Photography Pablo Di Prima

Claire Sullivan's couture is inspired by Anne Boleyn and André Leon Talley

After leaving Vaquera, the NYC designer started her own brand where every piece is a character study.

by Mahoro Seward
13 July 2022, 9:06am

Photography Pablo Di Prima

This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Earthrise Issue, no. 368, Summer 2022. Order your copy here.

Couture is officially cool again. By way of genre-challenging collections from designers like Demna for Balenciaga and Glenn Martens for Jean Paul Gaultier, new life has been breathed into fashion’s haughtiest category, opening the eyes of a new generation to the virtues of one-of-a-kind, artisanally crafted clothes. This revolution isn’t just limited to Parisian salons, though. Indeed, a growing minority of young designers are pursuing a way of working more closely aligned with the values of couture over mass produced collections.

Among them is Claire Sullivan, a New York-based designer who first came to prominence as a Co-Creative Director of Vaquera. Since amicably ending her involvement with the brand last summer, she’s been forging a bold reputation under her own name. Still, common ground between Miss Claire Sullivan – the official title of Claire’s new venture – and the brand she helped build can be found in a mutual obsession with characterisation and play; with fashion as a means of turning the world into a spotlit stage.

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Anyiang wears tights WOLFORD. Shoes BALENCIAGA courtesy of ALBRIGHT FASHION LIBRARY

Where Claire’s new venture radically differs, however, is the way in which she works. Previously, she was obliged to work within the knotty mechanisms of commercial fashion production. Now, she’s a member of the small-yet-rapidly-growing community of designers opting to exclusively work on one-of-a-kind custom pieces.

It’s a change of tack that befits the sense of pageantry and performance that Claire’s work exudes. Head over to her Instagram page and you’ll see an impressive range of intricately-crafted bespoke pieces that suggest both girlish intimacy and bolshy sexiness: a delicately frilled scarlet lace bra, created for the artist Tourmaline, a close friend and collaborator of Claire’s; a fish-scale sequinned bell-sleeved gown and habit, slashed along the side seams to reveal a cheeky peek of whatever is – or isn’t – worn beneath; a bubble dress composed of cloud-like clumps of ivory taffeta with a cascade of white tulle trailing behind.

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Claire wears shoes BALENCIAGA courtesy of ALBRIGHT FASHION LIBRARY

These are not clothes that are or even could be mass-produced. As varied as the end results may be, there’s a clear signature of the hand in the fawning drape work and curvilinear tailoring – an idiosyncratic sensuality that, as Raymond Gee, the stylist of the shoot you see on these pages observes, fuses esoteric historical references (nods to Victorian and Tudor leading ladies abound) with an unrepentant sense of joy.

What gives Claire that same sense of joy is less the chance to commit herself to a couture-aligned way of working than it is seeing the reactions that her pieces inspire when worn. “I’ve been trying to situate exactly what I’ve been doing for the last couple months of creating custom pieces for people,” Claire says,“and I almost think of what I’m doing right now as something close to a service. We’re creating products but they’re always created with a specific something or someone in mind.”

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Thursday wears shoes stylist’s studio

“There’s a lot of joy in designing and seeing your clothes on people on the street or on somebody that you don’t know, and being like ‘Oh wow, I made that and someone’s wearing it,’” she continues, referring to her time at Vaquera. “But there’s something extra special, about making something specifically for one person, and seeing the way that they light up when they wear it. What I’m doing now just feels really light and playful – it’s almost like playing dress-up, and thinking about how I can make a garment look as beautiful as it can” – whether its end purpose is for an i-D shoot, or for a dear friend’s med school winter formal.

That spirit of elevated dress-up permeates the images you see here, shot by Pablo Di Prima in New York. “I was saying to Raymond that what’s so fun to me about custom is that it’s tailored to people’s personalities. I get really stuck into thinking about what character something could be,” Claire says. Raymond’s response was to suggest four figures of fashion lore as muses to kickstart the creative process: Josephine Baker, Anne Boleyn, André Leon Talley and Isabella Blow, each chosen for their own embodiment of the high drama that informs Claire’s designs.

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Nyagua wears boots custom ATELIER INSCRIRE

But rather than lean into the images of these characters that no doubt flashed in your mind’s eye on reading their names, Claire and Raymond took a more figurative tack. “We didn’t really want to make it so literal,” is Raymond’s response to being asked whether the André look entailed a hulking silk faille robe. Instead, the looks abstract preconceived notions of who these people were: “It’s more like Claire met André, saw his robe and decided to turn it into something else,” he continues.

Granted, it takes a bold person to don looks like these: bombastic and buoyed by heady romance, each is imbued with vibrancy and movement. Whether in the subtly convex proportions of André’s towering pinstripe wool suit, Isabella Blow’s hulking hair dress, Josephine Baker’s slashed jersey crop top and tumbling, frayed tinsel train, or Anne Boleyn’s gigot-sleeved leotard and taffeta bustle, each piece is a testament to Claire’s intuitive draping skills “Draping really is my language,” Claire says. She often uses her own body as a point of departure. “There’s something about working on your actual body that allows you to fully embody what’s happening with the fabric and how it lays. It allows me to tap into this instinct of knowing right where something needs to tuck.”

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima

The importance of intuition in Claire’s work can’t be understated – it is intuition, after all, that led her to pursue a new way of working, one that in many ways runs counter to the traditional model for an independent designer, one typically full of merchandising requirements, wholesale accounts, and lengthy production chains.

Still, she notes the importance of her previous experiences in shaping her perspective today, particularly when it comes to not being tempted by the draw of unsustainable growth. “It’s hard producing clothes,” Claire says “Getting your factories on time is tricky. And everything is always hinging on another part of the chain working. Staying small was always something we talked about at Vaquera; it feels more comfortable than becoming a massive brand. It also allows you to have more fun. What was so nice about being there was that – although fashion can be very serious sometimes – and in a way that’s important, because we should take our work seriously, it’s meant to be playful and fun. With what I’m doing now, I really enjoy just being able to drape a garment and not have to worry about how it’ll be reproduced. It’s the only one, after all.”

miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Tights custom LAUREN PERRIN
miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
miss Claire Sullivan story in I-D 369 The Earthrise Issue photographed by Pablo Di Prima
Shoes stylist’s studio

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Photography Pablo Di Prima
Fashion Raymond Gee
Hair Lucas Wilson at DAY ONE using Oribe
Make up Jamal Scott at Julian Watson Agency for YSL Beauty
Nail technician Honey at Exposure NY using UN/DN LAQR
Set design Gerard Santos
Photography assistance Pierre Crosby
Fashion assistance Devante Rollins and Diego Ortega
Tailor Carol Ai
Fashion design assistance Ethan Lloyd
Make up assistance Shoko Sawatari
Nail assistance Megan Tully and Chanel Courant
Set design assistance Kevin Kessler and Nick Ducot
Production Alexis Piqueras, Michaela Perau and Alexes Bowyer at AP Studio, Inc
Production assistance Ryan Qiu and Logan Khidekel
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING
Casting assistance Alfredo Bisciotti and Lola Feuerzeug
Models Anyiang Jak and Thursday at The Society, Nyagua Ruea at Women Management
All clothing custom MISS CLAIRE SULLIVAN