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Nicholas Daley’s new exhibition couldn’t have arrived at a more fitting time.

Return to Slygo, on show at Greenwich’s NOW Gallery from now through to the summer months, was initially planned to debut a little while back. However, in a week where the UK lockdown is easing and people are tentatively planning for a summer filled with music and family, Daley’s latest exhibition – a celebration of both – arrives in a timely manner.

Back in 2015, we described Leceister-born, London-based Daley as a “decidedly British designer” thanks to his proud embrace of the UK’s cultural history, musical lineage and eccentricity. It’s an embrace he presents wholeheartedly across Return to Slygo as he draws on his Jamaican-Scottish roots, his love for knitwear and texture, and his parents, Maureen and Jeffrey, and their pioneering Reggae Klub night – which was founded in the 70s, making it one of the first of its kind in Scotland.

Across the exhibition, Daley also demonstrates his prowess as a craftsmanship-led designer as he weaves diasporic influences together into a colourful, multi-sensory showcase of his artistic identity – with help from previous collaborators (Tilly Mint, Gaurab Thakali), musicians (Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia, Dennis Bovell, all of whom feature in the accompanying Return to Slygo film directed by Akinola Davies Jr) as well as Daley’s partner and NTS regular Nabihah Iqbal.

In its opening week, we catch up with Daley to find out more about his ideas behind the exhibition, the role music plays in his work and how he’s choosing to celebrate Black British identity.

© Charles Emerson

Why did now feel like a good time to embark on a project like this, and what was the inspiration behind it?

Return to Slygo is inspired by the three core values of my brand: community, craftsmanship and culture. It’s about my personal journey with the brand and how I’ve grown it each season, but also all the different artists, musicians and illustrators who I’ve worked with to create my vision and world. It’s about celebrating what they do, whilst exploring the bigger cultural landscape – British identity, multiculturalism, the Black British experience through sound system culture and music.

It’s inspired by my parents who are featured heavily, looking at the legacy of their love of music, through the reggae club they ran together back in the 70s, Reggae Klub, right through to the knitting and crocheting (which is a big part of my work). Overall, the inspiration comes from lots of different sources, but it’s one that reflects authenticity, ancestry, lineage – how the past informs me today. 

Let’s talk more about your parents. Tell us about their Reggae Klub nights and how their work has inspired you as a designer.

My parents ran a reggae club together called The Reggae Klub from 1978 to 1982. They did it for their love of music, reggae and sound system culture. They felt at the time that the space wasn’t heavily present within Scotland. They ran the club with a family friend from the Gambia called Count Ossie, doing these nights across Scotland. It was a lot of fun for them and it was something I wanted to pay homage to within the exhibition.  It was their love of music and sound system culture which I’ve continued within my own work, LFW shows and even now in this exhibition. 

My parents put on acts such as ASWAD, Misty and Roots and other amazing British roots reggae bands at the club. It’s the same thing I do at my shows; it’s about following that tradition as my parents did. But I guess I’m doing it in a slightly different way through the fashion context. But my shows and exhibitions, like this, are a great way to continue that process of paying homage to my parents, as well as bringing people together through music, videography and clothing. It’s very much about making this positive ecosystem which explores cultural identity, having fun and celebrating these elements.

“My shows and exhibitions are a great way to continue that process of paying homage to my parents, as well as bringing people together through music, videography and clothing”

What role does music play in the exhibition and who is involved? 

The role of music within Return to Slygo is very important. We have an interview playlist created by Nabihah Iqbal interviewing my parents [who are] talking about the key tracks and moments in their life when they ran Reggae Klub together. This will be playing within the exhibition, so people can listen to that whilst they walk around and have a narrative to the history of my family and their involvement within UK sound system culture.

This also continues through the Return to Slygo film directed by Akinola Davies Jr, which features Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia and Dennis Bovell who mixed and mastered the soundtrack. Roger Robinson, a T.S. Eliot spoken word prize-winning poet, also recites a specific piece for the film. The soundscape is as meticulously put together as the imagery and the storytelling. Vinyl sleeves from my parents’ archive from artists such as Culture and Jacob Miller are also showcased within the exhibition. They were really important tracks for my parents and something I listened to a lot growing up. They still feel as emotive and fresh today as they did then.

How about in your design work; what role does music play there?

Music has always been a big part of my work. I’ve had a great diverse community of artists at my LFW shows, from Mala right through to Zakia and Jon Rust, Bradley Zero, Touching Bass’ Errol and Alex. We’ve had live music such as Yussef Dayes, Mansur Brown, Shabaka Hutchings, Wu-Lu, Kwake Bass, Nubya Garcia, James Massiah – such a long list of people and amazing talented musicians, poets and artists who have all contributed either in the commissioned films or in past seasons, which are celebrated within the exhibition. The music is the heartbeat and the soul of the exhibition, and the reason I wanted to make sure it was featured heavily within it.

© Charles Emerson

How will you be infusing your vision as a designer into the exhibition?

Within the exhibition space we feature past season show videos as well as imagery from Bolade Banjo and Piczo featuring artists such as Obongjayar, Sons of Kemet, Goya, Rago Foot – the amazing breadth of talent we have here in the UK. There’s a feature film I mentioned. That’s very much the soul of the exhibition and a great piece to accompany the physical space. We also have A Knitted History which is a very different type of film that focuses on the connection of knitwear and crocheting within my family ancestry, and how I incorporate that in my work today. It’s an exploration of all those elements – from objects, items, stories and craft, from my parents to my ancestry, and how that is channelled into my own collections.

Tell us about the immersive, multi-sensory aspect. I read that there’s bespoke carpets and fabrics, plus family images and archive photos.

The exhibition was created to have a diverse and multi-sensory experience through lots of different textures, imagery and videography. We have the archive photos of my parents when they were running the club together; my dad’s military shirt and the Reggae Klub scarf and all the badges which were all part of what he’d wear when he was DJing in the 70s; through to pictures of my great grandmother and her knitting patterns, which is a big part of the craft and this sort of DIY aesthetic which comes from both sides of my family. 

The bespoke carpets were made by my mother’s knitting circle. They’re using upcycled yarns and materials to create these beautiful patchworked carpets which give the space rich colours and add a tactile dimension to the exhibition. We also feature artwork by Tilly Mint, who’s a great visual artist, [plus] illustrator Gaurab Thakali, who has created a crowd of collaborators of the gallery space which can be seen as you enter, featuring all the collaborators I’ve worked with over the last few seasons. Even the banners, which use the height of the NOW Gallery space, have all of the past season typography and iconography which Gaurab created. There’s [also] a nod to the carnival references with the sound system structure which is the anchor point in the centre of the exhibition with the films on one side and the archive imagery. 

© Piczo

Would you consider the project a celebration of what it means to be Black and British today? If so, does that feel particularly timely?

It is a celebration of British Black identity. but I also feel this is a part of British identity at large. Our story is everyone’s story. Obviously my parents – all the issues they’ve had being a mixed race couple, growing up in the Midlands, everything they taught me, and the issues I need to be aware of being a person of colour in the UK – is a big part of how I see things, how I want to change things, how I want to express my views and opinions on topics which affect us all. So yes, definitely this project is a celebration of multiculturalism and diversity.

Music, as I’ve touched on, is a big way to bring people together through all walks of life. Even down to the knitwear – seeing how the knitting and crocheting is created both from a West Indies culture and from my Scottish ancestry, and how both of those worlds have a long history together and how they’re mixed through my thought process, and the garments that I create. So hopefully it’s an exhibition that celebrates not just Black British history, but many other points which I feel really strongly about.

"This project is a celebration of multiculturalism and diversity"

© Piczo

Asides from the music and the visual elements, what else can we expect from the exhibition?

There’s the Return to Slygo zine created by Piczo, which we’ll be selling at NOW Gallery and on the Nicholas Daley eShop. Proceeds from the zine will go towards jazz musician charity Tomorrow’s Warriors, who have produced many of the collaborators who I’ve worked with such as Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Eddie Hick. The zine features stills from the film, capturing the Mitchell Family and their beautiful home, and documents the small details of the British Black experience through food, wallpaper, music, sound, imagery, styling. It’s such a nice way of capturing all these amazing details and reference points. 

What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition? 

I hope they come away with an idea of what the Nicholas Daley brand is and what I’m trying to celebrate. And find out about new artists, musicians, collaborators, illustrators. It’s coming at a time where we’ve had a lot of cultural hindrance due to lack of funding for the creative arts and the global pandemic, which has had a serious effect on our industries. I hope my exhibition is a place which can bring some new energy and allow people to re-engage with arts spaces. We’ve got some workshops as well as a closing party which we’re organising as a great way of bringing people together following a very difficult year. The main thing for me is that it’s a celebration of my work, the work of my collaborators, of British identity and culture. I hope people can react to that and take something from it.

Return to Slygo is open until 4 July at NOW Gallery. Admission is free.