Sadie Clayton

The inimitable fashion designer on innovation, representing a diverse vision of modern Britain and pushing the boundaries of design

In the history of style there are a handful of fashion designers whose work goes far beyond the parameters of attire and moves into the realm of high art; McQueen, Galliano and Gaultier being perhaps the most obvious of the avant-garde vanguard. However, it is worth noting that what those names share in common is the fact that their groundbreaking aesthetic provocations punctuated a very narrow and clearly delineated mainstream – theirs was a time that existed before the information avalanche and tortuous art directed hashtag distractions of the social media landscape. In the current paradigm, punctuating the dizzying multiplicity of cultural streams to genuinely stand apart and be noticed is no easy feat, which is why the British designer Sadie Clayton is a genuinely inspiring 21st century figure.

Born in Yorkshire to mixed race parents, Sadie is earmarked to become the Westwood of her generation. It is testament to her unique aesthetic that she was chosen by the Department of International Trade to represent Britain at this year’s AltaRoma festival in Rome, a distinctive niche in the fashion calendar presided over by the legendary Sylvia Venturini Fendi. It’s a hopeful sign in an era in which right-wing ideologies seem to be on the rise across Europe that the chosen representative of the UK is a plain-speaking, no-nonsense northern woman unafraid of challenging fashion industry clichés.

Suffice to say, her show at Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British Ambassador in Rome, celebrated profound diversity on the runway. A beautiful, striking black woman rolling down the runway in a wheelchair provided stark opposition to the more common albino-skinned waifs in the fashion firmament. Given her penchant for provocation and punk positivism, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that fashion is just one spark of Clayton’s fiery creative vision, and that her ambition is nothing short of boundless. We caught up with her after the show at Villa Wolkonsky to discuss her enthusiasm for conceptual innovation and to find out why fashion should be leading the charge for equality.

Was there any particular thing as a child that inspired you to want to create?

I grew up in a society where I was very much in a minority being mixed race. I looked very different to my friends, so had the choice to either follow cultural stereotypes or embrace who I was, have fun with it and take advantage of my cultural fusion. The decision to take the route of individuation began at a young age – I’d buy fabric from Ikea and make a dress by draping fabric on a mannequin, jazzing it up by adding buttons from my very large vintage buttons collection. Back then, as now, everybody wore the same clothes, and followed the same trends, but I wanted to wear avant-garde interesting clothing and create my own trends, so studying fashion and moving to London and creating my own label was a way to actualise this. I am a creative who is inspired by bringing vision to life first and foremost.

Why did you choose to work in copper and metals?

I always knew that I wanted to work with lots of different materials, not just fabrics, and metal was one of them – I was naturally drawn to the depth and richness of copper, and I love the way that copper can transform into a range of colours, oxidising into blues and greens, and as it ages it mellows. The core essence of my copper work is the creation of a beautiful piece of armour in a sense – something to protect and shield, and how I work the copper comes, for me, to reflect the texture of life. I have a very holistic approach to life, and copper is the element which brings not only health and good luck, but is symbolic of speed and technology and change, all concepts that inspire me.

Who has been your greatest inspiration from the world of art?

That’s hard to answer because I have some many favorite pieces – one of my favorite artists is Ron Arad, I tend to love whatever he produces, whether it be a chair, a hat or a structure in Kings Cross Station. I am also very inspired by sculptural genius of Rachel Whiteread, Barbara Hepworth and Anish Kapoor – artists who challenge the system and fight for change through creating beautiful thought provoking exhibitions and installations.

Talk to us about your teaching – what do you most enjoy about mentoring?

I believe in giving back, whether it is in the field of fashion or beyond, that’s why I teach and also why I participate in events such as those held at Tate Britain where we show hundreds of young people how to sculpt and create for themselves. It is a big way to unlock creativity and stimulate vision. When I speak, I speak openly about the challenges and realities of building a brand, especially in the fashion industry. For too long students have been focused just on the design and creative side but it’s a tough world out there and you need to be prepared and taught how to improve your likelihood to succeed.

What has been the most fulfilling moment for you so far?

I just presented my AW/18 collection at AltaRoma, which was my first solo catwalk since my commercial launch in-front of the international media, supported by the UKDIT with the intention of drawing attention to diversity in fashion and hopefully the world. It was an amazing moment and privilege at so many levels. It’s very different to the kinds of brands often prevalent at AltaRoma. My brand is strong and feminine, but it’s not all about fashion for me. I don’t want to be defined as one thing, I hate boundaries and want the women who wear my clothes, or people who buy my accessories, or eventually drive my boats, even, to personalise and interpret my work so that they feel energised and complete wearing or living with a big or little piece of Sadie Clayton in their lives.

What are the key principles you stick to when designing?

From a fashion perspective, I would say Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Alexander McQueen, JPG and Comme des Garcons, as they epitomise a similar aesthetic purity, and, in their own way, stand for similar aspirational objectives for women. From a personal perspective, it was my mother who was instrumental in creating a woman who was hardworking, professional and tenacious. The key design principles I stick to are a strong silhouette, power and elegance. I love power, I love strength, I love ‘wow’, so if I can capture that in my major pieces then the job is done.

Why do feel you want to expand the brand beyond the horizon of fashion?

I just strongly believe that my vision of the world is not just one with a fashion focus. I would love to design the interiors of hotels, or super yachts or furniture, for example. I am passionate about the role of younger creatives in innovation, and I think my brand shows this in the way I have worked with, and continue to explore technology, whether in holographic form, through AI or 3D. Up until now, that has all been focused on fashion but we can always push the boundaries of design through technology and creativity, and I want to champion this.

What is your personal definition of beauty?

I was asked this recently by the Edinburgh Museum of Art. Beauty, for me, is the act of expression of one’s authentic identity – seeing somebody look a certain way, any particular way, that is really expressing their personality is beautiful. We are in a world now where you can wear what you want, and more and more people are taking advantage of that, whether it be in terms of cross dressing or the trend for gender neutral attire, or being wildly eccentric – it’s all a way of expressing who you are.

Photography Anthony Lycett

sadieclayton.co.uk

Tumi: The Global Citizen

Creative Director of lifestyle brand Tumi, Victor Sanz, chats to Port about the role of technology in luggage design, keeping the customer at the forefront, and what to expect from the Spring ’18 collection

When creative director Victor Sanz joined Tumi in 2003, the company was very much focused on luggage. Founded in 1975 by a Peace Corps volunteer, Tumi had its origins in importing leather bags from South America before moving into designing its own luxury executive travel cases and bags. Yet it was not till Sanz joined that Tumi could position itself fully as a lifestyle brand – a move that saw the company leading the premium-luggage segment of the industry and, last year, being acquired by Samsonite.

Sanz, who trained as an artist before finding himself drawn to product design, worked at Kodak designing award-winning digital cameras in the early 2000s, but he felt “the itch” to try fashion. Tumi arrived conveniently and, apart from a brief hiatus working at Olivet International, designing collections for Tommy Hilfiger, Nicole Miller and Joseph Abboud, he has been with the company ever since. As he launches the new Spring collection, Port caught up with Sanz in London to discuss designing for the global citizen, collaborating with MVP stars, and sending suitcases into space.

Would you say Tumi was a luggage brand, or is that too restrictive?

I see Tumi as a lifestyle brand for the global traveller, the global citizen. It’s about giving people the tools to make their lives easier, keeping them elevated and inspired and able to push themselves.

How new is this within the industry? What is Tumi doing which is different to other brands?

I think the key has been understanding the customer. That is at the heart of what the brand has been about, looking at how the customer’s life is changing, how travel is changing, how business is changing, and creating the solutions for that. For me, that’s been one of those things that has kept me at the brand, the world is changing with it. And now we’re creating products that are more fashion forward and lifestyle driven, it’s not just about the functionality. 

It’s interesting to see how people’s lives are changing. How do you think technology is going to impact what you do in the future?

The rise of the iPad and the smartphone represents a global, cultural shift in how we handle business and communicate with one another. People aren’t carrying so many heavy products, laptops are getting lighter, more work is being done on our phones. People want a bag to go to the office and then to the gym afterwards, it needs to suit both places. People want things that are reliable, durable and lightweight, that are an expression of themselves, that are stylish, that are refined. We’re three dimensional individuals.

Tell me about your market.

In the past, we were very focused on the business traveller segment of the market. Yet, the more we learned and understood, the more we realised that DJs and CEOs were also carrying our bags. Our customers are interested in art, music, architecture, food, travelling – their world is much larger than just the particular city they’re living in. It’s really about this world experience. We collaborated with Russell Westbrook, a professional athlete, the MVP of the NBA, a fashion icon, but he’s also a Tumi fan.

How do your collaborations come about, and what form do they take?

Collaborations always start off with a conversation: about life, culture, food, music, the way we live our lives. That ping-ponging of ideas is very fluid, it’s never one-sided. At the end of the day the product needs to be born out of both people, we’re not able to do it on our own, and neither are they. So it’s the best of both worlds. When we did a collaboration with Eva Fehren, a jewellery designer, the bag is true to how she travels, with a hidden compartment underneath for jewellery. That’s why it has this leather drape to it, these oversized details, this hardware, the functionality of it ties directly into what she does. That’s very Tumi. We work with people who are trailblazers in their industry, whether it’s MBA stars or jewellery designers, fashion icons like Public School or artists like Anish Kapoor.

How important are collaborations for you as a designer? How useful are they in inspiring new designs, new ways of thinking?

The best part about collaborating is the conversations with people outside your own field. They spark new energies, new ideas, new flow, new ways of looking at the process. The customer also appreciates seeing something different, something unexpected. I think that’s why you see so many collaborations out there in the marketplace as well, it’s a great way to generate new creative energy.

What are some of the challenges that you face, in terms of innovation?

We never sit still, we’re always looking to improve the collections. We like to reach out to other industries for material knowledge, to understand different engineering techniques, to make the product work at a higher level than ever before. That’s an ongoing challenge because materials are always developing. For example, the aerospace industry is going through its second phase, like what Elon Musk is doing. We’re thinking about how to tap into that knowledge of material and technology, and how to get that into products like luggage.

I wonder what a suitcase that you’d take into space would look like.

You’ll have to wait and see! We’ll be there sooner rather than later, as the human race progresses… So we might as well prepare for that now.

In the less distant future, what’s the idea behind the spring collection?

As a brand, we’re still grounded in travel, so we definitely look to different destinations as everybody gears up each season. So, for our spring collection we’re looking to go to some warmer places, looking for energy and some life. That’s what you’re going to be seeing in the new collection, there’s a lot of bright colours and freshness. The world has had a very interesting 2017, and I think everyone needs this kind of refresher. 

tumi.com

Kanaal: Living in Art

Kanaal, the brainchild of Belgian art and interiors behemoth Axel Vervoordt, provides cutting-edge new exhibition and residential spaces at the forefront of design 

Kanaal. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Kanaal complex, originally an old malting distillery and grain storehouse, lies just on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s here, over the last two decades, that Axel Vervoordt – the interior designer and art collector who designed the Manhattan penthouses of Robert de Niro and Kanye West – has been gradually acquiring land and derelict agricultural buildings. Today, the recently opened, 55,000sq m site offers custom designed and sympathetically restored exhibition space, featuring permanent installations from luminaries including Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović, as well as rotating showcase exhibitions for emerging artists. 

The complex also includes luxury apartments available for commercial sale, conceived by long-term Vervoordt collaborator, the architect Tatsuro Miki, and with interiors designed by Vervoordt himself. He envisages a close community here, brought together by a love of art and design – the site already hosts award-winning French bakery Poilâne and a restaurant, with daycare facilities in the pipeline. It’s a project that is truly a family affair, with Axel’s two sons, Boris and Dick, taking responsibility for new art acquisitions and real estate, respectively.  

Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World, installed at Kanaal in 2000 and created before the artist achieved global fame, represents the “red beating heart” of the project, as Vervoordt explains to me at the event’s opening. “I wanted the space, which used to be a building where grains were sorted, to be like a Rothko chapel, a room for universal peace and harmony.” Recently, an opera was performed in the space.  

Axel Vervoordt standing underneath Anish Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’. Photo © Zoemin

Nearby, the Henro gallery houses Axel Vervoordt’s permanent collection, moved from its previous exhibition space in the heart of Antwerp. In Karnak, an ascetic space with the original solid concrete columns intact, works by Gutai artists are installed alongside Japanese sculptures dating from the Endo period. Literally meaning ‘concrete’, Gutai was a radical artistic movement that emerged in postwar Japan, its proponents aspiring to transcend the abstract painting of the time in favour of pure materiality.

The strength and legacy in the room is palpable: the columns once supported 60 litre silos. “When I first saw it, the columns reminded me of an Egyptian temple,” says Vervoordt. “The power is still amazing – almost religious. Industrial architecture is not made to be beautiful, it is made to serve.”

Karnak © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

The room next door is dedicated to three paintings by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who descended from a prominent samurai family. The three ‘warrior’ paintings convey a primal violence reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, the scarlet spattered canvases hovering, eerily suspended in the slate-grey gloom. When Vervoordt visited the artist at his home in Kobe in 2003, he witnessed an equally elemental mode of preparation.

“He would contemplate the empty canvas, until he became one with the emptiness. His wife would then pour the paint, and he would create the painting in a few gestures, without hesitation. This for me is the origin of life, that which comes out of emptiness. This is the big bang.”

Suiju, Kazuo Shiraga. Photo © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

“Now we go into the light”, Vervoordt jokes, as we exchange the shadowy gallery for comparatively blinding Flemish daylight. Though lighthearted, this is an apposite remark: at Kanaal, the levels of luminescence in each gallery are carefully weighted for optimum atmosphere.

Installation El Anatsui, ‘Proximately’. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Patio Gallery, a space for temporary exhibitions, is currently showing Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s ‘Proximately’, and is drenched in natural light. Anatsui’s tactile sculptures, vast quilts of scrap metal that have been washed, hammered flat and sewn together using copper thread, hang on the walls like glittering patchwork quilts. Vervoordt first discovered Anatsui’s work in Toyko, and presented the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2007, draping one of his sculptures over the facade of Palazzo Fortuny like a chainmail tapestry designed with the palette of Gustav Klimt.

Lucia Bru exhibition, Escher Gallery. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The industrial legacy of the Escher Gallery, a former brick warehouse and now another temporary exhibition space, remains clear. Though the machinery and grain silos have been removed, vast cylindrical concavities remain carved in the space. The sculptures of Belgian artist Lucia Bru that inhabit the gallery were not made in accordance with the space, but feel like a part of its industrial heritage. Fragments of crystal and milky porcelain with rounded edges, as though smoothed by waves, lie in glimmering piles. When I note the sculpture’s resemblance to sea glass, Bru emphasises the integrality of water to her work. “The elements of water and earth are part of the same family, they have a relationship, they fight, they reconcile,” she explains. Bru’s larger sculptures, which resemble pale rocky islands, are ceramic, a famously un-pliable, difficult material with which to work. “It has a mind of its own”, she notes. “I don’t like it when I control the material too much. I like it to surprise me.”

Detail of movidas, Lucia Bru. Photo © Jan Liégeois

Not all the structures at Kanaal are original, though it is often difficult to tell what has been newly built. Tatsuro Miki’s design celebrates this assimilation. “It’s important to preserve the existing quality of a place,” Miki says. “The first concept for the additional buildings at Kanaal was to create something as if it was already there. Once things have aged, we want them to be part of the same landscape. We prefer harmony to noise.”

Kanaal represents a continuation of Vervoordt’s design vision that has endured since his earliest restoration projects in the 1960s, to create an environment in which everyday life and art coexist harmoniously: a philosophy of living in art.