In only a couple of years of its existence, LN-CC, the London multiple-brand boutique has gone from an open secret of the fashion cognoscenti to a major player whose business model is quickly being imitated by other shops. John Skelton, the store’s co-founder and creative director, has played a major role in its meteoric rise. I recently caught up with him in London to talk shop…
– You’ve just come back from scouting for new designers in Poland. How was it?
⁃ There are interesting things happening there, foodwise and otherwise, but when it comes to fashion the product is still very young and underdeveloped, to be honest.
I don’t want to be detrimental about anything, don’t want to say what’s good and what’s bad, but what we found there was really costume-like, whereas we were hoping to find some raw industrial energy like, say, that of Gosha’s [Rubchinsky].
⁃ It must be difficult to do what you do – trying to find young fresh talent, while not lowering your high product standards.
⁃ Yes, and in that sense fashion is very different from, say, music. You get incredible tracks that people with no money and no name make in their bedrooms, but you cannot really make an incredible collection in your bedroom.
⁃ Fashion, unlike music, is right in the middle between material and immaterial production: it’s as much about ideas as it is about physical product.
⁃ And this is why young designers can never compete with big brands – the quality is never that good, the fit isn’t right. In fashion, having the backing of a production facility makes a real difference. Sometimes you get the odd youngster who has access to really good production – like Yang Li who uses Prada’s manufacturers – but it is very rare.
⁃ Speaking about ‘youngsters’ who make remarkable product: what happened to Tze Goh – you don’t stock him anymore?
⁃ Sometimes the product is not developed enough for the customer, and with Tze it was the customer who was not developed enough for the product. People who paid for it and own it will have it forever and ever; it’s so real, it makes mainline product look shoddy – it’s that good! Probably the best product we’ve ever had. But it’s too advanced, too good for the normal person. Tze was really pushing the envelope. He’s more of an artist: he created something so specific that only a handful of people in the world would understand and wear. And then, his stuff is so delicate, it is sometimes difficult to care for.
⁃ I often ask myself if garments really fulfill their raison d’etre only when worn – only when referring to a body. Things like those Tze makes could be admired solely for their aesthetic and symbolic properties, like sculptures or paintings. Why are there so few clothing collectors around?
⁃ The problem is, people who buy a lot of clothes are generally very wealthy but they won’t necessarily buy clothes they want to keep and just stare at. And for someone who is really into clothes but isn’t super rich it’s not really an option financially, to collect things that retail at £1500 – this is why record or book collections are much more usual.
Great clothes are expensive, precisely because of that ‘material production’ aspect. Even in places like Japan where you expect people to have serious archives there’s not much of a clothes collecting culture – I spoke to some journalists who were doing a book on it: they went out and saw some people’s collections and they weren’t all that impressive. They’d have maybe 30 pieces, good pieces, but you couldn’t call it a real archive.
Having said that, I am a clothes collector – I do buy stuff just to put it away. It all started when I was 15 and began buying Raf and never stopped – I owned about 300 pieces at some point. Then I started collecting Damir and amassed around 180 pieces since he started in 2008.
⁃ Let’s talk a bit about Raf: in most of your interviews you go on about how he was a real inspiration to you. So what did you think of what he did for Dior?
⁃ I think it’s unbelievable – especially the first RTW show. The last two, couture and ready-to-wear, were stunning, elegant, but the first was a lot more advanced – these tailoring shapes with silky sheeny, on-the-edge fabrics, with a masculine flavour but very feminine – that was really pushing it forward.
⁃ And that was the show he got totally lambasted for.
⁃ Yes – and when you see what Hedi did for Saint Laurent and all the hype he got for that… I know we work in a very subjective field, and I think it’s all about what train you’re on, and the press is on a ‘rough’ train at the moment so they’re all saluting Hedi.
From a product enthusiast point of view I cannot see why what’s happening at Saint Laurent is better than what’s happening at Dior, as Dior is streets ahead…
Yet I can very well remember that real rage of excitement I had the first time Hedi put down checked shirts and ragged denim at Dior – it was 2001. He got tortured, the press hated it, no one was on it. I remember all these grungy kids in super skinny jeans, and people were coming out of the show like [with a mock posh accent] ‘I can’t believe he put bloody denim on the runway, this is the House of Dior!’
But soon they figured this was what was happening. It changed 00s as far as menswear, and it’s very much still the aesthetic of Dior man’s look now; and it’s what Hedi still does now, only for women – but it’s been 12 years!..
Raf, on the contrary, has always been moving around – one minute it’s street influenced, the next it’s sleek tailoring. And for me, the genius is in this movement.
⁃ So was Raf your first love in fashion?
⁃ My first passion was actually Prada, when I was 15-16 – it was super tailored, techno stretch, colours like plums, navys, beiges. When I grew up in Northeast England no one was wearing that.
⁃ So how did you do your research in mid 90s in North East England? Internet wasn’t really a big thing then.
⁃ I didn’t know anything about the Internet. What interested me was the people around me. I had a friend 6 years older than me, and he was really into Westwood… Then I went to work for a store on the weekends, they were selling Prada, Raf, Dries, Comme, it was a really good store.
Again, there were interesting people working there, and once you get to know the people you realize who is REALLY into fashion.
And the magazines were my bible, I was buying them every week – i-D, Face, etc. – reading them inside out.
After a year or two I moved to Newcastle and worked for a bigger shop, and associated with a guy there. So there were two inspirations – magazines and people.
⁃ Was it OK to be a bloke who’s into fashion, in the mid-90s in the Northeast?
⁃ In Newcastle it was, in Sunderland too. It’s an interesting setup there, they’re not all ‘manly’ men; there was a big ‘posers’ scene – your hair always needs to be good, that kind of thing.
The Northeast has got that pocket of music and fashion, there’s a real thirst for the arts. What you have to remember as well is that people who live in a small town and have taste might not want to move, say, to London – they’d rather make it in their town. The stores I worked for in Middlesborough and Newcastle, these guys really went out on a limb, they were proud to bring Prada to their hometown.
⁃ Did you always know you wanted to open a store?
⁃ I’d always said I wanted to become the creative director of something. After I left Harrods I got that with Oki-ni and I really enjoyed it – it was still a store but I wasn’t just buying for it, I was responsible for everything. But then I realized I’m not that good with certain things like look and feel, detail, environment, graphics etc. I’m not even into home – my house isn’t an amazing spectacle…
⁃ No?! That’s precisely how I imagined it!
⁃ No, it’s just where I live and keep my clothes. Luckily I realized it quickly: I’m not an in-and-out creative – I’m just really into product. So when we started LN-CC I got friends and partners involved so we split it – I take care of the product, Dan is more about the environment and how the website looks, and so on.
Successful people are good at understanding what needs to be done and putting the right people in the right jobs. That’s something I didn’t get before; I thought it was about being that all-round creative, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in having a well-rounded offer, and it doesn’t matter who does what.
So no, I never wanted to have my own shop or even be a buyer, I was just into clothes. It’s very simple to notice when somebody is really into something.
⁃ And – I’m sure you’ve been asked that before – have you ever thought of doing your own collection?
⁃ No, I don’t think I’m a designer. I’m in tune with the flow but I don’t think I could create the flow.
If you put a garment it in front of me I know if it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but the thing about designing is that it’s not about ‘What’s going to happen next?’, it’s about ‘What do I want to express?’
I’m much more of a collector – I express myself through finding things rather than creating things.
⁃ Before LN-CC you’ve always worked with menswear – in Triads, Strand, Harrods, Selfridges, Oki-ni. How was it to branch into womenswear?
⁃ Up until 5 years ago I wasn’t even particularly interested in women’s fashion. But then when you get to a level with something, where you really know something you still explore it but you realize you will never surprise yourself. And I got there with menswear – this is not to say I know menswear but I know my own perception of it, and it’s not going to change.
So I thought that if I managed to translate what I liked in menswear into womenswear it could be quite interesting. At first I thought the transition would be easy, but the more I discover womenswear the more i realize it’s not that straightforward.
Frankly, I think only now we are getting to a point where our women’s selection is as good. But I’ve learnt so much about myself and how I want a woman to look, as opposed to ‘what women want to wear’.
⁃ So how do you want her to look?
⁃ At first I tried to dress the girls like the guys, but I think it was just the state of the industry. At the time there was a lot of designers in a similar situation – with a strong menswear background and branching into womenswear for the first time: Damir, then Raf, Haider… So it was like, ‘let’s make womenswear more masculine’. Some stronger youngsters were pushing it, and it had a ripple effect. Never before has there been so much straight man influence on women’s fashion.
But I am not sure that’s the way to go: there’s a very fine line between looking like a guy and having a masculine influence. The gay man’s extreme interpretation of womenswear comes out as too effeminate, whereas a straight man’s interpretation may not be feminine enough…
⁃ Traditional ‘gendered’ femininity makes me think of trannies though. When I dress like that – heels, red lipstick and all – I feel like a transvestite, wearing a mask of femininity rather than projecting my natural femininity. Traditional femininity feels artificial – you could argue this artificiality is culturally determined.
⁃ Yes, and I think the world is just a much more realistic place at the moment, and men are naturally more realistic than women. But women’s fashion doesn’t need menswear to take it over, it needs some sympathetic understanding of a woman’s body, and a little hint of toughness. I think that’s where it’s at, that’s what’s happening in the right brands: Raf, Haider… Some other designers have played with sharp tailoring for a season or two but reverted to frilly, traditionally feminine styles again for FW13.
– They probably had big bad sales teams on their backs, saying ‘we’ve sold this dress really well so we need more of this next season’.
⁃ And this is an argument for what we do: it’s all a whole load of nonsense – how fashion gets contorted by the people who are actually not at all interested in the product. The designer wants to do one thing, the sales team wants another thing, the result is something in the middle that gets shown to the press and they make what they will out of it, but they never dare to criticize even if they don’t really like it so they water their criticism down to please the advertiser…
You gotta get on board and support people and say what you think. Look at Business Of Fashion – they run articles that can be classified as quite risque – you’ve only got to support those guys for bringing up real issues with real people. You’ve got to support the reality within the industry! All this sell-through report obsession – many stores indeed just buy what you guys bought last season, and this is stagnating fashion. We try to really get on board and break the mould.
⁃ But if something sold well last season, surely you will buy it again?
⁃ Never! We don’t take sell through information with us. We don’t write orders based on what we’ve sold. In fact, if we see something we sold well last season we skip it as we’ve already had it. We try be real and do really what we think, and to move constantly, because without movement none of it makes sense.