A new code in fashion
Recently at a café in East Brunswick, Melbourne, I overheard a table of friends sharing tales about the young Australian fashion designer Sarah Schofield. Lattés were spilt with a jittery envy as they discussed her prodigious rise from fashion student to designer for high-end fashion houses Dior, Louis Vuitton and Nina Ricci.
Sugar spoons were doubly loaded as it was revealed that Sarah was also co-founder of successful label ASSK, while rumour had it that she had been sought out by Donatella Versace to freelance in Milan. Once the iPhones at the table confirmed the Chinese whispers about the designer were indeed true and coffee cups were emptied, the mood became fairly reflective: How they wondered, had Sarah managed such a trajectory?
I spent a Sunday in September with Sarah, chatting with her about this very point.
The short story about the big idea is that Sarah knew she wanted to be a fashion designer in Paris by the age of 10, and every choice that she has made since then has been significantly influenced by this dream. At 13 years of age she was attending pattern making classes after school at the local TAFE. After completing year 12, she commenced a Bachelor of Fashion Design (Hons) at RMIT and first made headlines in her second year when she won the national final of Fashions on the Field at the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. By her third year she was showcasing her first collection in France, having won a MitteModa Award for a swimwear collection. Upon graduation, another collection won her a position at the L’Oreal Fashion Week student showcase.
Following hard work and success in her undergraduate degree, Sarah was offered a position in the post-graduate Accessory Design Program at the Institute Francaise de la Mode in Paris. Through her studies there she worked in collaboration with Swarovski and Dior and was offered a position with the latter. She then moved on to design bags for Louis Vuitton before taking a permanent position at Nina Ricci as a junior designer. Taking time off contract work, Sarah and her partner have recently started their own label, ASSK which has sold very successfully in thirteen stores across Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Los Angeles and New York.
She is currently based in Paris whilst developing ASSK and working freelance for Versace in Milan.
There are so many big fashion houses on your resume that it must read like a VOGUE magazine! When did you and your partner decide to break away from this and start an independent label?
It was in part to do something creative together, and also to try and make some money to live better in Paris, we want an apartment bigger then 18 square metres!
We chose to start out doing t-shirts, as they are easy to sell and easy to produce. We were also realistic and knew we had to make something there was a demand for. So we produced a collection of oversized unisex t-shirts, and later mesh t-shirts and sweatshirts with graphic prints in black and white.
We are currently producing our new season collection, which consists of full looks for both men and women. We are drawing from motocross uniforms and culture, and also from the Juggalo phenomenon in America. It's been a lot of hard work but also a lot of fun! We love looking at the Instagram pictures of all our fans wearing our t-shirts. It seems surreal to sell things to people we don't know, in cities we have never been to!
Is there a philosophy or guiding idea behind ASSK?
I have worked for some smaller labels, and I know how hard it can be. So the guiding idea was really to have fun, and enjoy the process. We are not out to revolutionise the fashion world or imbue a t-shirt with the meaning of life. It also needs to function as a business and result in a profit. Whilst I like what we make, if I was making a brand in my own name it would be very different. I look at it in terms of having your day job (or brand!) to fund the projects which are your heart and soul. You have to enjoy both, but it can be difficult and heartbreaking to try and make a living off your 'baby' project. For the philosophy of the brand itself, we wanted to create an international feeling. With the internet I believe you can be a part of a community or style wherever you are in the world. We use real people in our photo-shoots, and aim to shoot in a new city every season, trying to create a feeling of an all-inclusive dysfunctional tribe made up from a range of individuals.
Having said that, can you differentiate between the fashion scene in Paris and back home in Australia?
Where Paris has H&M, Chanel and nothing in between, Australia has a lot of great mid-range brands and local designers. Even if people get it totally wrong style wise, at least they are having a go! My partner and I have also just got back from a trip to New York, where I fell in love with the city and the style of the people there - even the construction workers and homeless people look cool. It is not their clothes, but the way they wear them. There are very rigid expectations in Paris of what you should wear and what you should look like. It is chic, but very conservative. I can appreciate it, but I find it a bit stifling as there is not much individuality or personality. France has a very strong history, but seems a bit stagnant. At the moment I have been wearing a lot of sportswear as everyday clothing, which confuses people! People in Paris are going to stare no matter what (try eating an apple on the Metro, people will look at you like you are killing puppies in front of them), so you should just do what you want and ignore them.
Is it difficult then to experiment with new ideas in such a culture? Paris seems to have such a strong and iconic fashion scene.
I understand the question, that from the outside it can look daunting to come up with new ideas in Paris but I actually think it's the opposite! I don't know how people at Sportsgirl do it!
All the brands in Paris have a long history and they are setting the trends, not following them. The fashion houses have 'codes', for example, at Chanel they have the camellia, the chain woven with leather, quilting, tweed or the black and white. Our job is to take those codes and reinvent them in a new way with the inspiration of the current season. The elements might be subtle, but the key is to make something which is both new and looks instantly recognisable as being from the brand.
In setting the trends we have endless freedom. At the beginning of the season we often start only with the idea that we will produce something completely different from the season before. Mass market brands look to the big designers and copy trends, they don't have the codes to work from, so I think this job sounds harder!
Would your dream be to build your own fashion label, or to work your way up with one of these big fashion houses?
The dream was to do both. I really want to work in the high levels of one of the big brands here, being head designer. However, Paris is also a difficult place to live and I have been working hard ever since I left high school. So I want to go to New York for a while, have some fun, live without boundaries and be myself, whilst continuing to build my experience. I will keep contacts in Paris and would return here for the right position.
To get to the top you have to have something extra. I mean, everyone works hard, so you have to have that special thing which brands look for. Hard work will take you up the rungs of the ladder, but talent will take you further and faster. If you look at many of the designers at the head of big brands, they had a relatively quick path to the top.
I would like to continue working at companies, whilst we build our brand, ASSK, as well as maybe producing a very small range of clothing under my own name, to show my personal capabilities.
You are fitting a lot in to your days! How much is work and how much is easy because of your love what you are doing?
I would say it is 100% work! Especially with our brand ASSK, we can have periods on intense work. From June until last weekend (mid-September) I worked maybe 15 hours a day, every single day. But I love the industry, and I love to work, so I can't imagine anything else. It makes it easier that I do ASSK with my partner, because we share the work, and we get to spend a lot of time together!
What about down time, what is the best way to spend a lazy Sunday in Paris?
(Laughs) I’m up at 7:30am for this interview, so perhaps I’m not the best person to ask. But on a day off I like to get up early and walk to the gym, as the streets are completely empty until midday - Paris is better without the people! Have brunch with friends, then forget all our responsibilities and stay out of the house, maybe go to the Buttes Chaumont park for drinks at the Sunday party there, or out for Mexican food. Just relax and have a good time, no work, no rules!