sies marjan is the rainbow-colored future of new york fashion
In his Manhattan studio — filled with neon yellow silk, baby-blue velvet, and knits the color of happiness — Dries Van Noten alum Sander Lak is creating a new kind of inclusive, rainbow luxury brand.
photography rebekah campbell
"If you always wear pink, I'm telling you, you will feel happier," says Sander Lak, partially engulfed in a cloud of white fluff.
In a characteristic moment of following his gut, he decided he absolutely needed to install a Mongolian fur couch as the centerpiece of his showroom, located just south of New York's garment district. "People were like, 'Why? It's going to be a lot of money.' I said, 'I can't explain it, but I feel that it's what I want to do.'" The couch has pink cushions and its ice cream tones perfectly offset the adjacent walls of acid-bright clothes. As Lak knew it would be, it is just right.
Sies Marjan (named after Lak's parents) is a rare thing: a completely new New York brand that positions itself as a luxury house. It showed its first collection, a modern but romantic medley of pajama-esque silks and trailing oversize coats, to a small group of editors and buyers in February. The venue was a symbolically still-under-construction residential space in lower Manhattan. While the clothes had the faint floral scent of Dries Van Noten, where Lak formerly worked on the womenswear design team, the Sies Marjan aura seemed to radiate on its own frequency right from the start. The response to this debut collection, as well as to Lak's recent spring/summer 17 neon-and-pastel rainbow offering, has been borderline ecstatic. Partly because Lak seems to be using an entirely unfamiliar method, and palette, to create his clothes.
"When people ask me, 'What was your inspiration?' I find that a very difficult question because that's not really how I work," Lak says. He is not a designer who returns from a Wes Anderson movie or trip to Thailand and explains to his studio team that they will be doing cropped suiting or tropical prints that season. His approach to making clothes, when he describes it, sounds almost mechanical. But he insists it actually leaves more room for creativity than being tethered to a particular set of references.
"I make deadlines," he says. "What I've enjoyed doing is making the choices I have to make at a certain point and having them shape where the collection is going. The process is organic. It means there's space for other things to come in." The first step, always, is deciding on fabrics, which also means pinning down the collection's colors.
Looking at pieces from the spring collection — a gathered luminous lemon-lime skirt, a crinkled shirt in slightly metallic powder pink, a sheath cut from iridescent plastic velvet that catches the light like an orange chocolate wrapper — you wonder how anyone has managed to conjure these very precise, slightly alien shades. How can you describe a color that might not exist in the Pantone system to a vendor or manufacturer?
"We do a lot of lab dips," says Sander, referring to the testing of small swatches of fabrics in different dyes. "I'm so annoying with it. People roll their eyes. But sometimes it needs more red, or there's too much blue, there's always something wrong! Eventually, that means the end result is always as specific as it is. I always know exactly what the color is." Each color already exists in his head.
While any two people's imagining of "blue" are almost certainly different, they are probably both still nameable shades: cornflower, azure, sapphire. The colors in Sander's mind are off the charts. They're almost impossible to describe but you know you want to wear them immediately. Sometimes they do have their starting point in the real world, though. Lak was into the bright aqua eyeshadow worn by certain older members of the British royal family this season. The orange and pinks in the collection stem from his love of the Dunkin' Donuts logo. And right now he's obsessed by the soft navy and pink of the Baskin Robbins sign. On his lunch breaks from the studio, he likes to sit on the mezzanine level of an organic deli on Sixth Avenue and observe what colors others customers are wearing.
After getting his bachelor's degree in the Netherlands, Lak studied under the late fashion legend Louise Wilson for his master's at Central Saint Martins. Wilson taught him two life lessons: stick to what you're good at and learn to be resilient. Lak was good at color, and so she told him to "stop fucking around and stay on track with that," he recalls. Her famously firm approach also helped prepare him for future storms while working in professional design studios. "She was really tough on me, because she liked me," he says. "But there was a way for her to show that was sometimes so hard. Now though, having had a hanger thrown at me by Louise, if something happens I think, 'Well, it could always be worse!'"
Lak also credits his stylist, Lotta Volkova, with helping to refine Sies Marjan's vision. Volkova and Lak are exactly the same age and have been mixing in similar circles for years. Just as Volkova was beginning to work with then-underground Paris label Vetements, Lak approached her about collaborating. "Now, there's this idea that suddenly she's 'the coolest woman in the world,'" he jokes, "But she's been in the industry for years. What I do now, a lot of it is my eye, but a lot of it comes from Lotta too. I know color, but she really knows how to put colors together."
At the rehearsal before Sies Marjan's spring show last week, held in the romantic dusty-blue library of the New York Bar Association, it was Volkova who insisted they turn the music way, way up. Lak was suspicious. "But in the end it really worked because it kind of slapped you in the face," he says. It was that contrast between blaring music, ancient books, and neon kick-flares and patent platform shoes that made the show feel so electric.
Like Volkova, Lak operates according to instinct. He does what he does because he likes doing it and it appeals to his sense of fun. For example, because he is a fan of the online furniture dealer 1stdibs ("I always tell people it's like my porn"), he is now collaborating with the platform on a retail space in Selfridges in London. Lak handpicked furniture from the site, which he arranged among the racks of his pieces. "I love the idea of translating Sies Marjan, as a brand, into things that aren't clothes," he says. "I'd love to do a collection of books with someone. Or even a collection of plants that feel very Sies Marjan."
Like a true luxury brand, Sies Marjan is aiming to create a livable 360-degree experience. Lak enjoys creating both clothes and a culture. "People at the office used to wear a lot of black and navy," he says, with a tone of lighthearted disapproval that he evidently also used when speaking to those people. During our interview, team members walk past wearing orange, fuchsia, and aquamarine. Someone even has turquoise hair. "Quite a few of them have said, since they were forced to wear color by me, that in the mornings they're happier." (He quickly clarifies, smiling, that he didn't really force anyone to do anything. "Legally, I don't think that's allowed.")
But looking at the clothes naturally makes you want to wear pink every morning. Or petrol blue. Or tangerine. Or burgundy. When I ask Lak what message he wants his clothes to communicate, he explains that he wants each piece to translate "into different languages." He wants anyone to be able to pick out a lemon-yellow Sies Marjan sweater at a store and have it make their day that much brighter.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Rebekah Campbell