“Championing quality and frivolity whilst maintaining ecological integrity.” The class of 2020 graduate Steven Stokey-Daley wrote this optimistic English flourish of a tagline for his S.S. Daley label on a wish and a promise that—against all odds—has come true. In the dark days of the first lockdown, Stokey-Daley had started to make versions of his English public school tradition-subverting Oxford bags and shirts from locally-sourced vintage and end-of-roll fabrics, and began selling them through his Instagram, from his bedroom in Liverpool. Then, boom: Harry Styles.
Harry Lambert styled Mr. Styles in S.S. Daley in the “Golden” video which launched in October; the pop star wore a pair of wide-legged trousers and a free-flowing white shirt. From then on, Steven has been selling pieces on his website as fast as he can post them. “I think before the Harry Styles thing happened we’d made about 50 pairs of trousers. I’d send people pictures of the fabric I had, do a little computer mock-up of how they’d look, and they were really into having one-of-a-kind,” he relates. “Then after Harry Styles, it became like, it just tripled and quadrupled, crazily.” Undaunted by all the challenges of distance and isolation, he methodically set about working with his family and skilled people in the neighborhood, got help from people he’d met at Westminster University who were at a loose end, and called local fabric mills and curtain retailers for unsold materials. “And my boyfriend, who’s a dancer, has moved in with us too. He’s really dived into it as well.”
So now comes the S.S. Daley sophomore collection, “The Robe Room Is Becoming the Garden,” inspired by Cecil Beaton’s photographs of his at-home dressing up fantasias in the 1930s. “When I looked at a lot of Beaton’s work, it was him and his friends experimenting with dress in the home. Which I think reflects what we’re all doing at the minute, within our four walls.” Hand-smocked and machine-smocked shirts, faded chintzy rose Oxford bags, Melton shorts, exaggerated cable knits, old-school ribbed singlets and underwear, pajama stripes, crocheted flowers, and all, it also reflects everything about the aesthetic point of view and flair for cut and finish that Stokey-Daley’s built up. “It’s this idea that we’re sort of queering or subverting very iconographic archetypal garments that belong to that English public school world. It’s experimental with the way it’s put together,” he says, “although all the pieces when taken apart are really wearable, like commercially viable.”
The privileged traditions of the upper classes—from which the ruling elite of Boris Johnson’s cabinet springs—not to mention the rankling North-South wealth divide which partially drove the Brexit referendum are still very much readable in British society today. The fascinated gaze of this Northern working-class boy fell on the alien culture of Eton and Harrow when he came down to London to study. Harrow school for boys (fees: £14,200 a term) happens to be obscured from the windows of the Westminster University fashion studios by a nearby bosky rise. “For me, looking at the access to arts and high culture that public schools tend to have in comparison to my own education,” says Stokey-Daley, was part of the eye-opener. Having immersed himself for the first time in Brideshead Revisited, Another Country, and Maurice, he realized he’d hit on the subject for his graduation collection. “What feels quite rebellious to me is reappropriating these public school traditionalist ideas. Taking them, and exploiting a version for myself,” he smiles. “So, this season, having the reference of Beaton in mind, these two ideas work together; it sort of sets the perfect scene for thinking about what the public schoolboy would be doing at home in lockdown right now.”
Stokey-Daley sharpened his skills while interning at Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen—he was able to use fabric donated by Sarah Burton to make a couple of precociously sophisticated bathrobe-coats in his grad show. Besides: Westminster University has a unique historical archive of men’s clothing, collected by Professor Andrew Groves. It gave him the ideal place to geek out on inside-out knowledge of garment construction—old-school cricket kit, boating blazers, dress shirts, Gannex raincoats, and examples of Oxford bags (by no coincidence, named after the foppish 1920s and ’30s Oxford university Brideshead-era student fad). “I think it’s really important for me to pin the details of garments down, not just have them as a general idea. I use the double front-facing pleat which is very traditional in British trousers from the ’30s and ’40s, but then I wanted to have it really voluminous, and in a floral fabric. I think for me, the linear story is that it’s always an archetype of menswear that’s subverted to a degree, within its fabrication, or with where something’s placed.”
Case in point is the things Stokey-Daley’s done with shirts. There’s a blue-and-white tunic-length one cut from an antique tablecloth. “Each one’s a bit different, because I cut them to make the best of the beautiful embroidery or prints.” And then there’s the new volume that he’s ingeniously cut into the sleeves of Tattersall, cotton, and Regatta stripe shirts. Women have been wearing exaggerated puffy sleeves for a while: Well, here’s the first, absolutely certain to be a sensational hit shirt silhouette for Gen Z boys. Although girls and women are already onto S.S. Daley too. It’s the tiny details that make his things feel “right” on the body and charmingly personal—all the way through to the beautifully-packed boxes, with a card, which wing their way from the Stokey-Daleys’ busy house to customers’ homes in Korea, Australia, the U.S., Japan, and wherever else they’re ordering from.
As unlikely, and as totally impressive as it is, he’s one of the people who has started up right in the middle of the pandemic by exercising community and friendship resources, not in a capital, and without any show—and begun to thrive by serving new customers with full-on fashion. It reads from afar, but is made around the corner: If Harry Styles doesn’t leap on the corduroy jacket decorated with 3-D crocheted flowers made by Stokey-Daley’s neighbor, then someone else is certain to fight him to a cover shoot somewhere. And as the designer’s business grows (there are retailers knocking, now) he’ll be making sure not to deviate from what he believes in. “I want to provide opportunities for people who are in a similar place to me,” he says. “And I don’t want to start using any fabrics I shouldn’t. I’ve got in touch with mills in Scotland and Yorkshire, so everything’s 100% British-made in the North and Northwest of England. I’ve been working with two absolutely incredible ladies who used to work with my nan in a clothing factory in Liverpool. They’ve got a little unit now, and I’ve had quite a big demand of them. They said they’re excited to do something with a wider audience, and are hoping to get the young people back working with them, interested in sewing and crafts,” he concludes. “I think we’ve all got to work together to bring that back to popularity.” Mark the words of the first cohort of Gen Z designers who are bringing their whole collection of hard-working, ethical, and localist values into fashion with them. This one’s future looks bright.