Creative Visionaries

Inside HERO 31: Steven Stokey-Daley in conversation with Arlo Parks
By Barry Pierce | Fashion | 5 April 2024
Photographer Jack Johnstone

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

This article is part of Print Edition

It was in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio that Steven Stokey-Daley revealed his FW24 collection as guest designer at the Pitti Uomo fashion fair. It was on these walls that Leonardo da Vinci began (and abandoned) his most famous lost work, The Battle of Anghiari, and where Michelangelo was meant to execute his great fresco of the Battle of Cascina before that, too, was abandoned. There was a lot of pressure on Stokey-Daley, could he succeed in the very room where these great names could only fail? Of course. It was water off a jacquard duck’s back.

S.S. Daley has been a brand in fast-forward these past few seasons. Has anybody else gone from debut show to Pitti Uomo in just six collections? Stokey-Daley’s mix of upper-class sartorial codes with a tongue-in-cheek queerness has found him fans in Harry Styles and Josh O ’Connor, and he has never compromised a single aspect of himself in his rise to fame. At his Pitti show, an E.M. Forster story titled The Story of a Panic served as the genesis of the collection. It tells the tale of a young British man who travels to a fishing village in Italy and feels totally isolated in his new setting. Naturally, Stokey- Daley saw a lot of himself in the story. Eventually, the story’s protagonist has his sexual awakening in the village, something which is reflected in the fish motifs throughout the collection.

On the runway the models had to curve around abstract pillars filled with pillows, a reference to the nocturnal dalliances that were also at the heart of the collection’s concept. The outfits had a distinct mornin-after-the-night-before styling with starched shirts and tailcoats (Stokey-Daley has a distinctly outsider view of the Eton and Harrow signifiers) being hastily thrown on while the trousers were missing in the action. In his own words, the collection was all about “rich kids behaving badly.” The art of great storytelling isn’t lost on Mercury Prize-winning artist Arlo Parks, who approaches her craft with intimacy and intricacy. Combining poetry and sound, Parks’ hyper-personal, hyper-intimate soundscapes were first introduced by her 2021 debut Collapsed in Sunbeams, while last year’s acclaimed sophomore record, My Soft Machine was the sound of an artist expressing themselves with utmost poignancy and poise.

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

Arlo Parks: I’m so happy to be speaking to you – thank you for asking.
Steven Stokey-Daley: Of course! I felt like we would have a good conversation because of our chat after the first show you came to – we were talking about [Alfred] Tennyson and I felt like you really got our world, especially when you started sending me little bits and bobs on Instagram. I thought it was really special.

AP: The way you incorporate poetry into your work is something I really resonated with and I wonder when you were younger if that was an art form you always gravitated to? Or, was fashion your first love?
SSD: I was on a road to pursue performance in some way and so I was always quite extroverted as a child, then I studied drama [at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art]. When we did our exams there was a focus on poetry and that translated to me doing super well in English Literature because I had that prior study time. I was on the theatre track and then I had a moment when I was about to leave for London and do theatre, I kind of just freaked out and didn’t want to do it anymore. I don’t know why. I think it was because it was the thing that was expected of me and I wanted to push away from that, then the fashion thing just happened accidentally. Fashion was never a childhood dream of mine, it offered itself as a secondary outlet for a lot of my interests outside of theatre.

AP: That makes sense. For me, writing has always been at the core of what I love, I used to write short stories as a child. I was drawn to the idea of storytelling and imagery, I was quite an emotional, observant child. It’s similar to theatre or any creative expression, when you’re a child or a person who has a lot bubbling on the inside, you find all these different ways to release that pressure.
SSD: How did you first stumble across that thing inside of you that connected to writing? Was there a particular moment, person, place or story?

AP: That’s an interesting question. One of my earliest memories is listening to a lot of audiobooks with my dad in the car and being six or seven listening to The Old Man and the Sea, Treasure Island and The Day of the Triffids. These were quite dense pieces of work for a tiny child, especially because they were spoken aloud and there was so much drama infused in the way I absorbed those stories and the ways they washed over me. I had this sense of language having real power. Even though I didn’t completely understand everything that was going on, I knew I was moved and excited. I wanted to chase that feeling and bring it out in other people. Now, I’ve been writing every day since I was tiny.
SSD: Wow, really? That’s amazing.

“I feel like I can concentrate for less time now, I’m not sure if that’s because of the way we consume media and how that’s changed. Now, I’m always planning, always writing ideas. […] The thing I do every day is piece things together, I’m always compiling words and imagery.”

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

AP: It’s a constant, it feels compulsive in a way. It’s something I have to do every day to just feel like myself. Is there anything like that for you? Something you have to do consistently to feel like yourself.
SSD: It used to be reading but I’ve found myself falling victim to my concentration span waning. I feel like I can concentrate for less time now, I’m not sure if that’s because of the way we consume media and how that’s changed. Now, I’m always planning, always writing ideas. Design is a very visual thing and for most it’s a purely visual process, but we do quite a lot of reading and writing before it fits into a visual plan, so I suppose that’s why the narrative aspect of the work is so important to me. The thing I do every day is piece things together, I’m always compiling words and imagery.

AP: I’ve always been such a fan of a mind map, where everything is going in its rightful place.
SSD: We’re encouraged to do that visually in the design world, but I find the mixture of notes and images to be the way it happens for me.

AP: I’m curious about your show in Florence, was that a similar process? Did you start with a written or narrative approach?
SSD: Florence felt really special, it was our first time taking it outside of London and what is comfortable to us. We visited Florence a few times while we were looking for a location and we allowed those experiences to inform what the collection would look like and what the references would be. My friend and amazing writer Charlie Porter had an exhibition at the end of last year in Charleston called Bring No Clothes and it was a really amazing look at the Bloomsbury Group through his eyes. I was chatting with him about going to Florence for the first time and one of the people he focused on for the exhibition was E.M. Forster, and we worked together a little on that for the exhibition. There was one of Forster’s stories I hadn’t actually investigated at all because it’s not so widely known, Charlie sent me it and said, “I think this may be exactly where your head is at right now.” It’s called The Story of a Panic, it’s one of the first stories he wrote, which wasn’t published until after his death because it’s more of an explicit exploration of his identity. It’s about a British guy who goes to Italy for the first time. He’s in a fishing village, he has his sexual awakening and discovers his identity via surrealism in a similar way to how [Federico García] Lorca uses surrealism in his plays. That really informed where the collection went because I felt like I had a nice parallel to the guy in the story going to Florence for the first time, then imagery in Forster’s story filtered into the collection. The nice thing about design is that we have a board of references to build this universe and every season you take two away and add four, but the core images remain.

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

AP: What are those fixed ideas? Is there one question you keep trying to answer or a visual identity you always draw from?
SSD: When I first started, my university was right next to Harrow School and it became about looking at British institutions like Harrow or Eton and how the culture of learning is so different in those institutions to the ones I went to or the ones my friends went to. It is about dissecting the uniform of the British public school, which was the initial concept and is ever-evolving and ever-present. This season we added to it and looked at The Last Hurrah by Dafydd Jones, which is a photo series of Oxford graduates at their last celebratory party. There are images of Boris Johnson and a great one of Nigella Lawson. It’s rich kids behaving badly, tearing it up. All of these different things came together along with the final reference, which was this found diary of an Oxford grad from 1935 – he would start each entry with, “Today, in Elliot’s room…” It was about this guy he fell in love with in a shared dormitory space, the show itself became an abstract idea of this shared space between them.

AP: I love that. It’s so interesting, I actually just bought this 90s book by Adrienne Salinger called In My Room: Teenagers in their Bedrooms. She went and photographed these kids in their bedrooms and gave them the chance to have a short interview speaking about their lives and created this little time capsule. When you’re a teenager, everything you own and everything that you are is in that one room, there is something so tactile and beautiful about that. There is something so intimate and I love the idea of warping the space into something that feels surreal. Diaries, journals and that kind of writing has always moved me, it’s at the core of what I do.
SSD: I want to flip the question to you, I suppose me doing a show would probably translate into you writing a record. Writing a record is a larger consolidation of time than a show because of how frequently we do them but I was going to ask how you start, what was the point where you found what you were going to explore for My Soft Machine?

AP: With me, records almost happen accidentally. They usually start in the limbo after I’ve finished a project. There is a very specific freedom I feel when I’ve detached from what I’ve made and I’m looking towards the new. There is always this phase at the beginning, an absorption phase where I’m listening to and reading as much as possible. Brainstorming and mood boarding, collecting what I like and what I’m moved by at that moment. I almost trick myself, because when I set the intention I’m always like, “I’m going to create an album with this theme, on this timeline,” and sometimes I feel so suffocated by that. So I go to the studio and I’m like, “I’m just going to make some things, see what happens,” and approach it as me being in home studios with some of my best friends experimenting. With this last record, I centred on a theme of love and having more courage to move away from speaking about characters in this fly-on-the-wall sense and speaking from my perspective, because I use these characters’ names I never really owned my emotions or [was never] vulnerable in a direct way. The phrase itself, My Soft Machine is from the Joanna Hogg film, The Souvenir. My Soft Machine is the prism of my body, my brain, and the light filtering through that – it comes out in a very frank and honest way. That revealed itself to me at the end though, I had written these songs I loved and then I traced the threads through it. The name comes at the very end because I need to know exactly what I’m describing before I find the name.
SSD: Amazing. It’s interesting to hear you say it threads together at the end because it sounds like such a consistent body of work. It’s so impressive and exciting. I think that way of approaching work, in the sense of not forcing a timeline, is the way I might one day approach fashion. There is a strange timeline in this world.

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AP: What is the timeline?
SSD: That is the question. [both laugh] It’s all over the place and it changes so frequently but I feel like every year it is becoming more frequent. There are more seasons than there have ever been, and this thing becomes even more difficult to plan because you’re doing Autumn-Winter, but it gets bought for summer, so you don’t really know how to approach it sometimes. It’s an odd one.

AP: Do you think the art you made would be different if it wasn’t under time pressure in that way?
SSD: Yeah because it would be far less frequent, it would be more about the art. 50 percent is about the art and 50 percent is about the format we apply it to. It’s an odd thing but I would love to once not do it in the preconceived industry format.

AP: I do think about what it would be like to create art in a way that felt more spacious and less witnessed. What I would create if no one was looking, like I did when I was younger. I remember the frustration that came with that but there was also something so pure about what was made, when you were able to truly play. It’s difficult because now I feel the work is very much a conversation with the world rather than just for you in that little orb. My very sweet friend Chella [Man] who is a painter always says, “What art would you make if you were in heaven?” It’s such a sweet sentiment. I feel like that spaciousness doesn’t exist for me right now, but maybe one day.
SSD: I sometimes find myself creating something for the reception, then I have to stop myself and rewind to a more organic thing. I wonder if you ever have that?

AP: Definitely. Something I do to offset that is have projects I work on that I never show anyone. Longer arc things that I toil away at in obscurity and I don’t have the exchange of sending a demo to someone or putting out a song and people giving me a pat on the back, which feels good, but I want something where I don’t get that exchange. Just believing in myself and in a vision, working not to be seen but working because it feels good. That’s the way I offset it.
SSD: That’s so nice.

AP: I sit down every day and try to do that in a small way. What do you do just for yourself? What makes you happy outside of work? I’m so curious.
SSD: It’s not really serious.

AP: It doesn’t have to be serious at all.
SSD: I started taking pictures of front doors in London when I moved here eight years ago. [laughs] I was so obsessed with how ornate and beautiful a door could be here.

AP: I love it.
SSD: Then I began taking pictures of front doors everywhere I went, in Paris or in Italy. I always said I would one day make a series, I love this idea of one day going back and getting one line from the person behind the door. Having a coffee table book of doors and words. [laughs]

“When you’re a creative person it’s never really limited to one outlet – I could easily find myself in many other places.”

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

AP: I truly love that. I’m not sure if I have something I take photos of consistently in that way but there is something about collecting, whether it’s collecting photos or rocks or lighters. Documenting your journey through the world and what you found beautiful at different times in your life and where you were – it’s a visual diary.
SSD: So true. I was really into burgundy or bordeaux doors when I first started and now I’ve moved through green and olive stages, which is funny. I think you’re right, it’s a nice way to document where I’ve been over time. I think it would be quite nice to partner that with a small peep hole into what the person behind the door has to say.

AP: Definitely. Do you see yourself going into other creative mediums?
SSD: Yeah, I have to stop myself sometimes and rewind. When you’re a creative person it’s never really limited to one outlet – I could easily find myself in many other places. I think this is temporary, we’ll move onto something else in the future and then that’ll move onto the next thing. How about you?

AP: I agree completely. Obviously, I love writing songs and I love music but I think my North Star is just expression as a whole and there are also certain questions or themes I’m trying to explore, whether that be queerness or love or identity. I want to approach them through different mediums throughout my life because I feel like you can explore different angles and probe deeper, whether you’re writing a script or doing something in fashion or poetry or whatever it might be. Even putting out my photography and poetry book The Magic Border, I was finding spiritual twins. That was a different form of expression I felt very rewarded by. It reminded me I just want to spread, I’m such a restless person.
SSD: Totally, I feel that also. I suppose music is a vessel for your poetry in a way, did you feel connected to music when you wrote poetry?

AP: Yes, definitely. It soaked into the work just in terms of what I was listening to, because I listen to music relentlessly. I found that if I was writing a poem which felt a little bit more nostalgic or was about a teenage thing I was trying to unknot, I would turn to the bands I loved then and listen to Deerhunter, Nirvana and Grizzly Bear. It made me fall in love with making music even more. When you go to something else and then return, it’s kind of like coming home.
SSD: What’re you currently listening to?

AP: Let me look on my Spotify because I always forget when people ask me this and I should know. I was just in Sequoia National Park where there are trees that are 3,000 years old, one of the trees there is called The General Sherman and it’s the biggest living organism on the planet.
SSD: Oh wow, that’s insane.

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AP: I was there and I made a little playlist because it was about a three hour road trip and I was revisiting some of my favourites. I was listening to Mezzanine by Massive Attack, She Hangs Brightly by Mazzy Star, Dummy by Portishead, In My Mind by Pharrell Williams, Untrue by Burial and I was listening to albums by Dijon and Boygenius. For me, it’s always about meshing new and comfort, I listen to NTS radio a lot because it’s all in the discovery for me. What about you? What’s on your playlist? Also, have you been watching movies?
SSD: Music-wise, around the show we listen to a lot. I listen to Dry Cleaning a lot and that sounded a lot like what the collection looked like for me. I listen to music all day because I don’t really like silence.

AP: Same. I’ve got the brown noise on at night, if I stop talking to someone on the phone I’m immediately trying to connect to my speaker. I don’t know what that says about us. [laughs]
SSD: That’s so funny, I’m the exact same. I have brown noise on at night and I have music on all day. I listen to Arlo Parks a lot.

AP: Oh really?! She sounds great. [both laughs]
SSD: She’s really great. I listen to a lot of Kate Bush, I grew up listening to her and Cate Le Bon.

AP: I love Cate Le Bon.
SSD: I’m really into her at the minute. I find watching films really difficult sometimes because it’s such a commitment for me, I like to be moving and doing. I don’t watch as many films as I would like to. I have a watch list that I’m going to sit down and get through. There are films that have inspired me, classic ones like Another Country and Brideshead Revisited.

AP: Did you see the film Past Lives?
SSD: No.

AP: Oh my god, you have to watch that. I saw it in the cinema and as soon as it ended I started crying my eyes out. The premise is about this woman who moves away from Korea when she’s very young and there’s this boy she’s in love with when she’s younger and then their lives intertwine in adult life. It’s so beautiful and the reason why it’s called Past Lives is because there is this idea that there are 8,000 layers of fates and past lives that have to be eroded until you meet the person in your current life. It’s so beautiful, you should definitely watch it.
SSD: I will watch that, it sounds really good.

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AP: What books have you been reading?
SSD: Actually, I’m reading something currently that doesn’t have any relation to anything I’m doing but it’s called The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole. It’s about this guy who is exploring the last remaining fragments of rainforests that used to exist in the UK. I’m finding it really great because it has nothing to do with what I’m doing – it’s like a portal into another world, it’s a little bit scientific and specific but it’s interesting. I quite like having a few things to focus on that are completely the opposite of anything I do – just to escape.

AP: I completely agree. For me, it’s about a physical escape too. Because I live in LA, going to a National Park or to the ocean, physically driving and having a healthy escape to somewhere else is important. I always feel fresher having done that. It’s good to have something in your life that isn’t anchored in the work but in a way I feel like everything I see and do just melts into the music and into the writing. There is something beautiful about that.
SSD: I completely agree. I have certain books I read for work and I’m currently reading Gluck: Art and Identity, Gluck was a portrait artist in the 1940s, a super interesting person. She was part of the dynasty of the Lyon’s Tearooms but she rejected the family and wore tailcoats and tuxedos, basically presented as masculine and then moved to Cornwall and started painting her girlfriend’s floral arrangements. It’s super interesting because people continue to buy her artwork. She was super accepted for who she was, which was odd for the time.

“I find Kate Bush to be someone who informed me a lot through how brave she was in terms of her expression when she was younger. There are moments of her discography that feel very brave and forward thinking.”

AP: I definitely feel like a lot of the books I gravitate towards are about people finding their place in the world, I’ve always gravitated to stories about outsiders or people who feel lost and then find their way back to themselves. I’m curious about the people who have been your touchstones. There are definitely people whose work has impacted me over a long time.
SSD: Who are they for you?

AP: I’ve always felt connected to the author Maggie Nelson who is a more recent artist, her book The Argonauts is about queer parenthood and her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge who is gender non-conforming and the way she experienced their love. I’ve always been really fascinated by Beth Gibbons, the singer-songwriter of Portishead, I think there is something very ethereal about her and I’m very moved by how much of herself she puts into her work. I have a record of hers which is from Roslyn Theatre in New York City and they recorded a live version of Dummy, it’s on Spotify and it’s so beautiful. In terms of film I’ve always been really interested by Wong Kar-wai’s films likes Chunking Express and Happy Together, all of those films have such a specific visual mood and move me so deeply. A lot of ambient artists inspire me, there is something really interesting about that art form because it’s so spacious. People like Brian Eno and Paul Chain. What about you?
SSD: It’s a mixture. Forster is someone I really think about a lot and I think I often see myself as a parallel to him, not for his literary success, more for his story and the way he writes about certain feelings of identity. On the flip side, I find Kate Bush to be someone who informed me a lot through how brave she was in terms of her expression when she was younger. There are moments of her discography that feel very brave and forward thinking. I’m also fascinated by David Hockney’s story and the way he sees the world.

AP: It’s nice to have those people that impact you in different ways as you grow older. You relate to different parts of their stories and pull strength from different aspects. They’re like little guardian angels.
SSD: That’s a lovely way to think about it, I love that.

all clothing and accessories S.S.DALEY FW24

This feature was originally published in HERO 31. 

Buy HERO 31 here.

photography assistant SIA THOMAS;
fashion assistant GEORGIA PELLEGRINO

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