sarah aphrodite is the anti-fashion designer we need in 2017
Working outside of the established fashion schedule in Western Massachusetts, Sarah Aphrodite-Stolwijk is striving to create her own radical, sustainable form of traditional dress.
"I like the word 'costume' because it sounds so anti-fashion," says Sarah Aphrodite-Stolwijk, standing in the cold outside her home in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is taking a break from working on two patterns for her next collection, which will arrive when it arrives ("it's all feeling based"), but likely in the next few months. She plans to shoot the pieces in the summer, with her photographer of choice Brianna Capozzi.
Sarah says she thinks in images first, garments second. She might see a particular photograph in National Geographic or a woman on the street and slowly the idea for a belt with a long pleated panel or a pair of one-legged ruffled flamenco pants will emerge. The images Capozzi and Aphrodite-Stolwijk create themselves — in which the bright fabrics of Sarah's pieces contrast with minimalist white backgrounds — bring to mind Mark Borthwick's stark 1990s photographs of anti-models like Chloë Sevigny in Martin Margiela and Bless.
As Margiela did in his earliest collections, Sarah uses DIY techniques including recycling and deconstruction to create pieces that feel both evocative and new. According to her website, her specialty is belts, and while many of her pieces do circle the wearer's waist, "belts" could mean anything in Sarah's language. It might refer to a clasped gold waistband with a pleated half-skirt falling from it, or a swathe of black floral fabric that drapes around the wearer's leg. Her pieces often ask a question my mother asked me when I was a teenager trying to leave the house, "Is that a belt or a skirt?"
Sarah was 21 when she decided she wanted to pursue fashion. She was sitting on a boat in Greece when the image of a perfect top came into her mind. "In that second I knew I wanted to study to become a designer," she says. "Before that, I had just wanted to travel." She enrolled at the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design in the Netherlands, near her hometown of The Hague, and moved to New York after graduating. There, she interned for the artist and fashion designer Susan Cianciolo (whose 90s fashion line RUN would hold impromptu shows starring Chloë Sevigny and Rita Ackermann), and later she worked fulltime at Cianciolo's studio. They even produced a collaborative collection together called "The S Collection."
"It was a small studio, so I helped with everything," Sarah explains. "I think Susan's incredible. Working with her taught me to accept things as they come and to just go for it — to be more free and have fewer boundaries."
When Sarah started to build her own brand, after a stint teaching fashion at Parsons, that freedom was baked in. "I used to do everything," she says, "Whatever came to my mind." Now, her mission is to refine her focus. "What I really want is to settle upon a signature costume almost, a small collection of garments that I feel good about reproducing. You look at national costumes and they're so steady and rooted, just a detail changes here or there. And what I like to wear doesn't change that much."
What does change is Sarah's fabrics. Which she sources on her travels around the world and during regular online explorations. She works with mostly pre-used textiles, instead of contributing to what she calls the "waste" of an industry founded on constant production and newness. A pair of patterned purple leg pieces from her most recent collection are actually a reincarnated kimono. She refashioned flower-embroidered Mexican fabrics into ruffled tops. And she recently received a delivery of antique fabric from Tibet. While she chose fashion over her teen dream of a nomadic existence, she still travels and carves out time to scavenge for fabrics during trips to India or Turkey.
Part of Sarah's longer term plan is transitioning Sarah Aphrodite into a fully vegan brand. "I've always been vegetarian and I turned vegan a few years ago," she explains. "The hard part is that I love silk, but it's not vegan [silk is the fiber that silkworms weave to make cocoons] and it's hard to replace." For the time being, she only uses pre-existing silk or leather that has been donated. "I think about this process like a language I'm learning to speak, and I'm becoming more and more fluent," she says. "More than anything, I want to make something sustainable and insightful."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Brianna Capozzi, courtesy of Sarah Aphrodite