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Words Natalie Shukur
Photographs Beth Garrabrant
The Sies Marjan studio in New York’s garment district is absolute eye candy. Plants convene in corners and cascade from bookshelves that are laden with a luscious collection of art and design books, with brightly colored shoes perched on top. Sensuous sofas adorned in fuzzy fabrics look like a page from Elle Decor, as does the pink marble bathroom. Through glass doors, you can view creative director Sander Lak's studio, where seamstresses are busy at work, and a rainbow of garments are suspended from racks — faux furs in saccharine hues, brushing up against molten silk blouses. After only four seasons in business, Lak (who christened the brand after his parents' given names) has established himself as one of the industry's most invigorating young designers. And he is an avatar of his brand — today dressed in a head-to-toe pistachio ensemble. Here, Lak clues us in on his process and passions.
“Luxury, for me, should not be just the fantasy of
fashion but also the experience of wearing something
that is luxury. That’s what I like.”
I just buy stuff — I don’t really search for anything. It’s how we all consume things — you go through things, and you’re like: OK this looks interesting, this looks interesting…there’s never one thing. If you look at all my books, there are so many different types of things.
We really don’t work with mood boards or inspirations, it’s more…in a way, technical, and in another way, free. We start with a color card to define a mood, maybe, but it’s also very abstract because one color could mean one thing to one person, and a totally different thing to another person. There’s no right or wrong answer — we just put colors together. And from there we pick fabrics, and then the fabrics are reacting to the colors. It’s really a conversation that goes in a very gut feeling, instinctive kind of way. Because we don’t have to limit ourselves, like the theme is '80s and we need to have metallic fabric and blah, blah, blah. We can really do whatever we want. Then, the deadlines that come up first after the fabrics are shoes and knitwear, so we don’t even think about clothes yet. It’s really an evolution process, with one thing leading to the next, and in the end we’re able to round it up and say: “these are the pillars we’re working on.” But I can never tell you: “this is inspired by this exhibition or this artist.” It’s never like that.
It’s building blocks, yeah! I’ve worked in the industry for so many years and I’ve worked in so many different ways, and there’s no such thing as the right or wrong way. Everyone gets from A to B in some sort of way. In the end, it just needs to be a good collection with good clothes. I don’t need to have a very clear inspiration or a muse or anything like that to get me to the end result because I feel that almost limits me too much. I need that freedom all the way to the end, to be like: “It doesn’t matter that this doesn’t fit, I just feel that it’s right.” And it’s quite nice to not have to explain myself afterward too much. Because it’s about a lot of things, but it’s also about nothing. I take it very seriously, and I put a lot of myself in it, and it’s a very personal thing. It’s not like, “this season I’m woke and I want it to be about politics!”
Yeah. Like, when we started, our first collection, I remember the reactions were so positive. People were so refreshed by this idea of proposing summer clothes in winter, and I didn’t even think about that. And then they were like, "oh my god, the colors! It makes you happy, it must be an anti-political statement." I was like: “no, not really!” I think it’s nice for me to shut up about it and people have their own interpretation of it. Because I have very clear ideas, and clear reference points, but I like to keep them to myself.
We kept calling it milkshake, because it was almost like the colors we were using before, but if you add milk or cream to it. So, it’s not watered down, because if you water something down it gets more muted, but when you “milk it down”, let’s say, it makes it richer but in a softer way. Like blueberry milkshake, strawberry milkshake — all those kinds of tones. And the greens were like some sort of weird celery milkshake or grass. With that color card, it was very clear that we wanted to use fabrics that were very flowy and light, and we had the chiffon that we printed with a kind of brushstroke, which all really worked within that theme of softness. And it was a little bit romantic, in a way, which is quite nice, because people really felt that was also the right thing at the right moment. You look at the collection and there’s sort of this warm, romantic, personal feeling. And also the show being in here [the studio], which is a very personal space.
How far do you want to go back?! Where do I start? I’m Dutch originally; I was born in Brunei and lived in Malaysia, Africa, Scotland. My father used to work for Shell, so we would travel all around the world. I spent my teenage years in Holland and did my BA in Holland and my Masters at Saint Martins in London. I got my first job at Phillip Lim here in New York, right after college for one season. Then I went to Balmain in Paris and was there for two years, then I went to Dries Van Noten where I was for almost five years in Antwerp. And then, somehow, this thing in New York came about. Because I’ve always lived everywhere, for me, location isn’t really a factor. So I just happened to be in New York, it wasn’t like I planned New York. And I’m really happy that it is here; I feel like New York is the right place to start something. There’s something about New York, with its fastness and excitement for new territories. Also, the sheer fact that there is money and resources here — things happen here, instantly.
Yes, it’s more business-minded, which can lead to something commercial…but it doesn’t have to be. I mean, look at us! We are doing a product that’s not necessarily just commercial but also not necessarily just a fantasy. I think we’ve really found a balance in between. And New York is a great place for that. I think the product would be the same anywhere else but it probably would have gone very differently if it was in Europe — the process is slower and you need to get through certain stages. Here in New York, if you just prove yourself and do your thing, you find a way very quickly, and that’s exciting.
I think what’s nice as well is what we’re doing is not quintessential American, but it’s also not quintessential European. We’re really just our own thing, and I think that’s probably our staying power because we do what we do and it’s very authentic to us.
It’s really interesting because we’ve only had our clothes in the stores for a year and a half now. We’ve done five shows. So we have information but we don’t have a history. What we’re seeing is that it’s very much what I hoped it would be: not limited to age or nationality. Obviously, we are a luxury product so there’s a certain standard in terms of price point, but beyond that there’s no limitations. It can be the cool young girl or it’s her mom and her grandma. And I think that’s really nice because, for me, I would hate to have one type of customer. The way that we work is very much about colors and materials and the craft of designing, and because it isn’t about being cool or being a lady — it’s not about those kinds of boxes, at all — that really frees it up for everyone who reacts to it to feel like they belong in it. Like the campaign that we did was [people] literally from the age of 11 to 65, and it was men, women, all the color skin tones that you can imagine, and it was this group of people that somehow is a family because the clothes link them all together. That’s what my life is like, and that's what, honestly, I’d love the world to be like as well.
Exactly, yeah. I love people to buy something and work it into their wardrobe. I mean, I love it when someone wears a full look, but it doesn’t really work like that for everyone. I love it when someone wears a shirt with their denim or a jacket that’s not ours with a dress underneath it that is ours. I think that’s also how I am as a customer, even though I’m not a woman, I am the Sies Marjan customer in theory. I’m someone who, when I was younger and didn’t have any money, I always wanted to buy things, and I was saving up money because I love clothes. I love wearing them, I love buying them, I love the feeling that it gives me. I love experimenting with it. The experience of buying is really important and that’s something I try to implement. Because nobody really needs anything, we all have more than enough, so you need to give that extra layer. You will always see me wear the things because I need to know what the fabric feels like and I need to know, if I wear this for five days, does the fabric crinkle? That’s the difference between luxury and contemporary. Luxury, for me, should not be just the fantasy of fashion but also the experience of wearing something that is luxury. That’s what I like.
We create all of our fabrics ourselves. The colors are according to our color cards, so you can’t get them anywhere else. Or I’ll see a certain fabric or finish somewhere else and we’ll combine them and create something from scratch.
Yeah, it really is. Everything is very textural. Because, also, I trained as a menswear designer because of the relation to myself and because I was always obsessed with clothes. And there are some fabrics that maybe I wouldn’t wear, but I always try to think about how they feel. And then there are some fabrics that transcend the idea of practicality, for example, the metal crinkle suit we had in gold in the show. That’s one of the materials that, in theory, you’re like, How do you make this work? And it was one of our bestsellers. So it’s very much like a laboratory — we’re making things, we’re testing things out. Everything is done here on the machine.
I live really close to the office, which is perfect. I’ve lived in so many countries, so for me feeling at home somewhere doesn’t mean going and discovering, it kind of means the opposite. For me to be at home somewhere means I’m very comfortable and this is my area and I’m happy with the things that I have. And that’s how I’ve made a home out of Paris, Antwerp, London, Africa, Scotland… by making a little bubble for myself. So I would not know what the coolest restaurant is, I would not know where people go out, I would not know what the “It” place is. I literally love my apartment, and my restaurant across the street, and the walk to my work. I go places and I see my friends, but it’s not what I would call “my New York”, it’s more other people’s New York that I occasionally dive into. But my New York is this office and my apartment, and no one’s invited — it’s a very exclusive version of New York!