arts + crafts

Actor Josh O’Connor in conversation with emerging Liverpudlian designer Steven Stokey-Daley
By Josh O'Connor | Fashion | 22 November 2021
Photographer Paul Phung

For all the doors closed by the pandemic, some were forced open – just ask Steven Stokey-Daley. The fledgling menswear designer only graduated from the University of Westminster in 2020 and has spent the last eighteen months making waves with his embroidered interpretations of classic British styles. Lockdown came as a veiled blessing for the 25 year-old, who used the opportunity to launch his label, S.S.Daley, from his bedroom in Liverpool. The turning point came last October, when Harry Styles wore an ensemble of Stokey-Daley’s creations while galavanting along Italy’s Amalfi Coast for the music video of his single, Golden.

The young designer was soon overwhelmed by the orders that followed, setting up a studio in London from where the brand is now based. Among the many heads to have been turned is actor Josh O’Connor, who collaborated with Stokey-Daley for this year’s BAFTA ceremony. With their shared enthusiasm for theatre, performance and craft, it’s a kindred pairing that is destined to flourish on the red carpet for years to come.

Josh O’Connor: The Harry Styles video was obviously a big moment. Did you feel a big difference?
Steven Stokey-Daley: Yeah, for sure. We were so lucky at our university because we’d just shown our graduate collection before going into lockdown two weeks later, whereas all the other universities didn’t have a graduate show. I remember I felt things slowing down and we didn’t ever go back to uni. I’m quite an agitated person, I can’t really sit still, I have to do things all the time. I remember our tutors saying, “Jobs are a bit bleak right now,” and that’s not what you want to hear when you’re about to graduate. So I was like, “OK, I’m going to have to start making my own way a little bit,” and then just made trousers and started selling them. Then I remember I sent Harry Lambert [Harry Styles’ stylist] my work, just like, why not?

JOC: How did you know Harry Lambert?
SSD: I was quite cheeky at the beginning just sending my work to everyone. I just thought, “How else am I going to do this?” So I started Instagramming people like, “Hi, look at my work.” And then Harry saw it, Harry Styles wore it and it just sort of went [makes exploding noise] from there.

JOC: And what was he wearing?
SSD: So he had these big double-pleated floral linen –

JOC: Oh yeah that’s right! Because there was one outfit that both he and I wore.
SSD: That didn’t make the [final cut of the] video for Harry, but then Harry Lambert made sure to get photos of him in it.

JOC: One of my favourite things you’ve made was, I think it was an accessory to that outfit, the wooden box –
SSD: With the plate? So that bag, I remember, my moodboard for the collection – I actually had no idea what I was doing for the whole time. I had an allotted amount of time to make a collection and I actually made a completely different collection the week before the show. I just threw it all away and re-purposed it into a brand new one. I had on my board – actually kind of interesting now because of The Crown – but I found an article of this gay couple in Essex who were around 70, I think, and they had a wall full of Diana memorial plates. I remembered that and was quite obsessed with how intense and crazy that is. So I kept going to charity shops in Harrow, because my university was there, and finding all these Diana plates. Then I was like, “I want to make a shelf from this wall and have these Diana plates,” and it just became something different. I built that wooden mahogany box in Liverpool and then I made a plate with my friend Reuben [Charles-Bastide] and had a Margaret Thatcher quote on it. I’m not a Thatcherite at all but it was like a reclamation of the term that she used. It was Section 28 where she prevented the education of gay existence in schools, and it wasn’t until recently that changed [Section 28 was repealed in 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England]. She said something like, “They seem to think they have the inalienable right to be gay and we need to change that sort of thing.” So I took the inalienable right and put that on the plate. I had intended to smash the plate, just to smash what she said, but I don’t know, I kind of enjoyed the reclamation of that term.

“…sometimes when you see political slogans on t-shirts it’s just awful.”

JOC: That’s so cool. And interesting that you were making work that felt so political, have you always had an interest in politics?
SSD: Hugely. My work used to be more outwardly political throughout university.

JOC: Do you think it’s hard to do that now?
SSD: I think it can feel a little bit – I don’t know, sometimes when you see political slogans on t-shirts it’s just awful. It just feels a bit like trying to monetise a movement, do you know what I mean?

JOC: Yeah I do.
SSD: It was that thing of trying to mature the idea of how you make this political and I think some people get what I do in terms of looking at this elitist class in Britain, particularly the elite education systems. I think some people understand that, from my perspective, it feels quite subversive because I’m not meant to say this sort of stuff. So it feels like I’m sort of appropriating a culture that was never really afforded to me and wasn’t to a lot of people in the country. Very interesting actually, I read something that only like 25 percent of people are privately educated yet Parliament is made up of over 75 percent of privately educated people. So the disparity between the people who represent the country to who they actually represent is very interesting.

JOC: It’s interesting – would you say you were afforded the opportunities to get to where you’ve got?
SSD: Yeah for sure. I’m from a working-class background, a single-parent family and my mum worked so hard to keep me sheltered and clothed and when I was young I never really understood what she did. I remember she was so adamant about letting me do whatever I wanted. I was such an exuberant child and the only way I could filter out my energy was through acting actually, which I think was mainly because I loved to lie when I was younger. My mum used to tell me I’d go into nursery when I was four years old and go up to the teacher like, “God I’ve had a long day in the office.” I’d just pretend.

JOC: I actually think that’s part of the reason any actor gets into it. Because I definitely lied as a kid, just wanting everyone to think that you’re something grander than you actually are. If that comes easily then it’s like, well there’s one career where I can do that full time!
SSD: I just used to love disassociating from myself and becoming someone else completely.

“I just used to love disassociating from myself and becoming someone else completely.”

JOC: Looking back now, I read this amazing thing about Michael Sheen who was talking about how – I don’t think he was from a working-class background per se but he’s from Port Talbot – and he was talking about the opportunities that he was afforded. He was looking back and saying, “The chances that were afforded to me – local arts centres, local council funding – actually those don’t exist anymore.” So do you feel like our generation has been afforded these things?
SSD: I think on a broader scale I always thought of myself as a working-class person and I sort of pitted myself against other people who had more opportunities. But in the last few years, on a large-scale with everyone anyway, I think you start to realise your own privilege actually and how much you have been afforded.

JOC: Really?
SSD: Yeah, for sure. I mean even in the last few years the whole Black Lives Matter movement really put in total clarity how much privilege we are afforded as white people. And I really took the time to educate myself on that and understand there’s so many tiny, day-to-day things that we would never have to know about because we’re white. But on that scale, yeah for sure. When I was younger I think I had a great pathway in terms of teachers. I had one drama teacher who I was just best friends with we got on and just loved it. She was like, “You should audition for National Youth,” and I did, but the National Youth Theatre have a fee to do the summer course and I literally had no money. So me and my mum just begged my school to get the governors to donate money for me to go, which was great. Funding is stripped back so much these days I wonder if that would happen now, like you were just saying.

JOC: I can’t imagine it would. I mean I don’t know because I don’t know Liverpool very well but wasn’t it the Capital of Culture at one point?
SSD: In 2008, yeah it was.

JOC: It’s got such a rich history of the arts. For me, we had one arts centre where I learned to draw and do anything that I love doing now. That got closed down and now that town I grew up in has nothing. There’s no art space at all for young people and I’m sure that is true for lots of towns and rural places in the UK.
SSD: It’s interesting you say that because Liverpool is such a performing city. All kids in Liverpool at all ages want to perform, that’s what I gathered. There’s so many dance schools there, everyone wants to be a dancer, and so many people within the arts actually come from Liverpool.

JOC: And the National Youth Theatre, you obviously had a good time there?
SSD: Yeah it’s so funny, I’ve been talking to my friends about this lots recently. I think sometimes when you grow up with people in high school, there’s two types of people: those who are agitated and need to break out from the place they grew up, and those who are really content to stay where they are. Neither is bad and neither is the right thing, but I was always so agitated and needed to break out and move away. So when I did National Youth Theatre that was my first time in London. I was super excited, I felt like an adult and all those things I used to lie about as a kid.

“…this break from runway in fashion is such an opportunity to just tear the rule book up and go with something different.”

JOC: So tell me about the link now to your new show.
SSD: A lot of other designers have one reference point for a collection, but I tend to throw in so many ideas and a lot of my references also come from literature. On my board I have scans of pages from plays and I take words and the mood they evoke and try to piece them all together. It becomes like a massive mind-map of ideas, that’s why I sometimes think whether I should be a designer or just write things instead. I just have this craving to get back into theatre in some way, so I reached out to National Youth Theatre and said, “I wonder if this is a good time to change things up a bit.” I know in theatre it’s a pretty bleak time, so I just thought, “People are bored of the standard fashion show anyway, how can we take this idea of a runway show and make it a platform for people who are in the theatre?” My two interests also – from a completely selfish point of view – merged in some way. So I said, “I wonder if we could swap out models for your cast members.”

JOC: Wow. So did you take on directing as well?
SSD: I asked the director of the NYT politely if he wouldn’t mind…

JOC: Did you know him?
SSD: I didn’t really because he oversees the whole operation, and when I was there we worked in smaller groups. So I just asked him whether he’d mind helping me out with this and he was like, “Yeah, for sure, sounds really exciting.” It’s also exciting for them, it’s something totally different.

JOC: I bet they love it.
SSD: Also this break from runway in fashion is such an opportunity to just tear the rule book up and go with something different. If there’s ever a time to do something different, it’s now.

JOC: How much are you aware of other designers and other shows during Covid? Because obviously lots of designers are having to re-think how they present their work. Are you aware of that and does it put pressure on you to do things differently? Pre- Covid, do you think you’d be going down this route and doing something new?
SSD: I kind of do think I would be anyway, because runway shows are a bit boring if I’m honest. I know a lot of people have this emphatic relationship, this romanticised idea of a runway show but it just doesn’t do much for me. I don’t know why. I get it, it’s to sell clothes, I just don’t really like it because I don’t feel there’s always as much depth as there could be.

JOC: It’s also like, it should be theatre. I know people have different feelings about that [Alexander] McQueen documentary but one of the things that I loved about it was looking back at those early shows, and they are pure theatre. They are kind of traditional in some ways but so much more – there’s attitude and story.
SSD: That’s what I think is exciting. A lot of my generation were inspired by that so you’ll probably start to see a resurgence now. I think there came a point where those sorts of shows became too expensive and fashion is so regular that people couldn’t keep up with it. McQueen was more concerned with a whole narrative and idea, and I feel like people are less concerned with that now and more concerned with selling. That’s obviously fine because it’s a business and it has to be like that to a degree…

JOC: I always think it must be really hard to get the balance. With fashion what sets it apart is you’re not buying a t-shirt for the sake of it, you’re buying a part of something else.
SSD: You’re buying into this person’s set of ideas. I think there are people who do that really, really well. I know you just asked, “Do I keep up with it and does it put pressure on me?” Now I’m trying to not look too much.


JOC: And is it hard to reinvent all the time? Not that you have to reinvent but when you talk about your mind-map – is it hard to choose something and hone in on it?
SSD: Yes, and I’m really glad about what you just said about reinventing. Because I was thinking about that in my final year and when I created these collections. You actually don’t have to reinvent the wheel and I think people put too much pressure on themselves and it just looks a mess.

JOC: Particularly with how frequently you’re expected to reinvent.
SSD: If you’ve got an image on your mood board, say it’s of a film from the 70s, and it’s a guy wearing a shirt and the shirt’s absolutely fab. Take the shirt, repurpose it, bring it back to life. This is the whole Diet Prada culture we’ve got now – do you know about Diet Prada? They call people out for referencing too heavily and stuff and it’s like, but that’s the whole point! That we can take references and reintroduce them into the world in our own way. But everything has to be like, completely new. First of all it’s unrealistic, second, it’s a horrible way to work, to put pressure on yourself to invent something new every time. I said to my interns, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” I think young fashion students feel the pressure to sort of tear a t-shirt apart and stitch it in fifty different ways – you don’t need to do that. Sometimes it’s actually more telling of a designer and how confident they can be if you take a step back and present something that isn’t totally new.

JOC: And also there’s an environmental aspect, if we’re having to reinvent that means creating all the time, which means more product, constantly churning stuff out. It feels like that’s not really practical, either. My favourite shirts of yours are the tablecloths that you’ve repurposed. I feel like the environment hasn’t been fashionable for a long time, but now maybe the younger generation are, not making it fashionable, it’s just a fact that it has to be included in part of your work.
SSD: 100 percent. I think that’s something even fashion-fashion people are realising now. With houses presenting like, eight collections a year with 80 looks per collection and it’s like, why? Just relax. So I started off just using remnants, tablecloths, off-cuts and one-of-a-kind things. Then obviously you’ve also got to think practically in a business sense, there has to be a way to move forward and also be really considerate to the environment. Balancing those two things has to be the way forward. I spent ages last time I was doing a collection ringing around UK-based mills to ask what their most sustainable products are and their ways of working. Sustainability also needs to be looked at in terms of, how do you sustain the industry? And I’m not talking about the fashion industry, I’m talking about the hearty fabric and production industry that’s been in this country forever. Like silk weaving and wool weaving, there’s so many amazing UK-based mills that are still in their original buildings. There’s a family I worked with last time and I was taking that idea of, what can they make product- wise that isn’t harmful to the environment but also helps give back to that sense of industry?

all clothing by S.S.DALEY SS22 / image from HERO 26

“I spent ages last time I was doing a collection ringing around UK-based mills to ask what their most sustainable products are and their ways of working.”

JOC: And also craft. When we worked together on the piece for BAFTA, what was so attractive was you were talking to me about the fabric and where that had come from and also for the buttons – those old-school designers investing in trade and craftsmanship, I feel like that’s sort of been lost. Understandably, because everyone’s having to do it on a scale and maybe that is hard to keep up but it’s interesting that you obviously hold that in high regard.
SSD: And when you think about scale there’s so much temptation as a designer to get stuff made really cheaply with poorer quality or on the other side of the world where you’re not entirely sure of the working conditions. There’s such a big temptation because it’s literally a third of the price you pay for quality stuff in this country that’s sourced and tracked. But you have a responsibility I think, as young people, to shift the narrative and to also bring a sense of respect for craft. As you said, it’s completely been lost and I think the interesting thing about my generation is it’s starting to come back, people are more interested in where things have come from or how they’ve been made.

all clothing by S.S.DALEY SS22; socks by FALKE; shoes by CONVERSE FW21


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