the skelton brothers on the power of collaboration
The York-born, London-based Skeltons are brothers in arms, carefully-crafting their own way in the fashion industry.
John wears all clothing John Alexander Skelton. Shoes model's own. Ryan wears coat and trousers John Alexander Skelton. Jumper, shirt and shoes model's own. Hat Stephen Jones x John Alexander Skelton.
"United inside the Central Saint Martins campus, we were always talking and creating together," John Alexander Skelton explains, walking through his busy east London studio. The designer has one eye on the finishing touches being applied to Collection III, The Radical North. As he's mentioned, younger brother Ryan appears behind a clothesline of repurposed Belgian corduroy and British wools. Studying at CSM and forging a path in photography, he is John's creative collaborator and confidant. Alongside the middle sibling, Danny, who helps on the business side and works in The City, the York-born, London-based Skeltons are brothers in arms, carefully-crafting their own way in the industry. Whether it's showing off-schedule, preserving British manufacturing or just creating for the sake of creation, they are part of a DIY generation of emerging talents who refuse to follow and instead, confidently stride forward, shoulder-to-shoulder.
"We quickly realised the power of collaboration," Ryan explains. "Without it, you're missing a special spark that conversation creates." Together they delight in the dialogue of duality. From each collection's conception right through to lookbook completion, the siblings are in constant collusion as boundaries blur between artistry, academia, ethnography, craft, dreams and design. "I work well with other people," Ryan states. "As brothers, that came naturally." Although their crossover at CSM was the real catalyst for collaboration - John on the MA in Fashion Menswear and Ryan on the BA in Fashion Communication and Promotion - the seeds were sown growing up in Yorkshire. "We were interested in clothes as a result of our mother," John explains. "We were practically forced to give an opinion on her outfits." "We still are - and do," Ryan adds with a giggle. "We have different tastes and strong opinions, but that's helpful. We don't have a filter and it's as honest as it can be."
It sparked Ryan's photographic epiphany too, he remembers, a sense of pride enveloping his delicate features. "I mostly stole my mum's clothes and would shoot my family and friends from secondary school in them." Having recently uploaded the first film images he ever shot to his Instagram, a series starring his father Graham reluctantly wearing a pink feather boa alongside his own tailoring, we can see into the early development of his eye. "Back then, I couldn't speak to anyone about fashion," Ryan remembers. "After he moved to London, I would call John. It was exciting to hear about London life because I was so far removed from it. That started the conversation and his critical response was fruitful. It was a dialogue we had over a couple of years before I joined him in the capital and we developed more of a working relationship."
Their shape-shifting working relationship is an intriguing one. John - who finished his MA last May and collected The L'Oreal Prize at the degree show in February by reminding us that sustainable clothing can still be romantic fashion - is the designer and visionary, but Ryan is the creative sparring partner, present at every turn. "I come up with the starting point for the collection, we discuss it and explore the directions we can take it," John explains of their process. "We agree which elements excites us most. From there, we both go out and research." For John Alexander Skelton, a label in which every seam, stitch and textile is considered, research is everything. It ensures each piece has its own enthralling tale to tell, from repurposed PVC British Navy surplus submariners' coats to rare hand-woven Khadi wool, this is clothing that ignites imaginations.
"Knowledge is power," Ryan states with a smile. "Giving each other different points of reference is rewarding and pushes us to places we might not have reached in isolation." From the Mass-Observation Project references of his debut collection, to the cotton trade and colonialism of his second, the Skeltons' research is rooted in the shifting socio-political landscapes of their native Yorkshire. "I love this sense of discovery," John explains. "Finding things in libraries, archives and collections dotted across the country," he continues. As each brother speaks their shared love of this stage is infectious. "There are always too many potential pockets of interest and they generally lead onto the next collection," John continues. "That's great because it's a continuous conversation. Rather than design disparately, it's far more interesting to delve deeper and to keep exploring." It's this ever-evolving thread that neatly binds each collection.
"After the research, I come up with what I want to make and then there's an ongoing conversation about how to balance it, because there's always a fine line between costume and clothing," John notes. "I'm the soundboard," Ryan adds. "When we're both so immersed in it, we can be unsure of the path but having each other provides that balance. That said, I think it's important to feel uncomfortable because that means you're pushing yourself," John continues. Although their direct fashion influences are few, both become animated remembering the early collections of Galliano, McQueen, Gaultier and Margiela. "They were all proposing something that made their audience slightly uncomfortable," Ryan explains. "I'm attracted to their shared level of integrity, that integrity is rare today," John adds. "I'm always drawn to historical elements and would never look at contemporary clothes." Neither John nor Ryan are distracted by industry noise and whether working together or separate, neither rests on their laurels.
"If I want to create a collection, I'll do it, not because there's a need to do a show or to sell and Ryan shoots that way too. So much of what he shoots is self-initiated and that's rare. Few photographers do it for the pleasure." The work of both brothers is anything but forced, ill-conceived or throwaway. John's obsessively researched, provenance pored, soulfully stitched designs are longing to be treasured while Ryan's images delight in probing the viewer and will be pondered long after an Instagram scroll or page turn. "We're curious and have this desire to evolve." It's a desire cultivated in childhood. "We knew we didn't want to work in jobs we had little passion for. Friends and family lived that way and it wasn't for us," Ryan continues. "This is 24/7. Of course, there's a lot of hard work involved but we believe in it." John agrees. "When we were putting up last season's installation inside Hostem, it got to a point where no one else could work any longer and it was just the two of us. We're just so invested this, we powered through." Theirs is a labour of brotherly love.
Text Steve Salter
Photography Tim Walker