FEATURE | 25 May 2019
Interview, Text & Photos: Martin Hufnagel
Since the first Savile Row suits in the early 1800s, Britain has been an influencer of menswear around the world. Even today, London Men’s Fashion Week is place of inspiration for current trends on the streets and future trends on the runways. Lou Dalton is a fixed part of the fashion show cycle. For the past decade she has managed to seamlessly combine tradition and presence in her clothing designs.
2 days after her presentation for Spring/Summer 2019, we met in her studio to talk about the TV show This Is Your Life that inspired her, Lou's work experience, Fashion Week and, of course, menswear.
Lou Dalton's studio is located in a residential area in the North of London. After using the lion head door knocker, I'm greeted warmly by Lou's studio manager Amy. Her team is still busy with the follow-up work of the presentation. Lou emerges from the staircase that’s located in the middle of the studio. After briefly reviewing her presentation and going through the clothing, we sit down in her office. Amy comes in to give me a cup of tea.
Apart from several emails and our meeting at the show, this is the first time Lou and I had the opportunity for a longer personal talk. Even though she now lives in London, she originally hails from Shropshire. Her parents were always working, and she spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who owned a farm there. 'She always used to have pretty much a hat and a shoe for every day of the week, and every week she would wear her Sunday best to church. I think that my first insight into clothing', recalls Lou.
A short while later, the idea that you could be yourself and express yourself through clothes came when she was around 12 years old, sitting on the sofa and watching TV before going to bed. 'There used to be a TV programme called This Is Your Life with Amon Holmes. He would surprise a celebrity and say, "Tonight, this is your life" and then tell the audience all about the person’s life, how they grew up, their life story, and so on.' Lou tells me that once, a womenswear designer called Zandra Rhodes came on. 'She was just so flamboyant with her colourful outfit and this amazing pigment under her eyes, which she still wears today. Seeing this, I just thought I wanted to be Zandra Rhodes and I wanted to be in fashion.'
Fast-forward 6 years. Lou had just finished her final year at school and had 2 opportunities: going onto further education or taking up a job. She didn’t like school and wasn’t a great scholar, but the subjects she did enjoy were textiles and art. An opportunity came up through a government incentive, where companies offered a work space for a school leaver for minimum wage ('It was ridiculous, something like 35 pounds a week!'). So, Lou's art teacher recommended her to a local tailor who specialised in shooting breeches and jackets for the local gentry. Fortunately, Lou prevailed over one of her classmates and got the job.
In the following weeks, she not only learned the craft, but also noticed that she was good at it. 'Most go into the design side and then into the construction. I went into construction and pattern cutting first.' The apprenticeship came to an end. Lou's close friends were either working and being rebellious, or were hardcore scholars. Lou wanted to live on her own terms and not be told what to do.
Her time at the tailor Arthur Pardington opened up new fields of interest and possibilities. 'I started to become more and more fascinated by construction and the design and history of what we were making in terms of shooting breeches and traditional sports wear. I started to think about how I could explore this in more detail and take up a career in fashion.' From then on, she was on a mission. After a failed university application, she chose to get a higher national diploma, worked hard, and was accepted straight into the Royal College of Arts after achieving the qualification.
Since Lou Dalton solely creates menswear, I ask her if she was interested in extending her scope when taking off to university. 'I applied there purely to do menswear, because of having that foundation from so early on, where I was only ever exposed to that, even though I would flip through a Vogue in the reception area of the doctor's every once in a while.'
The combination of university, placements, and connecting with people got her a job as a sample machinist for a Japanese company, and a short time later, it brought her to Italy, where she worked for Stone Island and Cerruti. 'When I graduated, the first thing on my agenda was to get as much experience as possible.'
Due to her wide variety of interests, she consults and collaborates with other fashion brands to this day. 'I'm used doing that, and it’s fine, but I like being hands on. That’s the vision with my own brand, where I want to see it come true from start to finish. It’s good sometimes not having somebody else doing it for you. Especially when you are repositioning yourself, when you’re starting from scratch and you’re building on the core. Then it’s important to reflect about what we’re doing and if this is the right way. I can only answer these questions if I’m heavily involved.'
Being heavily involved also means working closely with local manufacturers. From the beginning of her label, before the word 'sustainability' made its debut in the context of fashion, she produced her clothes in England. 'I come from that, that's my DNA, my foundation. I can count on one hand where we're getting the cloth from. It’s coming from 2 mills, and that’s it. It’s really straight-forward, and it's about being mindful about your footprint. Lou Dalton is a contemporary menswear label that’s made in the UK. It's made with some of the most amazing UK manufacturer labels that have manufacturing facilities here in the UK, which allows me to promote the carbon footprint that I’m trying to maintain and also the sustainability behind it.' I couldn’t phrase it any better, and in the light of her experience, that’s exactly why Lou Dalton is so special in this day and age, in a nutshell.
As we're sipping our tea, the conversation shifts to the present and, of course, to the recent Fashion Week. As Lou has been around and has seen a lot during the past decade, I’m curious about what she has to say about the current state of menswear. 'London Men’s Fashion Week was a great initiative, but there were fewer people involved, fewer people wanting to launch their labels', she says, after taking a moment to reflect. 'What is concerning is that a lot of kids come out of university wanting to start up a label instead of working towards gaining as much industry experience as possible. Within fashion there are so many roles to be covered other than design – it’s not as simple as that.'
Almost exactly two years ago on this very same day, it was announced after a referendum that the UK will be leaving the European Union. 'I think now with Brexit upon us, there’s great uncertainty and people’s buying habits have changed a lot. Designers are struggling, they’ve always struggled but it’s more difficult now. Labels change the wheel every season, it’s quite disruptive and hard for people to see where we’re going with this.'
It becomes clear that Lou has a bigger picture in mind regarding her own label. 'I’ve really tried to think about it. I want the same but different every season. There has to be reason behind what you’re doing.' Her eyes shift towards the rail with the samples of the upcoming summer clothes. She stands up and grabs a bleached out denim jacket. 'This jacket was something I showed 5 years ago. It was a huge success, and it fits really beautifully with what we do now. So I added the blue as a new take, and that’s how it changed. There’s a story behind it to justify what we are doing, it’s not just a jacket, there’s something else about it.' Over the course of our conversation, the impression that Lou is a hard working person with a clear vision has strengthened.
Where would she go, if she had the possibility to take some time off and could choose a flight to anywhere? 'I was supposed to go to Brazil just 2 weeks before the presentation, but we had to cancel it because I had too much work on. Actually, I’d like anywhere where Justin [Lou's boyfriend] is, because our time is always so precious. At the moment, he is in Azerbaijan, so I would say there. But if I could go anywhere in the world on a whim, I'd like to do a road trip from San Francisco to LA.'