Of the side hustles you might expect from a rapper and grime artist, a talent for embroidery is not the first that springs to mind.
But with his first catwalk show on Saturday, the Mercury prize-winning British musician and producer Skepta showed that his Mains brand has something different to offer than the gold-teeth-big-logo cliches of rapper style. A bomber jacket in ivory bouclé tweed – a fabric that speaks the catwalk language of Chanel, not of streetwear – was embellished with the letter M, hand-embroidered in glass and crystal beads by the creative director himself.
At an art deco banking hall dressed for the night as a tennis club, with Stormzy, Louis Theroux and Naomi Campbell in the front row, Skepta’s aesthetic referenced the feelgood American sportswear heritage of Ralph Lauren. Think Miami Vice-esque Cuban-collared shirts and luxe tennis racket bags; preppy white piping against navy and wide rugby-shirt styled stripes on knitwear. Tracksuits had a slender, sophisticated silhouette that hinted at John McEnroe in his Sergio Tacchini-clad heyday. “Tracksuits are part of the London fashion DNA,” Skepta said before the show. “But I want to make tracksuits that will still be around in vintage stores in the future.”
The 40-year-old is one of a new wave of figures who lead design studios without traditional training. This year, Louis Vuitton raised eyebrows with the appointment of Pharrell Williams as creative director of menswear. “How it works is that the pieces are fantasy and magic in my head, and then Mikey [Pearce, head designer] and Johnson [Orchid, head graphic designer] articulate them so that they makes sense as garments,” says the designer, who names Virgil Abloh, Alexander McQueen, Martine Rose and Daniel Lee as his fashion heroes. A fantasy skyscape melding Ocean Drive with Manhattan, sketched on paper by Skepta, appeared on the catwalk reproduced in white stitched embroidery on a denim suit.
“You know what? Turns out I love fabric shopping,” says Skepta. “With anything in my life, if I’m in the room I want to be hands on.” Pearce describes his boss as “an encyclopedia of fashion. His knowledge blows me away. He can talk about a 90s Moschino look, the cut of a Marni sweater. I think that to be a good creative director you need a vision, and the ability to make clear decisions. Having a knowledge of fashion is more important than being able to pattern cut or use a sewing machine.”
There were musical references, as well as fashion ones. Tupac’s leather vest was reimagined in indigo denim, his oversized cap in soft felt, and his mugshot reproduced as an intarsia knit on a sweater. At the end of the show, Pearce and Johnson joined Skepta and his four-year-old daughter, River, on the catwalk to take a bow.
Mains was first launched in 2017, but entered a four-year hiatus because “we got ourselves in a bad situation with a company we were working with”, Skepta said. The revival was originally intended as a drop of one perfect denim suit, but the vision kept on expanding until it became a full collection – and Skepta’s first catwalk show. “Doing a show elevates everything,” says Johnson. “A show needs flair, it needs pizzazz, it needs chic. That comes from the music as well as the clothes. The running order is set to three tracks, so music defines the shape of the show. It’s the music that brings the goosebumps.”
Skepta, who has featured on GQ magazine’s Best Dressed list, has vivid memories of Karl Lagerfeld’s catwalk theatrics – he was in the front row at the Chanel show in 2017 when a rocket launched within the Grand Palais – but feels that “the fashion show has been in decline for a minute now. It shouldn’t be about what celebrities and influencers turn up. That’s just clickbait. A show should be an immersive experience. At Chanel, the women would walk to the end of the catwalk, spin around, pout – and a lot of that has just gone.”
Talking to the Guardian at his studio three days before the show, Skepta admitted that the hectic timings of fashion week, in which clothes are sometimes still being made backstage while guests are being seated, was “bringing me a bit of anxiety. I mean, I would never plan a music show like this. It would never be like, I’m doing a set in three days and I haven’t written all the songs yet, that wouldn’t happen. But there are clothes that I haven’t touched physically, that we are banking on being in the show in three days’ time. That doesn’t make any sense to my brain.”