View all LONDON CREATORS in Issue L

An interview wit Lou Dalton

We have visited Lou Dalton in her picturesque studio, located in an astonishing old pub building. Upon arriving, the windows, covered in patterns to shield of the sun, assured us that we were at the right place. Once entering the imposing design space, we asked the dazzling menswear designer about her early beginnings, inspirations and future plans. Lou Dalton gave us an exclusive interview, explaining her great passion for menswear and why she thinks of herself as a survivor of the creative industry. 

Tell us about your first experience with design and how you got into fashion?
I left school when I was sixteen to work for a bespoke tailor in Shropshire. I was always interested in fashion. I remember watching a television programme, ‘This is your life’, which focused on one particular celebrity, and that celebrity at that time was Zandra Rhodes. I remember I must have been about 10 years old and they were talking her through her life and she had this amazing pigment on her eyes. Her life looked fantastic and I thought, oh, I want to do what she does, it’s so exciting. At the same time, I’d watched my grandma who always knitted, as did my mother, and my auntie was also a dressmaker. After a while an opportunity came up at school to take an apprenticeship with a bespoke tailor and I really wanted to leave school at that time. I took the opportunity and became an apprenticeship for a tailor called Hardy Clothing. We made shooting attire, such as shooting brooches, and sports jackets for Purdey and Sons (which is located on Mount Street). Three years after enrolling into this apprenticeship I had two sets of friends: one closer set of friends that were always out for a night, being quite rebellious, and another set of friends that were intensely into their education and following the academic path. In the end, I kind of leaned more towards that latter group of friends. There was this excitement of possibly moving away from home; that I could set my own agenda and  further my thought process, and so forth. So, eventually, through the support of a very dear friend back in Shropshire, I enrolled into a Btec National in Staffordshire, meaning I moved away from home. Years later, I ended up at the Royal College of Art and graduated in 1998 with a master in menswear. It was always menswear for me. Even when I started working for the tailor, it was menswear, because that’s all I was exposed to and I really resonated to it.

It’s quite a brave move to leave this certain path you had and go straight into menswear. I personally think there is no better education you can get than doing an apprenticeship - what were those early days like? 
Well, when you leave school at 16 you are forced to go to school, otherwise your parents would get into trouble with the law - so, of course, you don’t have that freedom of choice and school can be the most amazing or most appalling place in terms of your experience. I had a 50/50 love, hate with it. I was bullied by a so-called ‘friend’ throughout a lot of my time at school, but then I also had great experiences with my textile tutor and my art tutor. At that time the UK government ran a youth training scheme and encouraged businesses to take on school leavers, like myself, train them up and put them to use wihtin the company. For me, it was a form of escapism, and I felt like I was heading in a driection I wanted my career path to lead. I felt like, “okay, I’m going go ahead and, okay, I’m going to earn something ridiculous like 35 Pounds a week but I am going to learn the trade” So it was great I learned to sew in that environment and that was one of the biggest bonuses and a string to my bow, if you like. The only downside was that I wasn’t initially exposed to the creative side, so that was why, in the end, I chose to go back into education. I wanted to gain the understanding of taking an idea and evolving it into product, into a collection and just being really experimental and not so rigid in terms of construction. 

But it must be great to have that technical background?
Yeah, the technical background is something that stayed with me throughout my career. I’m quite fastidious when it comes to manufacturing; I’m obsessed with cut and finish, regardless of the price point, because ultimately I think construction is key to good design. 

Before you even started Lou Dalton, you were consulting for a lot of different brands, and it is quite a varied group of brands, United Arrows, Iceberg and Stone Island. How do you think your consultation experiences with these brands impacted your own brand?
When I graduated from the Royal College of Art it was a very different time than right now. Us kids coming out of university at that time had no interest in setting up our own business; our aim was to get a job in the industry, learn as much as we possibly could, and let that take you through your career. So I had this attitude when I graduated that I was absolutely adamant I would never be unemployed. I was fortunate to have become very good friends with a student who was in the year above me at RCA. She had taken on by a fashion house in Italy and they needed a junior designer. I graduted on the Friday and by Monday I was in Italy - it was quite bonkers!
A lot wasn’t just based on my work - it was the fact that I could communicate and I got on particularly well with the person I was assisting. All those things are really important and relvant to design practice; It’s not just what you can put on paper, it’s being able to communicate.  So I started assisting and doing design research for Iceberg and Stone Island. I met Paul Harvey, who was the Head of Menswear at Stone Island, who showed me the Massimo Osti archives, which it was phenomenal. I exposed myself to all kinds of people and design. I had also done a placement for a Japanese design studio based in the UK, who had worked on collections for United Arrows, Beams, Ships and more. I helped them whenever they needed support and soon they were looking for a junior designer in London. So I returned to the UK and got that role. The collections were predominantly made in the UK so I would have to travel the British isle looking at all these different factories. I was able to build a portfolio of manufacturers and that helped me when I started Lou Dalton. Through all of this I had the bricks and water, the initial structure, to go ahead and say ‘Okay, I’m gonna design this and this factory is gonna make it’. Because I had the construction background, I understood what they needed to do and was able to translate my ideas quite clearly to a factory, saving time and money. I think it is incredibly important that a graduate goes out and gets a job in the industry because, when you work for yourself, it is a very different order of things than when you’re working for a company. You really need to have that discipline.

How do you think your brand has changed since your first collection in 2009? 
An awful lot. When we first kicked off Lou Dalton we started to get support from the British Fashion Council, as there was less of us kids coming out of institutes and starting our own businesses. The industry has changed - I mean, you can ride that wave of popularity when the press is supporting you, but, ultimately it’s the consumer that needs to get behind the product, unless it’s worthless and becomes a vanity project. We did ride that wave of popularity and had a really good run of it. But, you know, sometimes you out-price your collection;  You’re selling your wares at £1200 a jacket but, when you're not an advertising brand, how can you expect any bloke on the street to come in and spend so much when he doesn't know anything about you. In the end you start to really, really think and you start to question whether you should continue doing this, or whether you should take an opportunity of working for somebody else. Eventually you start to really look at your core product and what you are doing. The last two seasons we very much have done that and it’s very focused now.

Would you ever go into womenswear, would you ever expand to that? 
No, I remember once we were asked by an agent, who we were working with at that time, if we would just offer some shirts that we had produced for menswear in female sizes. It was a pricey experiment, if I am honest, because the shirts had to be beautifully made and the orders that we have received from the womenswear side of it did not work with the development. I’ve always been really clear that I’m a menswear designer; that’s all I know and I know it very well. I think I would do an injustice to womenswear if I tried. I think if you have people like Simone Rocher, Christopher Kane, who are doing such a fantastic job; It’s their thing and not my area. 

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but where do you usually draw inspiration from for your collections? 
This is always really personal. We talk about how times change and how you and your business evolves, which, of course, has an impact on you, your development and what inspires you.  What has politically happened in this country and globally can’t help but affect your point of view. I'm also inspired by my upbringing, which was very working class. But despite having a personal narrative, I don’t necessarily want the consumer to carry the weight. I want them to be energised and feel good when wearing Lou Dalton. 

Congratulations on launching your e-store last year. What has the reception been like? Do you see your brand moving into a more digital direction ? 
I have a love-hate relationship with the e-store if I’m honest. You have to put a lot of time and money in to get the return. For us, we want to use it more as a special project - kind of like a magazine format. We want it be more informative of who we are, what were doing and who were are working with, like when we teamed up with John Booth last season and created hand-painted shirts. We can also  support stores wanting to sell our product in other countries. It certainly helps if you’re not sold in a particular place or country that they could go online and buy them there. So, we’re in the process of working out the logistics.

Speaking of John Booth, you’ve had quite a few high profile collaborations, John Smedley, Topman, Walmart, again quite a broad range of collaborators, how do you go about choosing the right partners? 
I was actually saying to somebody the other day, that I am very focussed on us not doing something just for the money. John Smedley is an ongoing relationship, which I am very proud and passionate about. I approached John Smedley many, many moons back but nothing came about. Then they had this amazing initiative where they were wanting to support British manufacturing and I was producing all of my knitwear off shore. It was simply an amazing chance and both parties have been happy with the outcome. I’m very conscious of whoever I work with. Often there is a need by designers when you're in a desperate place, when you know the wolf is out the door, you need to pay your debts, you need to keep going, that you become really hungry you take anything regardless of the outcome. I’ve never been in that state. I am very protective over the association and over the integrity when it comes to Lou Dalton. Topman, for instance - I’ve known Gordon Richardson for many, many years, and they have always been supportive of me. I have full respect with the team - what they've been doing and where they are going. I’m very focussed on it being right for us and what we do. 

So what are you working on now? 
Well, as you know, we have just finished Spring/ Summer 18, which was really well received, we are just doing the wholesale for that. I will continue the collaboration with John Smedley, and we have another couple of collaborations in the wing for A/W18; Two are with accessories brands and one is with a renowned luggage company. I will continue working with John Booth, because that’s just a natural progression. 

How do you think creators like yourself are changing the London fashion scene? 
I think the UK and London, in particular, has always embraced creativity. It’s a fantastic place to study and it’s renowned for its art schools. Creatives need to be tough and may need to diversify, to find a way to keep going. Design is not for the lighthearted. Being creative and successful - and when I say successful, I mean being able to continue. Just being able to get up and do this is a form of success. It takes a lot. There are a lot of issues that go with this job and it takes a lot of stamina to be able to break through and still be creative. There are pockets of individuals that get caught up in the system and, at some point, it might backfire and there's no longevity. Then there are those that are survivors, and I’d like to think I was a survivor. I was very adamant from day one. I always though that if I was going to do it, I was going all out to do it.


Portraits by Curtis Gibson

Words by Hannah Tan