John Alexander Skelton and Rei Nadal have created three films together; the first, Under Milk Wood, captured a theatrical performance by the designer's brother Ryan Neil Skelton inside the Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town. The second, Collection X, looked to a 'grim sort of beauty' set in the harsh landscape of West Yorkshire, while the third and most recent film, Collection XI, was shot amidst a crumbling abbey in North Yorkshire. Skelton's work has always felt distinctly anti-fashion – he employs models of all ages, releases collections off schedule, and often frames his work in nature (Skelton's clothes feel like the antithesis to a kind of urban armour championed by young designers working in cities today).
Below, Skelton and Nadal talk about the sensory triggers that film can evoke, the grandeur and brutality of the Yorkshire landscape, and why not being able to put on live performances during the pandemic has been an unexpected blessing.
Violet Conroy: How did you two first meet and begin working together? What drew you to each other's work?
Rei Nadal: John reached out to me because he had seen one of his pieces in a film called Stalker that I had done with Ellie Grace Cumming, which happens to be one of my favourite things I've ever done. John liked the fact that it didn't really look like a fashion film. I had gotten to know John because of that piece of clothing that was in the film. We like what we both like. It was John's initiative, but I felt the same way.
VC: How did you come up with the concept for the new film?
RN: I document whatever John creates. It's documentary-style filming, it's not about an external narrative and it's not a typical fashion film. It's about documenting it and having a voice through that. Without sounding pretentious, it reminds me a little bit of what Wim Wenders was doing with Yohji Yamamoto in Notebook on Cities and Clothes. It's a documentary where Wim spends time with Yohji, and I like to think that it's in the same vein as when John and I work together. I'm documenting something and trying to have my point of view too, just reacting. It's a really nice dynamic. We've done three films together; with the first one, Under Milk Wood, I recorded Ryan's performance which was part of the presentation of John's collection, and I went to Yorkshire for the other two (Collection X and Collection XI). I really enjoy the dynamic because John works really closely with the photographer Oscar Foster-Kane and I follow them around. I like that dynamic a lot because they don't wait for me. They keep me on my toes. It's a lovely exercise.
John Alexander Skelton: In the winter there's a really strong narrative to the collection and that influences the film. There isn't necessarily a conceptual narrative to the actual film. I felt like I was not finished with what we'd begun to explore with the previous film, Collection X. I still feel like there's so much more to work with. At the moment I'm fascinated by capturing clothing within a natural setting, within nature – that was part of the inspiration behind the previous collection.
It was partly inspired by the work of Ted Hughes and a specific project he did with the photographer Fay Godwin. He wrote all these poems in response to the area where he was born, the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. Fay Godwin photographed the really dramatic landscape and Ted wrote some of the poems in response to the images and some from memory. There was a shared narrative and it was about how the area had evolved within his lifetime, because it was super industrial at one point. There were lots of mills and different types of manufacturers that existed within this valley. They begun to disintegrate when a lot of British trade went overseas, and all these amazing stone buildings began to crumble back into the landscape – he was really interested in that transition. It was the last Celtic kingdom to be conquered by the Angles because of the harshness of the landscape. I found that really fascinating, so it was apt that we filmed and shot there. I've been shooting stuff within a natural setting with my brother previously, but we'd done it as a side project where we'd take out each collection that I'd done and we'd go and shoot it in different places in the countryside. We didn't use models – it would be on me, my dad or my brother and we'd all take pictures of each other.
Collection XI is a continuation of shooting in a natural landscape. This time we moved locations to North Yorkshire, which is even closer to where I grew up. We've been to all these places on family walks, so it's really personal. There's something I find interesting about taking the clothes into those settings. I can't necessarily describe it, but there's some sort of connection between the clothing that I'm designing and all these landscapes that I've grown up with and cherished. With what's happened over the last couple of years, it's really heightened my need to spend time in those places, and the value of being in the countryside. This project was more architectural because we used a lot of these medieval ruins that were fading away into the landscape. I wanted this film to be a lot more grand and beautiful, because West Yorkshire has a really harsh landscape and really ugly architecture. We had shot part of it in Mytholmroyd, which is where Ted Hughes was born. I wanted this to be the antithesis to that and have this element of grandeur to it. There was also this notion of elegance, this idea of a marriage of elegance and utility at the same time.
VC: Your previous shows have often been quite theatrical – how have you found the process of showing your collections through film as opposed to live events? Do you miss that element of being a room with other people when you show your collections?
JAS: A bit. I don't find it comparable. I really enjoy doing these films. If COVID-19 hadn't happened, I might not have had as much of an opportunity to put so much focus into doing the film. I wanted to try and put as much effort into doing the film as I would into doing the show. Especially with Collection X, my brother wrote a full poem which was read by loads of different members of my family and friends. The work that went into it was quite extensive. In a way, it's a lot calmer doing a film. The shows that I've done previously, I've tried to do something that's really challenging for a tiny business to pull off. They've been quite big productions which would ordinarily require a huge production company to do, and we've done it with a couple of people.
In a way this was a relief, because you remove that immediate anxiety of something having to be executed within the space of half an hour or an hour. There's an opportunity to refine what you want to put across with the film. A lot of the time with my collections, I want to show somebody something new. As well as highlighting a subject, I'm also highlighting an area, which adds another level of communication that is difficult to do in real life. We could film in 10 interesting places and it all be within one film. To be able to enrich these narratives with all these different places, landscapes, buildings, textures, colours and sounds. A film fulfils so many different sensory triggers. When I did shows, I wanted to go for all of the senses at once, so that it was this all-encompassing experience.
VC: Rei, your films always feel very still and sensory. Is that something that is a conscious choice?
RN: With John's films, it has to be very instinctual. If I stop thinking about theorising things, I just experience the world through my senses. I react to whatever is happening in front of me, which is what happens when I work with John. I just show up with a camera and follow them around. I just think about how I feel.
VC: Rei, how did it feel working on a film as opposed to filming one of John's live shows?
RN: I enjoy both. There's something really interesting about filming people when they're watching something else. It's almost like I'm a stalker. I shouldn't be filming them, but I am. I did enjoy that, but being in this incredible place... I hadn't been to Yorkshire before. John has an emotional connection to it, but for me it's completely new. I don't know what I'm going to find. I try consciously not to get too control freak about it. I don't ask, 'Where are we going? How many people will be there? What does it look like?' I just see it and film it. There's an instant discovery, almost a primal reaction to what's happening. I don't have time to freak out. It's not like on a big production shoot, where everything has been discussed for so long. I don't have time for that anxiety anymore.
Watch the Collection XI film below.