Nicholas Daley explores the Black history of martial arts for AW21
A celebration of craftsmanship, culture and community, the London designer drew inspiration from Isaac Hayes, Jim Kelly and James Brown.
Images courtesy of Nicholas Daley.
During the first national lockdown, while the rest of us were fussing over the perfect banana loaf, London-based designer Nicholas Daley turned to karate as a means of “escapism, staying healthy and sort of coping,” he says. As a fashion designer, it’s only natural that his hobby should tick over into his work, and the result for SS21 was Stepping Razor: an ode to the cultural overlap between the Black cultural pioneers of the 1970s — like reggae star Peter Tosh, for example — and the world of martial arts. As much as he’s a designer, Nicholas is also a researcher, and once he’d scratched the surface for SS21, he “just kept digging deeper and deeper, finding more and more amazing stories and narratives,” untold histories that he couldn’t help but continue to explore.
And so we come to his AW21 collection, Forgotten Fury. Described by Nicholas as the b-side to Stepping Razor, it’s a continued exploration of this overlooked shared territory and a treatise on the rich lineages and values of strength, self-fulfilment, and discipline that define the relationship.
Looking to figures like Jim Kelly, the karate-champion-turned-actor acclaimed for his turn opposite Bruce Lee in cult martial arts classic Enter the Dragon; as well as to Black musicians like Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, who scored some of the most iconic film soundtracks of the era, Nicholas fuses typically disparate sartorial tropes.
Sported by Lutalo Muhammad and Christian McNeish, two British taekwondo champions and Tokyo 2021 Olympic hopefuls, familiar silhouettes and motifs are liberated of their preconceptions. A frog-buttoned mandarin collared jacket, for example, is accented with eccentric pizzazz in the form of tiger-stripe silk jacquard panels, and this season’s iteration of the ongoing collaboration with quilted jacket maven Lavenham gives us scarves, cropped coats and gilets. Pattern cutting brings a sense of discreet dynamism to the collection. Elsewhere Nicholas’ artisanal sensibilities shine through in bright chunky knit Rasta tams and crossbody bags, duck egg blue shibori tie-dye motifs, and roomy coats and trousers in mohair-blend tartan tweeds developed in collaboration with Scottish mill Lochcarron.
“Whether it's making bespoke tartans in Scotland, working with amazing Black British martial artists like Christian and Lutalo, or referencing Isaac Hayes and Bruce Lee, it all goes back to the whole idea of the three Cs — community, craftsmanship and culture. That's always something I'm always trying to distil into every collection,” Nicholas says. Indeed, distillation is the operative term here, with the complex web of references that he draws on neatly woven into an unimposing, eminently desirable proposal.
Material proof of that desirability can be found in the figures — over the past year, he’s seen his business grow as he takes on major new stockists like Selfridges, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. At the heart of it, though, what makes Nicholas’ work so desirable is the humble sense of power it exudes. Or, a “warrior spirit”, as Nicholas puts it. “I definitely feel that Stepping Razor and Forgotten Fury is harnessing that — it’s something we have to have,” says Nicholas. “It’s a manifestation of this idea of what it means to be a strong Black person — or a strong individual, full stop.”