives for inspiration.
Having previously used hand-spun and hand-woven fabrics from India, Skelton developed a keen interest in her relationship with Britain. His starting points were England’s thriving Cottonopolis during the 19th century, a concentration of mill towns from Lancashire to Manchester that contributed to Britains booming cotton industry. With a chequered history and cross-continental ubiquity, cotton inextricably linked to a grander narrative beyond pastoral England, its roots tracing back to Britain’s ornamental possession—India.
Cotton, beguilingly fluffy and deceptively innocuous—belies a controversial history planted on the backs of colonial subjects and watered by the bloods of slaves. It was a material stanched in the blood of the darker skinned, a source of contention that led to the flaying of slaves in America and the flogging of rebels in India. Before the American Civil War, Britain had imported the majority of its cotton picked by African- American slaves for the production of its cloth. However, with the welter of bloodshed waxing over competing stands on slavery, Britain began to set its sights on the Orient—India and Egypt—for their cotton. Under British rule, Indian cotton was sent to Britain, then sold back to India after being milled into cloth. By imposing a self-serving system, the British effectively undercut the local industry, reversing India’s industrial potential and overtaking it by means of plunder and coercion. Having destroyed the livelihoods for weavers and spinners, the British removed any benefits a thriving industry provided for its local inhabitants, inevitably precipitating deeply held resentment and discontent.
In response, Ghandi promulgated notions of swaraj (self-government) and swadeshi (self-reliance). A key aspect of swadeshi was to encourage locals to weave and spin their cotton by hand, with the charkha (spinning wheel) and khadi (handspun cotton) evolving into mobilising symbols of collective resistance against the colonial overlords.
John Skelton and his brother, Ryan Skelton in their childhood hometown of Northern Yorkshire.
Skelton’s father dressed in his designs made out of handspun cotton from Skelton’s latest collection.
However, Britain’s relation with India had not always been characterised by such bitter acrimony. The pioneering generation of Englishmen who arrived in India were not violent conquerors, but merchants and traders deeply enchanted by the colourful civilisation they had set foot in. These men most notably, Charles Stuart, actively embraced the Indian way of life. Stuart was noted as having taken baths with the locals in Calcutta’s Hooghly River, encouraging his fellow Englishmen to adopt the Indian way of life and to grow a luxuriant moustache like the locals. These early traders of the East Indian Trading Company were often fond of mixing business with pleasure; indulging themselves in the company of locals, some of them even “marrying Indian women” and “adopting the traditional way of dressing” while mixing it with Western clothing. Identifying his works as being “concerned with the sociopolitical landscape of Britain”, Skelton’s reference to the past is in part, a response to the here and now. Living in a political climate that is increasingly obsessed with defining the self against the other, Skelton was drawn to the harmony of cultures exemplified by these early merchants and “evidence that different cultures can coexist and mix without losing their own identity”.
Yet, in an age of social media policing that cries foul at cultural appropriation, an impossibly fine line lays between tasteful referencing and inarticulate appropriation. Notably, Marc Jacobs found himself tangled in controversy following his Spring/Summer 2017 show in which a predominantly white cast of models took the runway in rainbow dreadlocks, to which he responded by stoking the flames, saying “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see colour or race—I see people.”
However, Skelton remains unfazed while tightroping a precarious and unforgiving climate. He believes that the pertinence of the collection lies in the “benefits of mixing cultures” rather than viewing the characters as “separatists or oppressors”: “One of the most touching discoveries for me was that the cotton mill workers of Manchester... supported Ghandi's cause, standing in solidarity with him and against their industrialist employers. These workers could relate to the working classes of India who faced starvation as the result of mass exports of raw Indian cotton. The British Empire is often brushed under the carpet in Britain, it's ignored, it's not taught in schools. This was something I wanted to explore, to fully understand, and most importantly acknowledge it in the hopes that it will not happen again.”
In constructing his narrative, Skelton’s clothes work like poetry—a loose economy of words imbued with deliberate meaning and rife with references. Despite the clothes' worn out quality—thick brown hemp coats with threads that look as though they were unfurling, roomy white jackets cut in a loose fit—the cut and silhouette of the collection evokes a quiet elegance and easy refinement; from the way the lengthy coats hang on the body to the way the crimped A-line trousers flutter in the fall wind, a delicate romanticism permeates the collection's historic narrative. While adopting silhouettes and sartorial notes from the Maharajas and the Victorian man, Skelton pays homage to the oft-overlooked weavers and spinners, opting for up-cycled materials in place of decadent mainstays such as luscious silk and ostentatious brocades. Using linens, hemps, and cottons dyed with rusts and leaves, he creates beautifully weathered shirts and suitings that look like heirlooms unearthed from the days of yore. In a sense, they are. For Collection II, Skelton experimented with burying the clothes to give them a worn and aged quality, allowing them to acquire a raw idyllic appearance. He also partnered with renowned milliner Stephen Jones to produce hats for the collection, one in particular, is a Ghandi cap fashioned out of newspaper, adding to the collection’s reference-heavy quality.
Skelton’s choice of fabrics and materials reflect not just a down-to-earth outlook on clothes, but also a commitment to environmentally sustainable fashion. In this sense, paying homage to Ghandi and the Khadi movement was a serendipitous marriage of beliefs held by the two:
“Gandhi’s Khadi movement and his attempt to stop the export of cotton to Britain to create a self sufficient society... holds many parallels with my stance on sustainability, rejecting mass manufacture and creating an autonomous industry.”
Skelton's use of repurposed fabrics and eco-friendly means of production in all his collections speaks to an aversion to fashion’s heavy carbon footprints, revealing a designer who understands that change is needed in the industry. Through the lens of seeing “clothes in their excess” and an “awareness of the impact the fashion industry has on our planet”, Skelton evinces a strongly-held conviction that sustainability should not be overlooked in place of economic benefits.
One of the greatest ironies of history is that it often comes full circle; in an attempt to extend her reach beyond her own shores, a growing British economy and increasing connectivity inevitably brought the world back to Britain. Much of Britain’s identity has been built on a multi-cultural platform and shaped through interaction with its colonies, most notably its adoption of the chicken tikka masala as a national dish. This cosmopolitan existence, so crucial to Britain’s ascendancy to great power status, ultimately resulted in a wave of immigrants arriving to seek better prospects and a better life, inciting backlash against growing displacement of locals. In a climate of growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, Skelton reminds us to take stock of history, to look back into the past and celebrate the marriage of cultures. It is in this reflection, that we can perhaps come to realise that we are often times better off thinking in terms of harmony rather than separateness.
Skelton’s father dressed in his designs made out of handspun cotton from Skelton’s latest collection.