Steven Stokey-Daley is a breakout fashion star in the making.
Not only was it revealed Wednesday that he has been shortlisted as one of the 20 semifinalists for this year’s LVMH Prize, his runway debut — an emotion-packed 30-minute long performance about coming of age and sexual awakening in a British public school setting, told by young actors from the National Youth Theatre in their own words — was arguably one of the most memorable shows last season in London.
Anna Wintour, global editorial director of Vogue, who only went to a handful of shows last London Fashion Week, stayed for almost an hour for the rehearsal — nearly unheard of.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Stokey-Daley told WWD in an interview ahead of the fall 2022 show of his namesake brand S.S. Daley on the first day of London Fashion Week. “It was quite surreal to be with that, but she was lovely. Very nice, actually. We had a really nice conversation about the show. She sat with us, watching the rehearsal. She is a theater person also. She’s very involved in it. So I think she was able to appreciate the fashion and theatre aspects of it.”
For this season, Stokey-Daley is set to present the collection in a “Downton Abbey” fashion, meaning that he will showcase new looks inspired by upstairs and downstairs lives — highlighting the class divide in British society — in a format that resembles both a traditional catwalk show and a full-on theater production.
“Last season with the boys when we did that, a lot of them said it was the most incredible experience of hard, because of the short-lived nature of the performance. It’s two weeks of rehearsal and one performance and that’s it. Whereas in theater, you get the chance to repeat and perfect and to carry on,” he explained.
“We’re not doing that this season, because it is a very different setup. This season is kind of an analysis of the idea of the British stately home. That sort of concept of upstairs and downstairs represents the different classes. Because of that, we have two sets of things happening simultaneously.
“We cast half of the show to be models and half of the show to be performers, specifically dancers. The challenge would be how do we put that into one space at one time, and I suppose that’s the fun bit, as it feels like a new thing to work on,” he added.
The clothes to be featured in the show will have “a slightly different tone” compared to the last collection, too, according to the designer.
“Up until now, it’s been quite light. Obviously, we have been referencing public school culture in the last two collections, we sort of wrapped that in a bow and moved on to the next narrative. The new collection will have a darker, more mature and developed tone,” he said.
Last season, through storytelling, he poetically showcased some lovely pieces that blended personal memory and traditional garments, like a trench with balloon sleeves; a suit that references rowing jackets; a pajama shirt printed with a pattern from Daley’s grandmother’s wallpaper, and a white vest inspired by men’s vintage bathing suits.
Stokey-Daley said he began to get into the idea of social class and the dress codes that come with it during his final year at the University of Westminster, where the fashion courses are taught on the Harrow campus in Northwest London.
“From our studio windows, we overlooked Harrow School, the second most expensive school in the country. I just remember feeling at that moment at ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this sort of thing before.’ It’s really odd to me, and I just looked at that continuously and carried on exploring those ideas, like what is considered traditional British, and how that has never impacted me or any of my family.
“I am not that person from the establishment. People have said to me ‘Why are you looking at this? Just stick to what you know.’ I feel like that’s kind of the reason why I’m looking at these things because that upper-class establishment culture is something that I have never really been privy to,” the designer explained.
As for why he chose to show the collections in such a choreographed way, it turned out that theater meant a lot to the Liverpool-born Stokey-Daley from a very young age.
His acting debut was in a Christmas play in school called “The Little Fir Tree,” in which he played the lead character and “sang a little solo.”
He later became a member of the National Youth Theater, but eventually decided that he might have a better shot in achieving great success as a fashion designer than as an actor.
“I kind of pigeon-holed most of my life to do that. When I veered off into a complete U-turn, it was quite a shock to some people. But yeah, that was my passion, and it is very nice that I can now translate that into what I’m doing now in fashion,” said Stokey-Daley, adding that he didn’t have any preexisting romantic idea of clothes or fashion before.
“I had a last-minute panic. It has something to do with inaccessibility in theater in some respects. When I researched it, I found it really interesting that almost all established British actors and actresses come from a private school background. Fashion felt like a more welcoming space, especially for a gay person,” he added.
His grandmother also played a key role in him choosing the fashion path.
“She worked in a clothing factory locally when she was a teenager and she was offered to take an apprenticeship in London. Her parents advised her against doing that and just said: ‘The best thing to do would be to settle down and just have kids.’ So she did that.
“She lived her life in ‘What if I did that and moved out of the local town’ sort of [mentality]. I think she lives vicariously through me now. She’s obsessed with everything I’m doing. So I guess she has always nudged me in that direction,” Stokey-Daley said.
He’d like to think that acting is a closed chapter for him at the moment, but he would like to “get back into it in some respects, even if it was like just in a light-hearted escape” from the fashion life at some point in the future.
Instead of show tunes, however, he puts on the greatest hits from Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Grace Jones when he works in his studio in Haggerston, East London, with the team.
“I’m not that far into the cliché,” Stokey-Daley protested.
When it comes to running a young brand, Stokey-Daley thinks that a proper direct-to-consumer business is imperative to maintaining a healthy cash flow.
Since 2020, he has been selling styles similar to those worn by Harry Styles in his music video “Golden,” including tailored wide-leg floral trousers, knitted tank tops, and one-of-a-kind shirts made with upcycled vintage embroidered tablecloths. Many of them are sold out days within of release.
“Having done both wholesale and direct-to-customer, I can’t see how one could survive without the other. They both very much support one another. I don’t understand how other young designers don’t have direct-to-customer channels. It’s the most efficient way of keeping a business in a position where it can sustain itself,” he said.
Stokey-Daley is also keen to explore collaboration opportunities, but he prefers to establish himself a little bit more first. He is also not in a rush to dress any members of the real elite society.
“I think it works best when you see my clothes on people who are very not of that world, and that’s kind of why it works,” he added.