Daniel W Fletcher: king of fashion’s scrap heap
Pouring a concrete floor in your kitchen is one of the more ambitious activities a rookie might attempt during a pandemic – especially when most people’s lockdown experiments have extended to dabbling in sourdough. “It was a terrible idea,” deadpans Daniel W Fletcher. “I didn’t buy enough concrete, so I poured one side one colour, the other side another colour, but I didn’t let it set properly before I put the resin on top, so now it’s a sticky mess with a rug over it.”
Luckily for Fletcher, his powers lie not in concrete masonry but in the fashion orbit, where he is one of the most resonant and popular designers to have come out of the UK in the past five years.
He was GQ’s 2020 breakthrough designer; one of Drapers’ 30 Under 30 in 2018; and a nominee for the prestigious 2017 LVMH Prize. He’s also a favoured designer of Harry Styles (the former One Direction pop star whose seal of approval saw Fletcher’s collection sell out in its first season). So Fletcher can perhaps be forgiven for a less than successful attempt at home improvement. In any case, another bright idea he had in lockdown has proved far more successful.
In March 2020, at the start of the first UK lockdown, Fletcher found himself in the same situation as many designers when his factories closed and he couldn’t buy the fabrics he needed to complete his collections. Rather than press pause – or worse, compromise with cheap, unsustainable fabrics – he started looking around to see what he already had: scraps of fabric left over from previous creations. It proved to be a lightbulb moment.
“I’ve always been trying to find ways to reduce the environmental impact and waste output and [even though] we use organic and recycled materials, there is always the problem of what you have left over after you cut out a pattern,” says the 30-year-old Cheshire-born designer on the phone from his east London studio. He set about incorporating them into his men’s – but increasingly unisex – designs, famed for their rakish, retro take on luxury. “We were playing around with loads of different quilting techniques with the tiniest scraps you can imagine – pieces that were, like, 1cm square!”
As well as making quilts and selling them on his website, his spring/summer 2021 edit, presented last summer, ended up being made from these patchworked fabrics. Vogue called them “terrific” and “representative of the in-built sustainable consciousness that young British designers are showing in today’s world”; while GQ praised “his keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude”. Additionally, he donated 10% of the proceeds to charities supporting communities suffering as a result of Covid-19 – organisations fighting for racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But Fletcher didn’t stop there.
“I really wanted to give people something to do at home,” he says. “[Quilting] is something that anyone can do with things you have lying around – an old bedsheet, a shirt, a tea towel.” Cue a smash-hit Instagram TV debut on the Guardian and Observer Fashion Instagram feed in March in which he deftly showed how to make a quilt from cut-off denim and shirts. Countless messages to Fletcher followed, with people sharing how they had applied his informal tutorial to not just blankets and bedspreads but headboards and customised jeans, too. “So many people did it at home,” he laughs. “It was crazy.”
It led to his current project, for which Fletcher and his team amassed bundles of fabric scraps for people to make their own quilted cushion during the current lockdown. Available for free on his website, they come with a step-by-step tutorial by the designer on how to make something sofa worthy. Buyer just pays postage.
“Some people don’t have access to scraps or have clothes they want to cut up, so we’ve been [collecting] scraps off the factory floor, even from other brands, and making up the bundles,” he explains. It’s suitable, he says, for everyone and should take between three to 10 hours. Do you have to be a sewing-machine whiz? “No!” he says. “That’s the beauty of it. For example, there’s an option to put a zip in, but that can be quite hard for a lot of people, so you can also do it with a fold-over finish. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible.”
As well as creating a bit of fun, the Central Saint Martins alumnus is tapping in to something larger: not only have handicrafts and DIY enjoyed a popular resurgence over the past 12 months, with people seeking out activities that provide calm “me time”, but quilting in particular has long been linked with positive mental health.
A paper published in the Journal of Public Health in 2011, titled “The Relationship Between Quilting and Wellbeing”, stated that after interviewing 29 women from a quilting group, “Cognitive, emotional and social processes were uncovered, which participants identified as important for their wellbeing.” In addition to the strong social network an activity like that created, it noted that “affirmation from others boosted self-esteem and increased motivation for skill development”.
With his factories closed, Fletcher reached out to the seamstresses he usually employs to assist him with his quilting project. “A lot of them had kids and had to be at home, so I said: ‘Look, I can send you the fabrics and you can do it yourself rather than from the factory,’ which really made sense as these patchwork pieces are so intricate. It meant that they were supported throughout the pandemic and we were still able to show a collection.”
Being able to adapt quickly and do things this way meant that Fletcher’s was the only brand to have a physical collection of clothes to show at the June London Fashion Week men’s showcase. Other brands presented a digital offering, if at all. “A lot of brands skipped June and moved to September,” he says. “But we only did 12 looks for that collection, which makes total sense for the time that we’re in.”
While the usual fashion industry formula of 40-plus piece collections – shown two to four times a year, six months ahead of when the clothes are for sale – works for the big fashion houses, Fletcher, like a lot of his independent contemporaries, developed a more individual approach to future proofing.
“I think the fashion schedule is quite old fashioned,” says Fletcher, who cut his teeth at Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Victoria Beckham and Burberry before establishing his eponymous label in 2015. “A lot of young designers often feel the need to compete with these big Paris houses when their business model is completely different to ours. Why are we trying to compete and have a huge fashion show every six months on a fashion-week calendar when you can do far more interesting things that are relevant to your brand and your customer and make sense for the size of your business?”
Fletcher’s grand plan now includes a new, made-to-order service; condensed see-now, buy-now collections; small events; and meaningful partnerships with retailers. All this is in addition to a role over the past year that’s seen him breathing new life into the legendary Italian brand Fiorucci, as its artistic director. “There’s so much heritage there. When the opportunity came up, I knew there was the potential to do something special.”
He’s also been involved in a collection launch on Net-a-Porter and had a stint on TV’s Next in Fashion. The Alexa Chung and Tan France-fronted Netflix show saw Fletcher join 17 other designers in competing for a $250,000 prize – a bold and nerve-racking move for someone who already had a successful brand.
“Oh my God, I was shitting myself,” he laughs. “I was thinking, ‘What if I go there and destroy the reputation I worked really hard for?’” The show proved to be a hit, with Fletcher taking second place and winning fans across the world. “In the end, it reminded me why I started doing what I do in the first place. Now it’s rare for me to be able to sit behind a sewing machine because there’s so much business to take care of. It gave me that renewed energy.”
It’s energy he hopes to pass on through his endeavours this year. As well as his cushion and quilting projects, Fletcher has been meeting weekly over Zoom to mentor an aspiring fashion designer who has lived her life in the care system, something he says he finds more rewarding than winning accolades – and certainly any form of self-imposed DIY. “It’s so nice to know that people like what I do… but it’s a luxury that my career has afforded me the opportunity to help people grow.”
Perfect concrete floors don’t matter so much when you’ve laid foundations as strong as Fletcher has.