Sarah Sweeney, originally from Prescot, a small town outside Liverpool, came to London almost by chance. Growing up, Sarah had never imagined herself leaving Northern England, and certainly not to move to London for her university degree. Nonetheless, she added Ravensbourne to her UCAS application as an extra option, but when she travelled down for the initial interview, she had a good feeling about the relatively small institution. After completing her BA Fashion Knitwear in 2012, she transitioned to traditional Womenswear as she was admitted to the Royal College of Art, a transition she found hard in certain regards. “At Ravensbourne there wasn’t a lot of technical support, so when I started at the RCA I felt quite limited in a way,” she recalls over e-mail. Luckily, it didn’t take long for Sarah to figure out what worked best for her. “I learned a lot over the last 2 years and really found my own design handwriting, which is what I wanted to gain from the course,” she says. “Zowie became the new director when I was in the second year, and instantaneously there was a new atmosphere at the RCA: she was able to push everyone out of their comfort zones, so that everyone could make the most of their experience at the RCA.”
Sarah’s transitory position between knitwear and womenswear (and now, also menswear) is reflected in her idiosyncratic engagement with the traditional craft. She applies her skillful hand onto a glittery, whimsical and naïve universe of quintessentially ‘cheap’ materials, spontaneous DIY ornamentation and hoarding silhouettes. Her graduate collection celebrates the garish and gaudy but transcends it in to a refreshing reinvigoration of materials. It all started when she back in Liverpool overheard a conversation, ‘if it doesn’t sparkle I don’t buy it’. “I loved the phrase and how it conveyed such a Liverpudlian sense of humor,” she explains. Sticking to this mantra led her to research 1970s glam culture, an in particular, the androgynous style of David Bowie, Mark Bolan and Patti Smith – and a visit to the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool furthermore stimulated her excitement for this aesthetic. “I have always been interested in subcultures, so after visiting the exhibition I decided to research how the fans could emulate their idols through flamboyant dress. This led me to discover Martin Parr’s series of photographs of fans recreating their looks of their idols.”
Central to British glam culture is of course the cross-gender expression, immortalised by Bowie’s agendered costumes and the fluidity of sexuality and gender in popular culture at the time. “I wanted to experiment with gender roles throughout my collection, particularly how they can be challenged,” Sarah expresses, as she praises the legacy of Bowie and Bolan. “They dressed effeminately without fearing society’s expectations of gender roles. I wanted my collection to have no gender boundaries, and make people question what is or isn’t acceptable and why in today’s society.“ In the same spirit, her graduate collection was presented on models of both genders, carrying the alluring garments with same panache, pride and humor. Reinvigorating the sense of subcultural dressing, Sarah always imagines the creation of her own subculture, as she designs for herself and her sister, herself a Fashion Textiles student at Central Saint Martins.
“I was inspired by men in the 70s, such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan, and how they dressed effeminately without fearing society’s expectations of gender roles.“
Knit is often associative of heavy, warm, voluminous pieces, which is why Sarah’s whimsical collection of monofilaments and other yarns seems so innovative and unexpected in its lightness and choice of textures. As she progressed with her collection, she came to appreciate lighter designs, and was particularly moved by an image of Patti Smith, which came to function as a main source of inspiration for her slip dresses. We discuss the practical challenges of her craft, as one imagines knitting a whole collection with such delicacy wouldn’t exactly be easy. “Well I wouldn’t really recommend it to be honest!” she exclaims – “I remember one time I finished knitting the front panel of one of my dresses and I was just about to steam it, but I stupidly didn’t check the temperature of the steamer and my dress melted in front of my eyes. I also remember knitting a piece and the yarn got caught on the machine and half of it falling off. Monofilament isn’t the kindest yarn to work with.”
Before graduating, Sarah was shortlisted for the White Company Knitwear competition, where young designers are invited to create pieces for a future collection. “I thought it’d be a challenge for me because I love working with colour but I really enjoyed translating my way of working so I was able to focus more on the texture without the need for color,” she says of the process. She is down to the final three and awaits feedback from them this month. She finds it weird having graduated: “going from such an intense course back to normal life is a big change.” Still, Sweeney has already done several freelance jobs and will be featured in two new fashion exhibitions, as a part of Who’s Next Paris’s New Fashion Faces and The Vinyl Factory’s Soho fashion showcase during fashion week in London. We cross our fingers for Sarah and look forward to see more of her glittery vision very soon.