Most fashion studios we visit are unassuming but, even then, Casely-Hayford’s North London studio is more unassuming than most.
From the outside, the building looks more like a JCB factory than a base of boundary-pushing fashion, yet inside everything is as you’d expect from the family-run affair. With father Joe and son Charlie upholding the creative side, and Maria (Joe’s wife and Charlie’s mother) running the business side, the tight-knit operation is the continuation of many generations of creative talent. In fact, as a family, the Casely-Hayfords first rose to prominence back in 1911, when Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford (Joe’s grandfather) became the first continental African to publish a novel, titled Ethiopia Unbound, in the English language.
Clearly, creative expression runs in the family.
After training on London's Savile Row in 1974, attending the Tailor and Cutter academy, followed by Central St Martins from 1975-79 and a one-year history of art course at the ICA, Joe Casely-Hayford started his collection in 1984. “I found a warehouse in Kings Street, SE1” he says. “It was full of Second World War tents and I took these tents, stripped them down and made clothes from them. Then we washed them industrially and sold them to shops like Joseph and Bloomingdales.”
Despite this, Joe's first formal collection wasn’t until 1986. Stretching across both mens and womenswear, the range garnered instant acclaim, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling him “one of London's most inventive new talents” in an article that same year. He even captured royal attention, with Princess Diana attending one of his shows.
But the Casely-Hayford label we know of today is a very different animal to the one Princess Diana experienced all those years ago – largely because it’s now a partnership. Relaunching in 2009, Joe brought his son Charlie into the fold as a fellow designer. Joe mentions a negative review that described the collection as a cacophony, stating that this was exactly their aim...
“It’s about the cacophony of being in London,” he says. “We try to convey a new kind of vision of London style.” But this vision wasn’t always understood. In fact, only recently have the pair earned serious critical acclaim. We asked if they'd seen a change in the reaction from the press.
“Since doing the show, there’s been a big change in terms of the reaction," Joe explains. "Prior to that, I think people found it difficult to understand what we were doing, because we’re unique, in that our collection combines sartorial and street, sport and avant garde. And, sometimes, when the clothes were seen on the rail, if journalists don’t really have the knowledge they can’t quite understand what we’re doing. But once we started conveying it on the runway, it soon became very clear.”
Charlie points out that Dover Street Market were amongst their first London stockists “We’ve been so grateful to them for supporting us. It got us to that point where other stores began to understand.”
One of the most crucial things to understand about Casely-Hayford is how important being in London is to them. It was a fundamental reason for them moving north away from Shoreditch, their previous studio home for nearly 25 years, to Seven Sisters.
“I think Shoreditch was becoming quite commercial” Joe says. “The local style is still very inspiring to us, but we felt that in Shoreditch things were evolving in a way that didn’t give us that inspiration.” One of the key elements for Casely-Hayford is the mixing of seemingly disparate parts of London style together. “For us it’s an advantage designing in London because of the social mix. It broadens your vision, but also allows you to maintain integrity and an identity.”
Another key component of Casely Hayford is their connection to music. “Music is a strong part of our brand DNA” says Charlie. That's evident in the fact the likes of Drake and Chris Brown wear Casely-Hayford today, “a lot of the time it’s them buying it through stores on their own,” says Charlie. “And that’s a great thing, when someone buys it on their own, because, obviously, these guys normally get everything for free!”
“What I think is exciting is that it not only appeals to rappers, but it also appeals to rock musicians," Joe notes. "There’s always kind of a broad spread, even though we’re making a very specific statement.” It's this specific statement that has been noticed by the music industry for decades, ever since Island Records hired Joe as a styling consultant in the ’80s. This led to Joe creating clothing for The Clash, as well as working with the likes of Lou Reed, Bobby Gillespie, U2 and Suede. Nowadays the music connection is carried out via their made-to-measure service, which has created suits for the likes of Raleigh Ritchie (who you’ll know as Grey Worm from Game of Thrones), Jack Garratt, Tinie Tempah and many others.
The fact that Casely-Hayford even have a made-to-measure service already makes them a relatively rare thing. In London, for a brand that specialises in casual wear to stray into the hallowed territory of the city's bespoke tailors is a bold move indeed. But manufacture has always been a strong point of the brand, and it's that which has seen them thrive.
In fact, more so than perhaps any other designer we’ve come across in the English capital, Casely-Hayford’s production is admired for its skill, craftsmaship and expertise. As it turns out, Joe notes that they specifically started this brand "with a view to [producing] 'Made in Japan' product."
"We felt that the Japanese have a unique sensibility," he explains. "Apart from the really high quality, they understand the cultural influences that need to be distilled and put into the end product. For example, if we wanted to make English suits we could’ve gone to Italy, but they would’ve looked like Italian suits. But working with the Japanese, they understand the elements that go into new English style, which enabled us to make a statement that reflects modern day English tailoring.”
The fact that the pair have to go all the way to Japan to achieve a sense of "Englishness" might seem strange to some. However, in the past English factories have had a reputation for being somewhat staid and resisting new ideas. But is there any truth to that?
“Yes, [they are] more staid," Joe concedes. "Traditionally, I’ve worked on Saville Row and the construction is much heavier and the idea of modernity may be locked into a vision of the ’90s or even the ’80s. We have to make a more contemporary statement with what we do.” But is it not possible to make those contemporary statements in British factories? “I don’t want to say it’s not possible, but it hasn’t been suitable for us so far.”
Yet, while they might have started out as a "Made in Japan" brand, the family Casely-Hayford take a globetrotting view to their production processes. Their aim is to find the best places all over the world. “Since we started we’ve tried to find the best factories for each product," Charlie states. "So, if we’re doing a heavy knit, then we’ll do it in Ireland.”
When asked about some of the newer techniques used at Casely-Hayford, Joe counters: “Sometimes it’s old. It’s forgotten. It’s not always going forward, but it’s really exciting to create something new through discovering traditional methods of construction. We work with some really good footwear companies; for example, we worked with a shoe company called Heinrich Dinkelacker in Hungary. They make these incredible handmade shoes which they’ve been making nonstop. They’d been in production for 50 years, and we worked with them to offer them a slightly new context. It just felt so vibrant.”
Speaking of context, we’d read about Joe Casely-Hayford’s previous gripes that, despite his well-proven standalone credentials, he’s sometimes been placed in the reductive "black designer" category. How did he feel about that?
“I was trying to make a new statement as a man in London and the things that I would see, conveying those things without being put into the very narrow confines of being called a 'Black Designer'.” He notes that now we’re in an age where he can post Ian Curtis on Instagram one day and Pusha T the next and people will understand both reference points.
“I just think we’re in a really different kind of climate, which enables a black designer to appreciate and express a diverse range of interests and influences [although] I think there are definitely still people who find it easier to compartmentalise and to say a black designer stands for 'this' or 'that’. I think we’re very much about breaking down those myths and stereotypes.”
This is where the changing values of menswear as a whole come in. As someone who’s been working to define his view of London for a while, we thought it only right to ask Joe what the difference is between conveying it then and now.
“It was a whole different landscape,” he says. “Obviously the internet has played a significant role in changing the way people see fashion. In those days there were cults, youth cults, which sometimes took one year, two years, three years to filter and travel across the water. You’d design something unique and individual and it’d stay within a small group of people for a longer period of time. As a designer, it gave you time to actually develop ideas. Whereas, today, if you have a good idea – especially in the current climate of ready-to-wear design – by the time the designer gets their stuff into the stores, the idea’s already been plundered and used by other so-called designers.”
Charlie notes that the shift in attitudes towards men’s fashion over the last four years has been so vast that people generally find it easier to digest. “There aren’t really barriers anymore,” he says. “I think too many brands are labelled with 'streetwear' and there needs to be almost a new vocabulary. People aren’t scared to experiment in that way anymore, as well with their own personal style. I think that’s why we’ve seen a rise in stores that have picked us up, because that is how a modern man dresses.”
Having focused on modernity his entire career, Joe also sees ideas that he once tried earlier come back round. “I’ve realised that a lot of the things I was doing previously, 20 years or so ago, have kind of fallen into place now” he says. During the conversation, He points out a review we wrote about a particular sweatshirt/shirt hybrid piece. “Actually, that particular garment, I found it in the archive,” Charlie says. “I was actually looking at it for the first time, so I was looking at it with fresh eyes and that gave it new meaning.” With Joe having kept the vast majority of what he’s made in a substantial archive, this kind of discovery is a regular occurrence for Charlie.
But it’s not all archive discoveries. Joe notes that Charlie’s main idea for last season was the ball gown. “I love the power, like the train on a wedding dress. It was more of a challenge to see if we could place that feminine aspect in a masculine environment and [have] it still work. So we appropriated the M65 and it was a really powerful statement.”
Charlie compares the long silhouette seen on a number of Casely-Hayford garments, including a calf-length MA-1 jacket, to the way a traditional suit adds power via shoulder pads. “When we see people in the street in those coats, you can see by the way it floats behind you and everyone takes notice. It’s very subtle but nice.”
Joe notes that, while they enjoy the avant garde, the clothes are made to be worn. “We like to make interesting but accessible clothes. Interesting on the runway, but you can wear them in your everyday life. I think a lot of young designers get caught up in the idea of making clothes for the runway and they don’t realise that there’s a different world out there.”
When we ask about dealing with a landscape where streetwear and sartorial worlds are closer than ever, Joe disagrees. “There will always be young people who want to dissociate themselves from the establishment to make contrary statements. They’ll always have to find new ways of making this statement. So, I think it doesn’t matter what kind of situation we’re in, there’ll always be that kind of conflict which is really exciting to us.”
Looking back, if there’s one word that comes up repeatedly during our conversation, it’s "statement." In the same way Joe's grandfather did all those years ago in his book, Ethiopia Unbound, it’s clear that bringing together seemingly disparate elements of culture and merging them into something unexpected is an important part of the Casely-Hayford DNA.
In Joe’s own words, “There are, obviously, so many tribes and so many different cultures, and we take elements of that to build a new kind of statement for London.”