Inside Sies Marjan: The American couture house turning a fresh, new chapter
"Colour, Fabric, Fit. In that order."
There are saggy balloons and half-eaten cake in Sander Lak's office at Sies Marjan, the New York-based fashion house, named after his parents' respective first names, where he is creative director. It's Monday morning and the remnants of the previous Friday's festivities — Sander's 34th-birthday party — are still on full display. As are the more buoyant work-in-progress layouts for the brand's Bruce Weber-lensed campaign (which has since been released); it's all colour and smiles and American family trees, both literally and metaphorically. Equally vibrant fabric swatches and image-reference boards for the forthcoming Sies Marjan collection are also on show. (Rather than release pre-collections, the company delivers its bright-and-breezy seasonal collections in two separate drops, a couple of months apart: part one is 'the sellers'; part two, the 'more extreme show pieces', as Gabbie — aka, Gabrielle Bennett, Sies Marjan's product development coordinator — describes them). Everything in Sander's working world, it seems, is on show. There's nothing to hide.
Nowhere more so than the design atelier, the first thing you notice upon entering the Sies Marjan HQ. With only a floor-to-ceiling glass wall dividing it from the rest of the second-floor space, visitors freely observe the goings-on in this creative goldfish bowl. The predominantly female team of seamstresses, patternmakers, designers, and producers goes about the business of turning Sander's ideas into fully formed collections. It's awash with buzzy activity set against the myriad rolls of kaleidoscopic fabrics that have become the Sies Marjan signature since its launch during New York Fashion Week in February 2016.
This season, the notion of share-it-all transparency extends to the Spring/Summer 2018 collection being presented in the atelier itself. Reviewers, buyers, bigwigs and VIPs get to see and smell the environment in which the collection has been created. It's both a confident (and economical) move and fitting metaphor for a brand that has been quick to garner praise, curiosity and, now, expectation.
For all its joyful momentum and verve, however, Sies Marjan was born out of the ashes of the Ralph Rucci label, which unceremoniously imploded three years ago. Rucci had long been feted for his talent as a painter, his masterly haute-couture skills, and his fervent following of private clients. One of the devoted was Nancy Marks, wife of billionaire investor Howard Marks, who became Rucci's business partner and backer in 2012. In doing so, she offered more tangible possibilities for the commercial success that had always eluded the designer. But that all ground to an ugly halt, when in late 2014, Rucci announced his immediate departure from his own company 'to pursue other creative endeavours'. Not only did this leave a palpable void among American society's ladies-that-lunch, it also left an atelier of highly skilled couture hands out of work. Some of Rucci's team of patternmakers, sewers, cutters and hand-finishers had been with him for well over a decade, and Nancy Marks and Joey Laurenti, the CEO she'd brought in to steer the Ralph Rucci business, were left facing a challenging new reality.
Fast-forward three months and Laurenti had hired Sander Lak, a Dutch designer who had worked under Christophe Decarnin at Balmain before becoming Dries Van Noten's right-hand for five years. Laurenti and Lak — from a strategic, conceptual and emotional standpoint — decided to retain many of the atelier workers to work at their new, American luxury fashion house, Sies Marjan. By taking their considerable 'American couture' skills and fusing them with Sander's more European-fashion-forward outlook and design staff, Sies Marjan had a chance to create a modern proposition of beautifully crafted and relevant garments.
It's a decision that has so far paid off. Sander's undeniable talent as a colourist and fabric aficionado has been well received by customers and industry alike, his upbeat and unpretentious dresses and outerwear considered a welcome antidote to the doom and gloom of modern-day America. Add to that the openness and generally positive vibes that the brand exudes, and Sies Marjan seems to be chiming with the desires of the times. With this in mind, System spent the past season observing Sander Lak and his Sies Marjan team during the creation of the collection they presented in their atelier in September as part of New York Fashion Week. This also provided us with the chance to hear from the Sies Marjan team members themselves; the eclectic, yet strangely harmonious mix of women in the large glass cube, whose collective skills and refreshing attitude have helped Lak and Laurenti turn this upstart brand into a potential New York contender. Of course, this isn't a social experiment, it's a business, but its sense of family and honesty prevails. As Louise du Toit, the company's vice president of sales says, only half-jokingly: "The thing about Sies Marjan is that we know when to work our fucking asses off."
People sometimes refer to Sies Marjan as a new luxury womenswear proposition. Do you feel that is accurate?
Sander Lak: That surprises me. I don't think there is such a thing as a new fashion label. Fashion is an old craft, an old thing to do. I don't really see the value of the word 'new' so much. There are many other words that are better. 'Surprising', maybe. 'New' is very empty somehow. I don't think we are doing anything revolutionary; we just do things the way we want to do them. For us, it is new because we've never made products like this before, but I don't think that we are a new fashion thing. It would be great if we were! And it's great that people think that, but it is not what we strive for. We are not seeking out newness. I think the time of new is over. Now is a time of collaging things together. For the younger generation, something from the 1990s is as old as something from the 1890s. Everything that is old is old.
Sies Marjan certainly comes across as something new in the context of New York fashion. Is what you are doing steeped in any kind of New York fashion lineage?
We are a New York-based company. We have American backing, an American location. In the traditional sense, we are an American company. But outside of that, I think we are very much an international company. Within the context of New York, what people were immediately drawn to, what made it different and new, was the superficial observation of us using colour, whereas in an old way of thinking, New York is all about sportswear, and black and white. That is not something that we calculated, but an observation that is being made again and again.
Was it thought of as a calculated thing?
No. Most of time I do things by gut feeling; I don't calculate, I just do what I feel is right. And I just felt that this was the opportunity, these were the kind of clothes that I wanted to make and this was the group of people with whom we could make them. It just happened to be the right thing at the right time in the right place, because no one was really doing colour in that way. We didn't sit around the table and say, "No one is doing colour — so we should do colour!"
You've obviously worked for a number of houses before as second-in-command. Was it always your ambition to be at the head of a label?
Yes. I did my BA in Holland in Haarlem and when I went to do my Master's at Saint Martins in 2005. It was with the idea of starting my own label. I was determined. At Saint Martins, Louise Wilson kind of slapped that idea out of me. She said everyone comes to Saint Martins thinking they will start their own label, but she preferred people to get jobs and do something that really benefits them. She said there are really only one or two people each year who start their own label. She really pushed me into this idea of working, saying I wasn't ready for it, that I was very young and that I didn't have any experience. I didn't even know how a sewing machine worked until two years into fashion school. I really took that onboard. I started working, went from one place to the next, and kind of forgot about that idea. I was totally happy and totally convinced that it was what I should be doing, and I forgot about my own label. Then, eight or nine years in, it started bubbling again. I started thinking that maybe I wanted more. And somehow, lots of things became available, including this kind of leftfield opportunity in New York that was so strange and not according to any rules. Taking over a house is one thing and working for someone else is another. I understood both, but this was a complete unknown.
Was it a given that you would inherit some of the existing structure and staff from the Ralph Rucci era?No. When Joey [Laurenti, Sies Marjan CEO] and I were really sitting together and before I actually said yes, we were really just trying to see what was possible. What does the old company have? What can we take over and what not? As soon as we had discussed all these things in theory and I had said, let's do it, we just had to see and build from there. From the beginning, I had to get to know everyone and I had to see what skills were there — what could I use and not use? And then we had a year to put the company together, to go through that process, hire new people and see how they worked together. We made some mistakes along the way and we made some good choices. You know, you really grow into your thing. After that first year and those first collections, I really felt that we had the right combination of the old and the new. You couldn't tell who was there from the start from who came later. Everyone here from the old company naturally morphed themselves into becoming part of Sies Marjan.
"We don't accept any attitude at Sies Marjan. No fashion bitches, no harsh treatment. We make clothes; we are not saving lives."
What were your first thoughts about taking this offer rather than going to another existing design house?
What Joey and I really discussed in the beginning was the landscape of an American-based luxury brand. There is only a handful of them.
Why is that do you think?
I think it's probably a cultural thing. Everything is very product-driven and very money-driven, too. That's a great thing, but it takes away some magic and fantasy. It is very hard for highend American fashion brands to conquer European and Asian markets. I think Europeans don't look at American brands in the same way. In a way, they are seen as second rate. In France, it's like, 'We own this territory of highend'. With Sies Marjan being a nomad thing — as I am, too — we thought there would be a hole in the market for an America-based luxury brand. In a way, we were right, and now we have a lot of stores in Europe embracing us in a way that they don't normally do with American brands. We are American, but our name isn't American. The product we make isn't typically American, but it isn't typically European either. I think we can build a bridge to conquer both those territories. The money is here, but the prestige is there. We really found a way to hit both at the same time. Joey, especially, is really good at that. This was 2015. We worked that whole year and had our first show in 2016. And 2015 was a very different time in the industry. The way we approached it back then was different. We have already had to adjust our pricing structure. People always ask me, "Why did you start a brand?" This is the perfect time to start a brand because we can adapt so quickly to rapid changes. We don't have a history of how we used to do things.
What are your desires for the brand?
They have also changed. When we started, I had this idea that this should be the alternative Ralph Lauren. I really had this idea of a brand, clothes and furniture, like a whole world. That has somewhat disappeared. My ambitions haven't become smaller, but my desire to be that big has changed. All of a sudden, this idea of being niche has become attractive. The desire for that kind of grandness is a little bit suicidal at the moment. Becoming as big as we can, in a niche way, and trying to hit all of our market placements and grow organically into product groups — that's really what the future should be, not necessarily turning this into a huge machine.
Was that a hard realization?
No, not at all. It got shattered because I realised that that is not what I really want. Maybe I will change my mind again in a few years, but for now I don't want to be that big machine.
What do you think is the defining mood in fashion right now? How do you think that Sies Marjan conveys that mood?
As with everything, I think there is good and bad. The bad side is this disconnect with what it is that we actually do, and people perceiving fashion as entertainment to fill magazines and dress celebrities. In the end, what we do is make a product and sell that product. For a while, if you put the right things into a product, it would just move. Sometimes it would even sell itself. That has now completely changed and the product doesn't move as smoothly anymore. All of a sudden, there is panic. A lot of figuring out where and how customers are spending their money and how you can get them to spend their money on you. Do we have to put everything on Instagram? Do we have to be purely online or in a physical space? Do we do events? All of these questions are becoming bigger and more time-consuming than ever. Because we have manoeuvred ourselves very quickly into a high-end space and the right stores, we are able to move really quickly with those changes. I think that has really helped us, but it is not very rosy out there. It is weird, because I am a very positive person, but I don't know how long fashion is going to survive in its current form. At some point there will be a sort of implosion. Like in 2008, when Lehman Brothers folded and then there was a trickle-down effect. I hope this won't happen and I love this industry, but I do feel that there is going to be something similar. The industry became so much about money and profit and margins. That is why it became an entertainment, as opposed to a very high-end, niche thing that trickled down to the masses. It used to be separate, but now there is too much stuff for everyone and not enough money to go round. Too many things. At some point, something has to happen. That is very scary and people are worried. They are getting aggressive in how they reach their clients.
"In 2008, when Lehman Brothers folded and then there was a trickle-down effect. I hope this won't happen and I love this industry, but I do feel that there is going to be something similar."
Do your products stand out in among all the others?
I do think that when you go into the store and there is our rail of colour, it does give you something. It is all about colour and texture — that is the first thing that you encounter when you walk into a store. In certain stores where it is very dark and there is lots of navy, and you see our rail with all that colour, it just pops out. It is nice to be able to do that with the product, rather than with big merchandising banners. That is a very conscious thing. We sell clothes. That is how we make our money. It is the clothes that need to speak.
I started realizing that while we were living in Gabon, and my mum would dress us all in very bright colours because we were living in a rainforest and were surrounded by all of this green. She would dress us in bright blue or bright pink, so she could look out of the window and see us, because if we were in earthy tones we would disappear. That was the first time that I really became aware that colours could give you a dimension.
You've said that even as a child, colour played a big role. Looking back, how did that express itself?
I was always really sensitive to colour, so I would always have very specific needs as a kid, like what colour my shoes had to be. Not so much what kind of clothes I would wear, but what colours they would be, without knowing that this was out of the ordinary. For me, it was super normal. I just had to choose the colour. I started realizing that while we were living in Gabon, and my mum would dress us all in very bright colours because we were living in a rainforest and were surrounded by all of this green. She would dress us in bright blue or bright pink, so she could look out of the window and see us, because if we were in earthy tones we would disappear. That was the first time that I really became aware that colours could give you a dimension. They are more than just a thing that covers everything; they actually do something. As a teenager, I started understanding that these things could really have an emotional effect, too. When I was younger, I remember very clearly starting to understand that if I was wearing dark clothes or black clothes, then I would feel a certain way and become a certain person. Then when I would go really bright, I would feel very differently. Originally, I thought it was because I was a teenager and full of hormones, but then I realized it was the colours of the clothes. That is something I always take with me. I am very sensitive to it, but everyone has something of that in them — that certain colours make them feel a certain way. Colour is so instinctive and emotional. If someone asks you your favourite colour, you pick one instinctively.
"When I was younger, I remember very clearly starting to understand that if I was wearing dark clothes or black clothes, then I would feel a certain way and become a certain person."
How do you feel about colour quickly becoming one of the brand's defining elements?
It will always play a part. For the coming years, I feel very much that everything we do has to have a consistency, because if you change too much people don't know how to define you. So, yes, I do think we have to keep that part of the collection very clear now, then after a while I am sure I will get bored and try and do something else. But I have absolutely no problem with being known as the colour brand — it could be worse!
Having met some of your seamstresses and team today, I'm struck by how their personal stories work their way into the overall DNA of Sies Marjan. Larissa and Irina, for example, grew up in former Soviet Union countries, learning dressmaking skills because that's just what every girl did. And then, as young women, they came to America and both became steeped in a basic tradition of American luxury by their experience of working for Ralph Rucci. Now that that house has been transformed into Sies Marjan, they have a mix of a European fashion sensibility with this hybrid American luxury, while your design sensibility forces their skills into new areas...
...and they force me, too! It really goes both ways. I'm learning just as much from them as they are from me.
To what extent do you think all of this is tangible within the clothes or the brand?
I think a lot of it is very technically hidden. There are ways that we treat our fabrics, make certain things and engineer our twists, folds and drapings that are very couture-based. We try to make a product that is easy to wear and does not have a couture price point. But that can make it very hard to read just how high-end it really is. We make it into something that just hangs off you. Something that doesn't scream. I didn't want to say, 'Now we are American couture'. That didn't feel authentic, because I don't have a couture background. I don't know shit about couture. I have never worked that way. For me, it is more about being able to have a crazy or complicated idea and have a pattern maker who is skilled enough to bring it all the way to the highest level and then back to a ready-to-wear product that sits on the floor next to Céline. A lot of people who really understand how clothes are made say that our fabrications are beautiful and the way they are finished is really well done. I don't want to scream about it — it should be a given, if it's a luxury product. Then again, we don't always succeed, and sometimes we do have to make compromises. But it is about having that option, about being able to move.
You've said that you are almost able to sense from clothes on a rail the kind of environments in which they were created. What did you take from your different experiences, good or bad, that helped create the culture you have here?
A certain torture happens in the industry with certain brands and companies that you can see in the products. I have worked in very nice and very harsh environments, and I think what you learn from both sides is equally important. What I have really taken from it is that I needed to find a way that works for me and Joey. We really put everything on a table and said: "This is what I have experienced, and this I what felt was the right thing, and this is really the wrong thing." Really going into detail about everything. Then we started dissecting it and selecting what we liked. My experience is from a designer's point of view, whereas Joey has a very different background and Louise [du Toit, vice president of sales] has a different background. In the end, it is not just about a designer's experience, it is really about the experiences on the factory floor, sales floor, and so on. Being able to sit around a table and listen to people who are very honest and raw about those experiences and what they like is really where it started.
What was the common take from that?
We don't want any attitudes. No fashion bitches, no harsh treatment. Nobody should be treated in a bad way or a way that is completely disconnected from what we actually do. We make clothes; we are not saving lives. We are not changing the world. We do something that is very precious and important, and it's a luxury to do what we do, a joy, so we have to treat it accordingly and treat each other the same way we treat our product. We found this very important. We all had experiences of being enslaved to a product. That approach makes no sense to me. It does not come from respect or love, which is what it should do, in this industry. That is something that I was really clear about. Of course, we end up arguing or having bad moods, but the overall thing is that no one here feels that they are being exploited or forced to do something. I really felt lucky in that I have had mostly good experiences. While I was listening to these people, I was thinking that the last thing I want would be for anyone to come from this place and to sound like that.
"We all had experiences of being enslaved to a product. That approach makes no sense to me. It does not come from respect or love, which is what it should do, in this industry."
What were the character traits that you found recurring?
I think that people are very honest and direct. They help out if someone doesn't know how to do something. Every single person in this company would help them to figure something out. It is rare in a studio that people help each other out. They tend to focus on what is needed from them only and just want to please the creative director. We all know that exists, and I didn't want that. I don't want anyone to think just about themselves. Everyone has a life outside of Sies Marjan. They have a partner, kids, a home. I think the person with the least healthy life here is me! But, you know, I take one for the team. I find it very important. People need to have a life outside of this, otherwise they won't give me what I need as well.
How much importance do you place on women playing a part in a process that makes clothes for women?
That is one of the most important parts. I am not saying that men cannot design for women, or that women cannot design for men. That is all bullshit. But for the way that I work, and for the product I want to make, I find it very important that women in the team can contribute beyond an aesthetic point of view — which is what I can contribute as a man. I know this because I was always a menswear designer. I know what it is like to design for your own sex. I would design a piece of clothing and then put it on and feel it. I just physically cannot do that with women's clothes, so it is very important to have women in the team who can really respond to that. It is just logical. It makes total sense. Why would a team of only men design for women? It is like the White House — all these white middle-aged men deciding women's rights. That just makes no sense.
How do you see Sies Marjan evolving? Do your conversations with Joey about the three-year or five-year plan make you feel excited or slightly terrified?
They don't terrify me. I am really excited to have put something out there in such a short space of time, which means we can already start thinking about what a piece of Sies Marjan furniture might look like, or a shoe, menswear, children's wear. It is quite defined already. For me, quite soon the womenswear won't be enough. I already want more. We started shoes, which had not originally been in the plan. They will be in stores from August, when we are also starting our online store, in the USA to begin with. Then we have our menswear capsule collection, which we are working on now. But we are taking things as they come; they are like Post-its, and we just take them off the wall as we get to them. We were going to do bags first, but then no one cared for bags and suddenly everyone was screaming for shoes, so we did shoes. Then the buyers were saying: "We love what you wear, Sander. We want men to dress like you." We said fine, let's do a menswear collection! We go with the flow, with the end goal of becoming a brand where you can get your clothes and your pillows, shoes, bags, and then furniture. That would be a dream. Maybe not at the scale of Ralph Lauren. But the idea of creating a world with the identity of Sies Marjan makes me really excited. That's what I think we should be doing.
"Why would a team of only men design for women? It is like the White House - all these white middle-aged men deciding women's rights. That just makes no sense."
More than scale?
Yes, more than scale. We need to make sure we make money and are profitable, but it is not so much about scale, more about your footprint in the market. From there on, you just grow in the way that you grow. Five years ago, it was very different. You could have projected your growth, then, and it was an easy calculation. Now that is off the table and it might take a few years before you get to a certain point, which before it would have taken a year to reach. Then again, it can happen that you are an overnight sensation. Look at Vetements, look at Off-White. I mean, look at us. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we are like 'boom'. That can also go the other way around. Some of the things we did will probably not work at all, but what is nice with our set up is that we are able to experiment. Also, I trust my team. If someone says, "I really think we should do this, we keep hearing from this market and this is what they want", then it is up to me to listen and react.
It does feel like this company is being well brought up, based on the collective team here. It feels like a solid base on which you can build.
Yes, totally. Starting a brand when you come out of college has always been a hard thing to do, but even more so now. There is virtually no space for that anymore. That is why I was really clear when Joey and I were speaking, that if we do this, we have to sit next to those brands in the department stores, the Célines and the Alaïas, and not become 'the young brand'. We wanted to establish ourselves. We can't be like that kid who just graduated. With the elements we have and the people we hired and the amount of experience people have — not too much, not too little — we can both see what is possible and avoid making stupid beginner's mistakes. I'm not talking about the pattern cutters, but me and Joey and Louise and the design team. I think that that amount of experience is really perfect. Five to 10 years is enough for you to understand what it is all about, but not be ruined by it yet.
MEET THE SIES MARJAN TEAM
This interview was conducted by Jonathan Wingfield.
Models: Sasha Pivovarova, Achok Majak
Special thanks to Anita Bitton at Establishment Casting and Sara Helmig.