Time spent as a student is not regularly considered to be the most romantic. With little money in our pockets and a workload that eats our weekends, unless you’re workin’ that eye contact in the student bar or over the sweetcorn noodle bowl in the canteen, most of us are dating our assignments. However, design-duo Mao Usami and Alve Lagercrantz were not only able to find love in Granary Square, but since graduating in 2013 have created Sirloin, a label that complements their pillow-talk conversations. Kyoto-born Usami, who won the coveted L’Oreal Professional Young Design Talent Award in 2013 and her Swedish beau moved to Shanghai a year ago, where they have been thrown into the world of design and production. The collection emulates moments of panic and spontaneous outfit-making when you hear your parents coming up the stairs and your boyfriend can’t find his pants. In the days leading up to their Paris Fashion Week debut, the BA Womenswear graduates talked to us about the importance of being lazy, taking unnecessary toilet breaks, starting a label in a city that they’re not used to and why designers shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.
“We are so close to the whole manufacturing process that we are really able to follow it. From visiting mills, sampling to production, it is quite a unique luxury for a new brand.”
I know you both graduated from CSM in Womenswear. Do you remember when and how you met?
Alve: No, I have the memory of a goldfish!
Mao: Yes, I do. We first met at the crit for the Summer project, which we needed to work on prior to being admitted to CSM.
What were your first thoughts of each other?
Alve: She had quite a unique sense when it comes to millimeter pattern policies. If she made one wonky line, she would retrace the whole pattern and start from scratch, whilst normal people would just erase the mistake and keep going. I am much more messy, so it is really nice how we fill out each other’s gaps.
Mao: He walked very wonkily into the classroom and spoke very happily about his colorful and textured work. I thought he was really cute.
She sounds like a perfectionist! How did you decide to combine forces and become a design duo?
Alve: We were in a situation where we both had been working in Europe for a while and didn’t really know what to do next. We had been thinking about starting something ourselves but didn’t have the means for it. Then we got contacted by an investor who offered us an infrastructure to create a label. We went to see him a couple of times and felt that he really believed in what we wanted to create, so it just seemed like the right thing to do. It has been a really exciting process to start working together as we both have very different skills. Mao is much more focused on tailoring and I, much more on drapery.
“We all sit together: sample machinists, designers, pattern-cutters (and sometimes their children). It’s really a family affair.”
Do you have a favorite memory of being at University together?
Mao: Sitting and smoking together at our favorite corner at King’s cross.
Alve: Yeah, in our final year we were constantly in search of the ultimate smoking corner. We still have a bit of an obsession with corners.
Your label is based in Shanghai. What are your personal relationships to this city?
Alve: We love all the weird strange things that are always happening in Shanghai. It is a never ending source for funny stories. The city is growing so quickly and new bars, museums and exhibitions are constantly opening up (and closing down). It’s as if everything is possible and nothing last forever.
Mao : I don’t have a personal relationship with Shanghai yet but I think it is a good sign to start somewhere new.
What are the biggest differences between designing in Shanghai and in London?
Mao: We can’t conduct Google research or watch YouTube tutorials.
Alve: Our location completely shapes our experience. We are so close to the whole manufacturing process that we are really able to follow it. From visiting mills, sampling to production, it is quite a unique luxury for a new brand. Developing a product in China is very different from somewhere like Italy, but after some bumps we feel we have started to learn what we can and cannot do.
Tell me all about your studio!
Mao: Our space is located on a corner of the big campus of factories in an industrial area, just outside of Shanghai. The neighborhood is really local feeling with lots of massage places and noodle shops. Our office is a kind of bricolage of all the stuff that we could find around us. The desks match but the chairs are all different from each other and not the best quality. We use the pool table that was there when we moved in as the pattern-cutting table, because no one wanted to be the one to get rid of it because it’s so heavy – and our AC system makes it sound like it’s always raining.
Alve: We all sit together: sample machinists, designers, pattern-cutters (and sometimes their children). It’s really a family affair.
What’s the vibe like when you’re working?
Alve: We are all trying to work but Mao is constantly disturbing us with stupid stories.
What’s blasting from Spotify?
Alve: We are both completely tasteless when it comes to music, so normally our brilliant interns play the music!
“Can anyone work non-stop?”
Mao, I know you have previously worked for Louis Vuitton and Alve, you for Dries Van Noten. Are there any other design teams that you would like to collaborate with?
Mao: Rottingdean Bazaar are brilliant.
How did you come to name your label, ‘Sirloin’?
Alve: It is such a sexy part of the body!
Mao: We were looking for something stupidly elegant. And obviously sirloin is the most famous and delicious cut of meat. There is a saying that King Henry VIII combined “sir” with “loin” because he regarded it as the tastiest area of the animal. Voila, stupidly elegant!
You went from womenswear design students to producing for a ‘whoeverwear’ label. Talk me through this decision.
Mao: I have never focused on gender, the way people are currently discussing it in the fashion world. For me, it has always been just one letter (M/F) on everyone’s paperwork.
Alve: We don’t really have a political agenda about that sentence. What we meant was that we hope the garments have a certain allowance to them. But this season we are showing our womenswear as being worn by women.
Mao – in your CSM graduate collection, I know you really stressed the use of bold colors and those lumberjack style prints. How has your work adjusted since graduating?
I have always decided on the fabric based on the logic of my concept. I would first research the method, the meaning, look at the optical effects of different colors, textures, washing instructions etc. Really, I am still learning.
Alve – your work was much more fantasy-like, worn by feminine damsels. If Sirloin scrapes gender, how will you interpret this?
I don’t think we’ve scraped gender at all. Whatever you do in fashion, there is always one way or another of relating to it. That’s part of the fun!
You have stated that your brand celebrates the importance of laziness. What’s important about being lazy?
Alve: Sometimes we think it is important to just chill and get some time to reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it. Especially in fashion there is a quite unhealthy view of work habits. Of course, this is relating to the whole discussion about the speed of fashion and if we really need all this stuff being produced.
Mao: Can anyone work non-stop?
“The toilet in our factory has also been a great source of inspiration. Men’s toilets in China are quite a social place, everyone is hanging out in there smoking, checking their phone and hiding from their bosses.”
Obviously, the two of you aren’t lazy at all, having been busy preparing for your upcoming Paris debut (congratulations by the way). What are you most excited about for tomorrow?
Alve: Saturday morning!!!
Mao : I am most excited to sleep without interruption on Friday night! Can’t wait!
Who is sat on your dream front row?
Mao : Erwin Wurm and Dali, sat next to each other, obviously.
Alve: Douglas Coupland. I think he understands the importance of laziness very well.
Let’s talk about the collection you’ll be presenting. Where did the idea come from?
Alve: We base work on what we read, what we see around us, what cracks us up. In the beginning of the season we found this amazing Chinese street photographer called Tao Liu. He has a very humoristic way of looking at the world which we felt was very closely relating to how we want to design. The toilet in our factory has also been a great source of inspiration. Men’s toilets in China are quite a social place, everyone is hanging out in there smoking, checking their phone and hiding from their bosses.
Mao: The toilet moment! You know when you go to the toilet at the office, and often your brain is jammed with a long list of things you still need to get through during the day. We think you somehow feel a little bit lighter after you… use the loo, more relaxed and complacent.
How long have you been working on this for?
Mao: We started this specific 150-piece collection six months ago but moved to China almost a year ago. Since we arrived, we have created two tryout capsule collections to learn how to develop our products in a way that suits us. Most of our fabrics and all of our making is done here in China, so for us it was really important to take some time to build up the team, and think about what type of products we can develop in a good way. Also, we have had to learn how to communicate with factories in China, which has been really new for us.
What are some of your favorite pieces?
Alve: All of our underwear. Those are the foundation of our label.
Mao : I love all of the vionnetoilet series, like the dresses with jersey and silk that is stuck in the bra or the silk wrapping trousers as like toilet rolls. And our underwear matches all the outerwear looks.
You finish the show and two of you get locked in the bathroom with two people. Who is locked inside with you?
Mao: Erwin Wurm and Dali of course! Wait, actually, can we choose SOS key agents?
Alve: Two members of our team!
Do you have any advice for artists or designers hoping to make it in the industry after graduating?
Alve: Just know what you want to achieve and it’s all not that difficult.
Mao: Be as lazy as possible; that make you realize what you really need!
Words Katy Sacks Photography Ryuki Yamaga, courtesy of Sirloin