LONDON, United Kingdom — At age 21, John Skelton was sitting in the audience of Raf Simons’ Spring/Summer 2002 collection, and had a creative epiphany.
“It was at 9:30 pm in an old basketball court somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, and we all sat on benches facing inwards,” he remembers. “The music came on and everybody stood up and turned around. [It was] the best collection I have seen on the runway to this date. I sat there and I thought, ‘this is what I want to be involved in. What this guy is doing now is the best thing on the planet for me.’”
While Simons’ show was game-changing in many ways, for Skelton it marked the beginning of a professional journey that seems more the fulfillment of a vocation than a career choice. Today, more than a decade later, and after a series of career moves that have shaped his point of view, the tall, intense-looking man from the Northeastern tip of England is the visionary brains behind LN-CC, which in under three years has attracted a devotional following of customers and fashion fans from around the world.
Set in a cavernous set of rooms in the basement of a warehouse-like building in Dalston in East London, LN-CC is simultaneously refined and rough-hewn, a hidden sanctum for luxury products which stimulates the visual, aural, haptic and olfactory senses. It is, at once, the collective’s headquarters, a hangout for friends and a destination for experiential shopping. And in a digital twist that distinguishes it from other concept stores, LN-CC is run in tandem with an online store that is as meticulously curated as its concrete counterpart and which drives the vast majority of its revenues. Last year, this online success enabled Skelton and his partners to raise £2 million in investment to grow the business further.
Part of the company’s mystique and success, however, is that its concept cannot be replicated, as it is likely to have changed by the time it has been emulated. This unpredictability applies in particular to the store’s idiosyncratic buying strategy, which ensures that LN-CC is one of the few shopping venues where it is possible to find a genuinely new product, designer or aesthetic. At the moment, the store carries well-known labels such as Lanvin, Balenciaga and Givenchy alongside obscure Japanese streetwear brands, such as Sasquatchfabrix and nonnative. LN-CC also stocks an expertly edited selection of books and vinyl (both used and new, often rare), and the company just launched a music label.
But Skelton never set out to be a buyer. Rather, his profession is the natural corollary of a love affair with fashion that goes back to his adolescence.
“It sounds funny, but Middlesbrough, where I’m from, is a very style-conscious place,” he says. “It might not be as on-the-pulse as London is, but there is a real interest and thirst and need for product and music. So I grew up in an environment which had a very strong need for creativity. I just kind of knew that this was what I wanted to be doing.”
The teenaged Skelton shopped with his mother for brands like Westwood, Dries van Noten and Prada. He was 16 when he started working on the shop floor of the Strand, a fashion boutique in nearby Newcastle, ranked among the best for designer menswear outside of London, and known for stocking Dior Homme, Comme des Garçons and Maison Martin Margiela.
“I used to come in on a Friday and Saturday, when it was busy, to do as many sales as I could. I wanted to impress them so I found out as much as I possibly could about the product and harassed the boss to let me come to appointments, write up orders. I was ready to do anything. Even when I wasn’t working I was just absorbing information, using magazines — that’s when magazines were good — as my bible. I knew everything that was going on.”
Skelton’s initiative was quickly rewarded and he became the store’s main buyer, flying to Milan for buying appointments with Prada. It was on these trips that he made the contacts that would bring him to London and propel his career into a larger sphere of influence.
In 2001, at the age of 20, he received a call from Selfridges’ then head of menswear David Walker-Smith, who asked him to join their buying team. Skelton became the youngest person to fill that position in the department store’s history. “I am forever indebted to him for that because to have that exposure and that resource behind you at that age is invaluable,” he says.
Skelton stayed at Selfridges for two years before Harrods came calling. “I looked at what was happening at Harrods at the time, and it wasn’t very good, so I thought I can do better than this. And it was the best two years and extremely interesting for me. It’s a very corporate-run business; numbers-led rather than product-led, but I got an opportunity to shine for just that.”
Then, Skelton was offered the position of Creative Director at the e-commerce site Oki-ni, known for its collaborations with brands like Adidas and Levi’s. While the initial concept had been well-received, in recent years the company had lost some of its momentum. “Everybody said: ‘what are you doing leaving Harrods and essentially going to head up a sale website that is underperforming?’ But I wasn’t looking at that. I just saw the opportunity to make a difference.”
Skelton helped to redefine Oki-ni’s identity by adding established high-end luxury brands to the site’s sportswear offering. “At the time, in retail, you either had a designer section or you had a casual section and nobody was selling the brands that I was into online, labels like Rick Owens, Jil Sander, Margiela and Damir Doma. We were the first people to do that in a serious way in menswear.”
But Skelton quit Oki-ni in 2009 after management tried to interfere with buying decisions. “I had an amazing job, an amazing salary and an amazing deal. But the creative side of it was getting muddled and it hurt me. I knew I wasn’t going to compromise my expression, so I handed my notice on the sixth of January.”
The fact that Skelton remembers the date he resigned bespeaks the significance of his decision. “I was pretty scared. I had bills to pay, a mortgage, and all I could think is ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’”
While the decision was laced with anxiety and financial uncertainty, it opened the door for the gestation of LN-CC, which he says has become, in a way, what Oki-ni could have been. By 2010 Skelton had gathered a group of friends that became LN-CC’s founding partners, raised financing (“a really small investment from friends and family”) and leased a 6000-square-foot space in a former boxing gym.
Skelton and his partner Dan Mitchell traveled for three or four months. “We looked at every store in the world of note and nothing really moved us in a meaningful way.”
The idea for an entirely new kind of shop was soon born, a store that would be extraordinarily distinguished and utterly uncompromising, an environment created specifically around the most tightly curated selection of products conceivable, with a forest for an entrance.
So what exactly does Skelton do now?
As LN-CC’s creative director, Skelton is responsible for the overall public perception of LN-CC, and continues to have a say on every order that is placed. But as he trains a small team of young buyers, Skelton’s job increasingly consists of overseeing things and styling shoots. “I also work a lot with the marketing team about how we are perceived within the marketplace, deciding what we want and what we don’t want. I basically steer the product in the direction of the brand and then rein things in. So it’s about control, controlling where we are going.”
Along with Mitchell, most recently Skelton conceived the ‘evolution’ of its Dalston headquarters, the result of which was unveiled last week. The latest additions to the space are a cafe-cum-bar and a sleek accessories space whose spaceship look is in sharp contrast to the rough-hewn enchanted-forest feel of the store’s older spaces.
As for Skelton’s buying strategy, it seems to be as instinctual as every other aspect of the LNCC operation. “More than anything else, human beings feel. People respond to honesty, integrity and to things that are real. It’s the most basic rule of mankind,” he says.
To find product that excites him and resonates with LN-CC’s discerning clientele, Skelton constantly travels to the expected places (always Paris), and also to less expected climes which he declines to reveal. This approach also means that LN-CC product selection isn’t to everyone’s taste. But given the operation’s global reach through its e-commerce platform, the aggregated style tribe of customers who respond to Skelton and his team’s niche point of view is large enough to sustain and grow a business which turned over £7 million last year.
For any 17-year-olds who want to follow in his footsteps, Skelton’s advice is to not over-think things.
“Anything that makes an impact of any kind of cultural significance and has longevity does not come from “What do I want to be?” but rather from a natural expression of what you’re really into,” advises Skelton. “So I say ‘Stop thinking about wanting to be this or that and just go and do what makes you happy and you’ll end up in a place where you want to be. Just do what you want to do. Put in the work and opportunities will arise.”
“The other thing is you have to take those opportunities. Don’t worry about making a mistake, worry about missing an opportunity. If you excel at what you are doing, people will recognise it.”
In our series, The Creative Class, BoF highlights success stories, insights and advice from the most talented creatives working in fashion today.