The Backstory: a conversation with Lou Dalton in her studio

Posted on 2nd August, by Colin Chapman in Lou Dalton, Studio Visit. No Comments

Next up in my conversations with exceptional designers from London Collections: Men is Lou Dalton. I caught up with Lou at her studio in Spitalfields last week. This was my third opportunity to get up close with her SS13 collection, which I’d first encountered in a showroom, just hours after her show, then, a week before our chat, I’d had the opportunity to try on some of the beautiful tailored pieces featuring panels of sports mesh from SS13 at a private orders night. It’s easy to see why this collection was the perfect opener to The London Collections: Men and went on to be so well received by the international press. The simple lines, solid palette of black, navy, stone and wine and the signature Dalton fusion of tailoring and technical sportswear told a story that was immediately discernible, needing no translation.

A reminder of the crisp, sporty elegance of Lou Dalton SS13.
And a rail of SS13 at the Lou Dalton studio in Spitalfields.

At the personal orders night, I found that, on the body, the clothing feels somehow sturdy. Those mesh shorts feel like they will keep their shape, the navy, tailored jacket with a minimal mesh shoulder panels, fits just so and has great buttons, a true sign of class. But here at the studio, I wanted to talk to Lou about more than just this (albeit wonderful) collection, instead it felt like I was capturing a moment in time with a designer on the cusp of becoming a major, mainstream success.

The mesh shorts I’ve been coveting since the collection was first presented.

And the mesh paneled jacket, another favourite piece.

Whilst I had specific questions, our conversation flowed naturally, so what follows is a sequence of observations and themes in words and pictures, rather than a traditional question-and-answer format interview.

Lou is an incredibly warm person, and her passion for what she does and the people in her life who facilitate this passionate career is evident as we talk.

Of course, I was keen to hear about the aftermath of London Collections: Men, from Lou herself, and Lou’s opening explanation: “We’re busy with production”, turned out to be something of an understatement, as we sat in a corner of the studio, surrounded by boxes heading out to some of the world’s most discerning boutiques.  

Exquisite AW12 Lou Dalton sweaters, bagged and boxed.

And a reminder of how that particular piece looked in the AW12 presentation.

All the looks from AW12, which now feels like a pivotal collection.

In fact, the studio (shared with absent, fellow designer, Hamish Morrow) had been buzzing with activity, with capsule collections being produced for Harvey Nichols as well as the celebrated international designer boutique chain, Opening Ceremony. Harvey Nichols “might not be ready to take our mainline collection yet”, Lou commented, but it’s still great that we’re working with them”. There’s a similar sense of pride in the well-received collection for Opening Ceremony, who asked Lou to produce this capsule collection to coincide with their Covent Garden Olympics pop-up, but who have also showed their ongoing support by carrying her mainline collection.

Key influences for SS13
Having spoken about the special collections in progress, but with SS13 on a rail right beside us, I was keen to hear a bit more about where this noteworthy collection had started:

“The influence of sportswear is always there, but it was especially strong in this collection and it’s even stronger in what I’ve just done for Opening Ceremony.” Lou explained. “With Spring/Summer we pushed it beyond normal, we engaged even more with it.”

Where the magic happens: Lou’s desk.

We also discussed one of the key themes of the collection, the underdog. In my pre-London Collections: Men interview, Lou had stated that the collection would be influenced by her “obsession with the underdog” and the collection notes said more about this, particularly certain cinematic antiheroes.

“I’m always obsessed with this underdog, I need to get over this underdogs thing eventually, but it’s always there”, added Lou.

As the collection notes revealed, re-viewing classic films like Taxi Driver provided inspiration for the collection, but as Lou emphasised to me, it was the film Breaking Away that was a particular influence, especially the significance of Italian cycling gear in the narrative, the sense of aspiration and “ “The Cutters” shirts they wear in the film.”

I have to admit to not fully grasping the significance of the underdog as a theme when I first heard it mentioned before the collection appeared, but as my conversation with Lou went on, it became more and more relevant as a way to understand her work.

As a side note on this conversation about influences, I asked whether Lou saw America as a new and developing market for her clothes. Reviewing the interest from New York in particular, it was clear that this is the case. Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for Lou’s work it seems: The New York Times’ Bruce Pask, has been especially enthusiastic, taking to Twitter to declare his love for the SS13 collection and praising the artful use of mesh in particular. “Bruce has been great”, added Lou, “really supportive, he came backstage after the show.” And with key pieces headed to new, Meatpacking District boutique, Owen it seems that New York has really taken Lou Dalton to its heart.

Here in the UK, Lou’s work is is stocked at The Corner, at Liberty menswear and there are those special collections at the Opening Ceremony pop-up and the T-shirt range at Harvey Nichols. For once, the possibility of buying into young British fashion talent is open to all. “I’m not that young myself (I’m in my late 30s)” Lou clarified, “but as a label we’re quite young.”

SS13 production sketches and swatches in wine fabric and white mesh.

Looking ahead to AW13
I’m always keen to hear what designers are thinking about next, and as with all those I’m visiting, hints of AW13 are in the air.

“I am thinking about the next one…” Lou confirmed . “A photo of my dad” she explained, is one of her initial inspirations for the next collection, and the sense of his personal style “not exactly teddy boy” she clarified “but towards that”. Later she added: “My dad told me that the time in his life he was happiest (apart from having us) was his national service, which took him round the world.” “All these influences”, she explained, appear in the clothes she designs.

A corner of the workroom at Lou Dalton’s studio, Spitalfields.

I love this sense of nostalgia and the personal stories in Lou’s work. She seems to communicate an understanding that clothes take on the persona of the person that wears them, become the person to some extent, in the same way that the clothes worn by those we love, take on more meaning than clothes yet to be worn or lived in.

“I think I will surprise people again” Lou announced, “I don’t want to be pigeonholed, but there’ll be a sportswear influence that’s always there, nostalgia, experimental knitwear, because knitwear is one of the things I do, textures…”.

Career history and origins
On meeting Lou last week, I’d already read about her perhaps untypical route into a career in fashion via a YTS apprenticeship and eventually an MA at the Royal College of Art. What was the impact of this journey, I wondered, and how has it affected her perspective on fashion? “Well, I didn’t come from money…” Lou responded. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was always told I wouldn’t do anything, I wouldn’t amount to anything”, she continued, “this apprenticeship was the only thing I wanted to do.”

In particular, I’d read about Shropshire tailor, Arthur Pardington, with whom she did an apprenticeship under the then Youth Training Scheme and as her star ascends, it’s one of those stories that could become mythical, in the same way as Lee McQueen’s graffiti-ing of Prince Charles’s jacket lining in his Savile Row days.

“Arthur would just leave me to it until I’d worked it out” she told me. “And I did, I worked it out.”

Where the sewing happens: workroom at the Lou Dalton Studio, Spitalfields.

On the craft of menswear
“Construction is always so important to me” said Lou, as we discussed what makes her approach unique.

“A lot of people don’t understand why a pair of men’s trousers has a second, internal waistband even” she went on, clearly frustrated at the idea of such amateur-ness in a field in which she is clearly extremely competent.

“Arthur told me it should feel like a second skin, like something you’re not even wearing,” she reflected. “If I make a shirt I like it to fit.”

We talked about how great clothes are made to last, and as evidence of this Lou declared: “If you look at the kinds of clothes that the likes of David Hockney would wear, that kind of old money, it might be really ancient, with things stuffed in the pockets, but it still looks great.”

“Hamish [Morrow] has the most amazing wardrobe I’ve ever seen”, she added, enticingly, given their shared studio.

I commented that, when I’d read about Lou’s background and training, it made me think of McQueen, who had a similar route in, through practical tailoring and then an MA.

“Well he’s a genius…” said Lou modestly, her use of the present tense emphasising her respect for the late designer, but I think the comparison is a fair one, if the sense of working-class determination, and the peculiar shift from a practical, craft-based understanding of the construction of clothing to MA-level consideration of fashion in context, with all it’s complex associations, history and layers of meaning. “You need both”, asserted Lou, “you need the theory as well as the practical”.

“I was always told I wouldn’t be anything…” she repeated. And it’s easy to see not just her justifiable pride in having confounded this harsh prediction but perhaps a sense of having tried just that little bit harder to get to where she is now.

“I’d never advise young people now to leave school at 16” she continued. “People talk about apprenticeships, but they don’t really exist now, it makes me really angry.”

Our next topic of conversation was about the people Lou collaborates with, starting with stylist John McCarty.

Lou had been working with the stylist Robbie Spencer, she explained, who was becoming too busy with Dazed & Confused magazine and recommended McCarty to Lou as a possible replacement. The first collection she and McCarty collaborated on, she described, was the one “not inspired by the Highland Clearances as such, but the Jacobites”, [a Fashion East installation for AW10]. Its clear that Lou now sees the relationship with McCarty as being crucial, as bringing something vital to how she presents her work to the world, a genuine collaboration.

“I would fight to work with him now” she stated, “he’s very involved. Some stylists just turn up at the last minute.” “He doesn’t just say, “give me all the blue garments, Lou”.”

Describing the pressure she was under as the opening ‘act’ at London Collections: Men, she said of McCarty’s contribution:

“He usually likes to leave it and come back to it fresh in the morning, but he couldn’t do that, he had to stay with me and work right through.”

On the importance of music
Lou’s presentations have consistently had some of the best soundtracks of all the London menswear collections, something I’ve always commented on in my reviews. So I was keen to hear what makes her collaboration with London DJ collective Horse Meat Disco so effective.

As Lou and I got individually misty eyed about our past lives in clubland (for her, regional clubs like Wobble and The Hacienda were mentioned) it’s clear that she is aware of music as an emotional trigger, and a key way to make a collection seem relevant, whatever it’s historical or esoteric influences.

The soundtrack to SS13 was particularly praised, and clearly hit a few emotional buttons, including for Lou herself: “Billy Idol, “Eyes without a face” she exclaimed, “I’m a teenager in my bedroom again!”

“I used to send stuff over to them, Lou explained of the working process with HMD, “then I’d be like, ‘I’m not sure’… “Now they just say “Lou, we know what you like. We know you want something a bit euphoric!”

“Music is very important” she emphasised. And it’s clear that she also relishes the fact that people’s expectations of what her friends can deliver musically is also stretched. “Everyone knows they can play a bit of disco, but when they do something more unexpected… .” As anyone who attended the AW12 show will attest to, the orchestral strings that opened the show, were great evidence of that power.

The sublime military hats worked in Dalton’s fabrics were another clincher to what made AW12 such a romantic vision, and so Bernstock Speirs, the legendary London milliners are the next collaborators we discuss. “Paul and Thelma are very close friends” Lou asserted. “They were around when I came to London, and they’re still around, they’ve worked really hard”.

As we continued to discuss her friends and collaborators, Lou expressed great respect for Bernstock Speirs’ professionalism, especially as she described how a hat they designed for the SS13 presentation was eventually edited out of the show.

The hats in the AW12 collection were produced in collaboration with Bernstock Speirs.

SS13 as a turning point
As we started to wrap up our conversation I asked Lou why she thought the recent collection had been such a success, and she was keen to hear any insights that I might have:

“I think it’s because it was surprising” I said, “people expected something very English from you, and suddenly it was a curve ball, and the influence was America and also it was simple, not too many colours, not too many looks.” Encouraged by Lou’s nodding, “they’re ageless” I added, recalling some of the world’s leading menswear editors and taste makers trying on her pieces at the personal orders evening.

Before I said my goodbyes I was interested to hear how far Lou’s ambitions stretched, particularly given her origins in “good working stock” as she describes her background:

“I want to go all the way with it. I was always told I’d never do anything, I’d never achieve anything.” “Your Dries… all the people I really love and really respect… I want to see how far I can take it.”

And I couldn’t resist another rifle through that rail, another impromptu try on. As I turned from the mirror, Lou pointed out a technical consideration for the colour of the waistband of the shorts I was trying, and I had a real sense of her as a maker of clothes, a doer, pins in mouth. Loyal, hardworking, gutsy, down to earth and always ready to acknowledge the influence of her collaborators, friends and loved ones, Lou Dalton would be a perfect interview subject to expound on British working spirit, particularly in this Olympics period.

“It’s never just you” she confirmed, “the label might say Lou Dalton but there’s always a team effort involved”.

One of Lou’s team in the sunny workroom.

Lou’s clothes constantly strike me as clothes for heroes. Not necessarily in a showy, peacock way (though every one of her collections feature some head turners) but the kind of complex, unexpected hero that sends hearts soaring in classic cinema. Clearly this interest in the ‘underdog thing’ is catching.

Another shot of the SS13 rail, showing the grounded stone and wine colour palette.

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