Back To School: Meet The Menswear Designer Queering British Elitism

by Hetty Mahlich on 19 March 2021

In this series, SHOWstudio speak to professionals from across the creative industries to build a transparent profile of what success and failure looks like. Here, fashion designer Steven Stokey-Daley opens up about launching his debut in lockdown.

In this series, SHOWstudio speak to professionals from across the creative industries to build a transparent profile of what success and failure looks like. Here, fashion designer Steven Stokey-Daley opens up about launching his debut in lockdown.

SHOWstudio are finding out what success means in creative industries today. We speak to professionals from across fashion, film, theatre, art and design to build a transparent profile of what success and failure looks like, seeking out the answers to every creative’s burning questions. From breakdown to breakthrough, it’s time to get pen to paper: here are the lessons you need to learn.

Steven Stokey-Daley

Steven Stokey-Daley, Westminster University, Fashion Design graduate 2020

One thing I wish I had learnt at school...'I suppose the one thing they couldn’t teach was how to graduate through a pandemic, and where to go from there? When your four years of education in design are geared towards this moment post-graduation, and then for that moment to veer so dramatically from the blueprint, I think that was massively disorientating (as it has been for so many people). Suddenly graduation was cancelled and our celebrations were cancelled as well as job prospects.

For me I just wanted to stay busy and use my time to my advantage, and the whole time I thought about what the answers were to my questions, eventually realising that this is completely unchartered water and no-one has the answers. So my drive was to just go for it and find them out for myself. I do think that the different factions of fashion education, be it merchandising, buying, design, etc, should be encouraged to truly study and understand the roles of one another - I think this would’ve helped me truly understand the landscape of the industry a little better.'

Harry Styles on the set of the music video for his single 'Golden', wearing Steven Stokey-Daley
Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

If you're a fan of Harry Styles, you'll be well acquainted with Steven Stokey-Daley's work already. The Liverpudlian menswear designer spent his student years exploring British elitism to delicious avail, and after a call from renegade stylist Harry Lambert, his BA graduate collection ended up in Styles' music video Golden. But the Westminster menswear graduate's work feels most familiar in terms of the dress codes the designer is playing with, or more specifically, that he's queering.

Exploring homosociality via British public school culture, Stokey-Daley's regatta racing-style bodysuits, school ties and wide-brimmed boater hats finished with dried flowers were one of the highlights from the Westminster BA show last year; I remember them well, framing their wearers like 17th century Dutch still life paintings. Having cut his hand at Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford, the designer is now establishing his eponymous label, presenting his debut collection post-university in the unchartered territories of a global pandemic and lockdown. Calling upon Lambert and new collaborator, photographer Waterworth, The Robe Room is Becoming the Garden is the next chapter in Stokey-Daley's queering of British elite dress codes.

Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth
Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

The S.S Daley A/W 21 collection dives further into muddy rugby fields of British public school culture, illuminating how the male bonds formed in these privileged spaces nurture a self-serving language, in both dress and behaviour, which goes beyond the school grounds and into the seats of power ruling the nation. Take a look at where most of the Tories went to school, or say, 20 of the UK's Prime Ministers - you won't even be able to finish typing your search into Google before the question pops up, with the answer: Eton; or at least Harrow, maybe later Cambridge and Oxford.

Inspired in part by his daily walks to school, past the private boy's boarding school Harrow, the designer, who himself comes from a working class background, was also driven by the films Another Country (1984) and Maurice (1987). Both frame the English public school system as one that fosters a suppressed homoeroticism; in the latter, set in the Victorian era, two men fall in love when they meet in Cambridge but then are pulled apart as they enter back into the real world. Throughout, there's boating on the river, lads bathing in the changing rooms together, or bonding over a game of cricket.

Queer art has often settled comfortably into leisure spaces such as these. French painter Frédéric Bazille's work Summer Scene (Bathers) (1869-70) springs to mind. As does Kaen Knorr's photographic series Gentleman 1981-1982, which frames suited men from British politics seated in gentlemen's clubs across London.

For A/W 21, it was these leisure spaces which Stokey-Daley decided to focus on, re-appropriating a language of dress codes never intended for him by looking specifically at sports; what men are 'dressing and undressing for', he says. The resulting collection conjures images of an English summer's day, these are men set for a day boating with a friend, where they'll share cucumber sandwiches for luncheon.

Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

Breaking through the threshold of uniformed public school boys, Stokey-Daley finds the fragile masculinity underneath, proudly framing it so with straw hats sprigged with eucalyptus. Presented as the second act to his graduate collection, the designer is successfully developing the narrative he began building whilst at university to create his namesake label - having a clear design direction is a must for any fashion business.

A top and matching shorts is developed from last season's regatta rowing all-in-one. Also returning are the wide leg trousers which sold out on his website - impressive for a designer so fresh on the scene - this season reimagined in floral prints inspired by Cecil Beaton photographs, together with images of birds and also pears grown by his Nan. They also come in a delightedly chunky cable knit with matching cardigan and crochet boaters. Trousers come complete with cricket pad fastenings, and shirts in red and blue country tattersall check take one hurtling back to what one's grandfather might have once worn.

The designer is first and foremost sustainably minded - a sure sign of the new guard of fashion designers. Materials are responsibility sourced, and upcycled fabrics are used throughout- he's a continued recipient of the Alexander McQueen surplus fabric donations - with all silk in this collection also being specially woven by a traditional mill in Yorkshire.

I couldn’t help but compare the flowery traditionalism of elitist education to the gritty reality of working-class Liverpool and my own education
Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

Hetty Mahlich: Let's go back to your graduate collection (which was one of my favourites in the show and really stuck with me!) What first drew you, in your design process, to look at British elitism and the private school system?

Steven Stokey-Daley: Thank you! That’s very kind of you. I walked past Harrow school every day on my way to the studio and seeing the boys in their boaters, stood in twos and sort of marching in formation felt sort of theatrical within its visual. When I began to research into this realm further, I couldn’t help but compare the flowery traditionalism of elitist education to the gritty reality of working-class Liverpool and my own education. I think, beyond just that it’s how masculinity is translated differently across the two very different institutions.

HM: What did you feel was missing from conversations around maleness and British private schools like Eton and Harrow?

SSD: I think it’s the concept of maleness that differs so much between both the private institutions, and the system in which I grew up. The components of the celebrated Etonian/ Harrovian, adorned in flowers, tailcoat, boater hats surrounded by gardens, theatre and art are the exact things that I’d be persecuted for liking in school. I think it’s important to realise that the majority of our parliament is made up of privately educated males, even though privately educated people make up 6% of the entire population; these schools feed our governing body, the governing body who make decisions regarding funding for working class areas like Liverpool – the disparity in cultural enrichment across the country and indeed across our education system is not an accident. I suppose I took the idea of our political leaders and looked back into their school life but through the homosocial lens of Another Country (1984) and Maurice (1987); is it a softness, a complexity of bonds that is missing from the conversation? Potentially.

Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

HM: There is a sense that you are reappropriating the language of the elite as your own. Is there an element of rebellion to be found in your work?

SSD: I think that’s accurate. I have said it before, but there is a sense that this access to culture, art and opportunity isn’t meant for me; even to a degree within the fashion industry people would comment on my northern accent or my lack of knowledge for certain things affiliated with privilege; which is fine it never bothered me, but there has at times been an undertone of ‘you’re not meant to be here’. By taking archetypal British traditionalism and subverting it is a form of rebellion, for example cutting a smoking jacket/dressing gown as a donkey jacket would be cut, it’s taking the languages of both working class and elitist dress codes and merging the two to form something politically nuanced.

HM: Why were you drawn to focus on dress codes associated with leisure?

SSD: I think with leisure, the cut of the garments, the idea of intimacy and board all accumulate this well rounded visual of a public-school space in which my ideas seemed to grow and feel most comfortable. I think there’s also something interesting in investigating the idea of vintage leisure and thinking about their modern parallels. When watching Another Country and Maurice, it’s the language of casual attire, layered knitwear, ecru undergarments that really represents the complex bonds formed between boys. In this Act II of sorts, I wanted to take this same idea that inspired me so much with my first collection, and explore the sports for which they’re dressing and undressing for; looking at regatta racing suits, cricket padded trousers and their functionality, and working them into modern modes of dress.

Steven Stokey-Daley A/W 21, photograph William Waterworth

HM: Tell me about how you came to work with Harry Lambert and William Waterworth, what drew you to their work?

SDD: After Golden, we [SDD and Harry Lambert] just stayed in touch and both excitedly shared ideas with each other about the direction the clothes could go in, he really got what I was doing with my work and he really believes in the brand narrative. Having worked with him super closely this season, we both realised we are on the exact same page and it just feels very easy, he is a super exciting person to work with and he just has such an innate ability to pull it all together perfectly. Harry introduced me to William and his beautiful work; I think he has such a beautiful means of capturing character, and so the pairing felt super harmonious.

HM: You mention Cecil Beaton as a key reference this season. What other image makers do you have on your mood board?

SDD: I did, I think that universal sense of feeling trapped indoors and experimenting with our clothes is perfectly captured by Beaton so it felt entirely appropriate to further explore that this season. Following on from that, in lockdown last year I was obsessed with trawling the internet for lost Kate Bush live performances, the theatricality of her being pushed me to cover half of my board with reference images. I thought to myself...who is on the bedroom wall of the boy I’m dressing in this fantastical realm? Kate and Diana. I had images of Pierre Paolo Pasolini’s on my board along with images of Prince Harry in his college sportswear, and Another Country stills. Lots of conflicting imagery that created something special.

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