Representing the creative future

Sarah Aphrodite is taking things slow, really slow

Taking her cues from centuries-old costumes, Sarah is trying to pin down the key to creating classics that stand the test of time

Until a month ago, Massachusetts-based designer Sarah Aphrodite hadn’t released a new collection in over two years, and that’s exactly how she likes it. Despite running her own brand since she graduated from ArtEZ in 2006, she only started publicizing it in 2015. Before that, insecurities held her back: “What if nobody liked it?” After five years of trying to make the brand work as her main source of income, Sarah has come to the realisation that the fashion system is broken, at least for small brands who are trying to do the right thing by people and planet. She considers the lockdown a welcome break, and is trying to “lean into it”, spending more time with her son and rethinking her brand strategy. “There have been no requests for editorials or stage outfits for musicians, since everything has stopped,” she says. “To be honest, I am loving it. I am planning to make face masks for the hospitals that need them most – that seems to be the best way for me to be useful.” Caught in the midst of recalibrating her entire brand, Sarah is questioning everything, from the true meaning of sustainability to the commercial crux of fashion education.

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Could you describe your new collection?

I never have a theme or anything, I just make pieces and hope they come together in the end, so styling is very important. For the new collection, Haley Wollens styled it and Brianna Capozzi shot it. Chloë Sevigny (who is currently pregnant) modelled a few looks, which was incredible.

How did working with a pregnant model change your perception of the clothes? 

It challenged me to think about the wearability for different body shapes. We found a stretchy dress, which was perfect, because you can see her whole belly. There was also a dress with an empire waist — I wanted to change the waist before it went into production, but I was too late. On Chloë, it looked perfect. My main forte is accessories, which are much more versatile. I really struggle with clothes.

“A conceptual shoot where the models were mostly naked looked great, but it didn’t help to sell the products.”

If you struggle with clothes, why do you continue to make them? 

I studied fashion design, so accessories were always seen as less than. Even though I’ve been making accessories since the beginning of college, I didn’t really focus on them until I was pregnant myself. I had this epiphany, that my whole brand should be focused on belts. When we did the lookbook photoshoot for that collection, I realised we needed clothes so that people could imagine themselves wearing the belts in their own lives. A conceptual shoot where the models were mostly naked looked great, but it didn’t help to sell the products. So, I tried to make clothes which would act as a backdrop for the accessories. Those tangents happen in the process of designing things, because you play around with your creations and new questions or problems pop up that you have to solve.

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What differences have you noticed, running an accessories brand versus a clothing brand?

Accessories sell really well, because people seem more willing to spend money on them. People will pay over $1,000 for a bag, but they think $50 is too expensive for a T-shirt. If you look at what is involved in producing a T-shirt, $50 is nothing, but if you’re used to paying $10, then $50 seems like a lot of money.

“You can only make money when you have a lot of production. In this day and age, a big production means unsustainable and unethical practices if you want it to be relatively affordable.”

I’ve been very lucky that I don’t have to live off my brand, but now I have to sit down and sort out the numbers. I’ve only really seriously considered this in the last year, but the numbers don’t add up. You can only make money when you have a lot of production. In this day and age, a big production means unsustainable and unethical practices if you want it to be relatively affordable.

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How did traditional dress inspire your new collection? 

Fashion changes so quickly, but costume has been around for centuries. Whereas fashion is dictated by designers, costume is influenced by collectives, so it changes very slowly. That’s why the idea of costume was interesting to me. I have travelled to India a lot in the last decade, and I find their approach to clothing very exciting. It’s changing in the big cities, but it blows my mind how much they value traditional dress. Women generally wear a sari, a lehenga or salwar kameez suits. How amazing is that? To have a constant shape you always work within. It feels more grounded or rooted. Fashion in America changes too quickly, it’s too fleeting – you can’t hold onto it. Even as a consumer, I can’t take it all in. I’ve stopped looking at all the fashion week images now because I find it too exhausting.

“Fashion in America changes too quickly, it’s too fleeting – you can’t hold onto it. Even as a consumer, I can’t take it all in.”

If you produced the same few silhouettes each season and just changed the design or the colour, maybe that could be sustainable. You would still have to sell a lot, but it could be more doable. You wouldn’t have to make new patterns or fabric each time, so you would save a lot of time and fabric that way.

It seems like financial restrictions heavily influence the way you approach design. How do you view the relationship between commerce and sustainability? 

The first item I ever put into production was a dress with an empire waist. I worked with a company in New York that organises production for small brands, so you don’t have the added stress of liaising with factories and you get better deals. The dress ended up being made in China and I have no idea where. Even if I knew the factory where it was sewn, I wouldn’t know where the yarn came from. Then I gave them a button sample, which I had bought from a man in New York who makes buttons by hand and has done for 50 years. They ended up copying his button and making a mould for it. The whole thing felt wrong to me, but it happens in a heartbeat. The industry is so rooted in unsustainable practices, but only big companies profit or benefit from this.

“I gave them a button sample, which I had bought from a man in New York who makes buttons by hand and has done for 50 years. They ended up copying his button and making a mould for it. The whole thing felt wrong to me, but it happens in a heartbeat.”

My clothes wouldn’t be sustainable if I made them in cheap factories in China. It is only sustainable if I source my materials locally and make the clothes locally. At the moment, all of my clothes are made in Northampton, Massachusetts. I pay $20 per hour without benefits, but I adjust that depending on the cost of living. In terms of what I make, I let the market decide what my brand is as much as possible. Why would I make a load of stuff that nobody wants to buy?

How do you sell your clothes? 

So, I’ve just uploaded the new collection to my website, and then I have an archive of one-of-a-kind pieces, which I use for editorials and shoots. I used to sell through boutiques in New York, like Beyond 7, which was nice, but I have also sold in the street. It’s impossible to get a new permit in New York, because the waiting lists are so long, but a lot of veterans get them, so I found myself a veteran. We made a deal, so I could sell my clothes. The clothes would sell for nice prices too. I’ve done it in SoHo and Williamsburg. Both of those places are known for street selling – it probably wouldn’t work as well on the Upper West Side. I noticed that people would be excited but confused, because I was selling everything at once, all on the same rail. That also played a part in why I wanted to focus on just belts. When people know what to expect from your brand, they don’t get thrown off, so they are more likely to buy something.

“I have also sold in the street. It’s impossible to get a new permit in New York, because the waiting lists are so long, but a lot of veterans get them, so I found myself a veteran.”

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There was an editorial with your clothes in More or Less recently and one of the jackets they used was made in 2003. How did it feel, knowing you had designed something which was still valued almost 20 years later?

It blew my mind! It’s amazing how some pieces endure time and others don’t. I suppose we see those ‘classic’ styles in cultural moments like movies and adverts, so each generation has an iteration of it that feels relevant and fresh to them. My signature pair of jeans has a high waist and one leg, but it came from a pair of Levi’s 501s. When I graduated, my opening look was a riff on the classic ‘jeans and a T-shirt’ look too. Now those one-legged jeans and the heart-cut-out T-shirt are my signature base and I make unique accessories to go with them.

“In school, you’re taught to come up with a theme, draw the whole collection and then make what you drew. It never worked that way for me.”

From the T-shirts to the belts, a lot of your collection is upcycled. Could you describe your process? 

The T-shirts are easy to thrift, so I get a lot of things from the Salvation Army stores. I don’t sketch at all. With the clothes, I have an idea, make a pattern and then I start playing around with it on my body. If it’s repurposed, I get inspired by the original piece, but then I’ll cut off one sleeve, or turn it upside-down or whatever. The process is the best part, because it’s very liberating. The only downside is that I end up with random pieces.

Accessories come so naturally to me, so I rarely have a plan beforehand. I collect a lot of things I like – I’ll go to a Salvation Army and buy old belts or buckles – and then I combine them in different ways. The accessories just come into existence. In school, you’re taught to come up with a theme, draw the whole collection and then make what you drew. It never worked that way for me. In the beginning, I tried really hard to stick to a plan, but now I just enjoy the process. The way I work means I come up with designs that I never would have thought of if I just sat down with pen and paper.

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“Fashion is mostly made up of freelancers who work together. If people can’t come together, they are out of work!”

Aside from spending more time with your son, how has the pandemic affected your work? 

It’s made me see how much everything in fashion was hanging together by a thread, and how vulnerable the industry truly is. Fashion is mostly made up of freelancers who work together. If people can’t come together, they are out of work! I can see now more than ever that fashion ultimately depends on the money that comes from selling products. If brands can’t sell products, there is no need for stylists to work on collections or lookbooks, no need for photographers to shoot campaigns and no need for all the back-of-house production that goes into it either. I have been advocating for small scale, local production for a long time, and coronavirus has just solidified my opinion of that.

1 Granary

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