Serafina Sama isn’t just designer of her brand Isa Arfen. She’s a mother and a wife. This adds to her capability as a designer. Strolling through the picturesque, idyllic neighbourhood she lives in adjacent to Portobello Road, I feel like I’ve been transported to a scene from Desperate Housewives and was strolling through the fictional suburb of Wisteria Lane.
When I meet her on a cold autumn afternoon, she greets me wearing one of her pieces (the powder blue faux fur knee length jacket). As we venture downstairs to her in-house studio filled with mood boards, fabric swatches and rails filled with current AW13 and SS14 samples and settle down on the sofa to begin our interview; I begin to realize Arfen’s clothes are deeply rooted and have been thought for women like her – real, everyday women.
What are your plans for the festive season?
I’m going to Greece for a few days with my husband and son in order to spend time with his grandparents. Then heading to Argentina for a week.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a very small town in Italy which was very closely knit and family orientated. Everyone in my hometown knew each other. I have two younger brothers: one is ten years younger and is still studying while the other one works in finance. As a child I was fascinated by clothes and had a big interest in fashion. I used to watch my mother get ready and dress up and I would spend hours and days drawing images of girls in dresses. I never at the time I never thought it could and would become a career.
When did you become interested in fashion?
While I was at high school in Italy I heard about Central Saint Martins, that is when it finally clicked that fashion could go from being just a passion to a subject I could study becoming this way a full time career. I began to look into it but my parents were very cautious because,from their perspective,it wasn’t a serious subject. They considered it something frivolous and the kind of thing someone lazy would take up as a vocation. They tried to persuade me to get a serious degree first, as a foundation, and after that I could go on and do whatever I wanted. So I decided to study architecture, the most artistic out of all the serious subjects I could study.
Architecture seems to be the preferred beginnings for some of fashion’s great designers like Tom Ford. Do you think studying architecture enhances your skill as a fashion designer?
There are common areas and ways of thinking and transforming abstract concepts into something real. There's this fascination with form, shape and proportion which is common to both, fashion and architecture. However, I don’t think I could ever be an architect. I’m interested and appreciative of architecture and I like interior design, but I knew fashion was what I was going to do.
I moved to London and studied architecture for two years. While studying it,I was on the mission of convincing my parents I could do fashion and that I really wanted to go to Central Saint Martins. Eventually, I got a place there and went on to fulfill my dream.
What was studying at Central Saint Martins like? Did you enjoy your time there?
Day to day life in CSM was fun. The way the course is taught isn’t technical; I learnt a lot from the people around me. I was very young and the aesthetic I have now wasn’t as established. As a future fashion designer, it’s a period of your life when you’re experimental with your work and your personal style. I learnt to keep my eyes open, to look around and grab inspiration from the people and things around me. It was an overwhelming and a very positive experience.
While you were there, did you ever manage to meet the infamous Louise Wilson? If so, what was she like?
I met Louis Wilson while I was considering the possibility of doing the MA course. She’s tough but she’s very funny. I admire her and she’s a great inspiration.
Did you ever get the chance to do an internship during your course? Which designers did you intern for and what lessons did you learn?
When you’re in the bubble of Central Saint Martins you don’t get a real sense of what life is like in the real world. While you’re there you get the option of taking a year out to work within the industry. I took the opportunity and interned at Marni, Lanvin and Marc Jacobs. It was a very important year for me in which I managed to absorb and witness the way and process of working in a fashion house. Going on to my final year, I already had a realistic view and insight about the process of creating a collection from the way you do research to how you develop the clothes.
At Marni it was a very small team so I got to get close to the head designer, see how the collection developed and attend fittings to take Polaroids. You see the importance of research and building a collection from the ground and up. If you care and are interested in fashion, you will definitely get something out of it. It’s much harder to get a job if you don’t understand the way in which the industry works and have never had a foot in the industry. I remember doing my internships and feeling like ‘This is what I want to do!’
Let’s go back to the time when you did your graduate collection. What was it inspired by?
I remember being stressed out and now that I look back at it I realize it was much more fun (considering I’m now a mother). The inspiration for it were grown up, ladylike clothes seen through the eyes of a child. The focus was on couture shapes through exaggerated proportions in the coats, layering and lightweight fabric with oversized bags, all very playful. It was a very rough and naïve take that would later become part of my signature.
Talk us through the process of designing one of your collections.
First of all I attend a fabric fair where I might see a fabric that instantly inspires a movement, a feeling or an attitude. When we go to the fabric fairs we’re still in the studio finalising the current collection. I go to the libraries in Central Saint Martins or London College of Fashion and look through the archive books and magazines from the 20s, 30s and 40s to collect images. I also do vintage research by going to Portobello Market a lot and trying things on, I look carefully at the clothes and note down all the details. From the images and details I collect I create a mood board of fabrics and colours I’d like to use. I begin to sketch and from that I start to twirl with the in-house pattern cutter. During the early beginnings of the process, I try things on myself since we don’t have a fit model until the end. From there, we’ll alter the proportions or the fit and decide what to make and in which colour. It’s a very gradual process from the beginning to the end product.
What was your inspiration for the SS14 collection?
I started by looking at one of my favourite books, ‘Photographs of Paolo Roversi’ from the mid to late 80s. All the images are very romantic, poetic and fresh. At the same time I looked at books with Antonio Lopez’s work that captured high energy through his Polaroid images and bold coloured illustrations. I wanted to combine the poetry of Roversi’s photography with the positive energy of Lopez’s images. This translated into clothing with big volumes, remaining weightless through the use of silk gazar, silk brocades and organza. The collection starts with a lot of white in crinkled and sheer linen, techno organza and techno taffeta and the cotton organza stripe. It is followed by neutrals in mocha and warm brown tones, to then get the injections of bright colours the ‘eye’ illustration, which combines the high energy with the feminine feel that I wanted.
While I was looking through the images of your collections on your website I immediately noticed similarities to designers like Stella McCartney. Can you see similarities in your work and hers?
I’m flattered that you can see these similarities. I don’t think of people like Stella McCartney while I’m doing my work. I admire the way she has crated her brand and as a female designer, she designs with a woman in mind. Her ability to juggle a successful career and be a mother at the same time is an inspiration to me. My goal is not to create clothes with a 6 months lifespan that you wear once to make a statement and never wear again with the excuse that it's ‘last season’. My goal is to create clothes you can wear out and you can always rely on.
For the past few years there has been a phenomenal wave of designers coming out of London and showcasing at London Fashion Week. Do you think the door has now been flung open for yourself to come through?
Definitely. Designers like Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou opened up the doors and it’s encouraging to see how they have become well-known established designers and have put London Fashion Week back on the map.
Looking towards the future - what do you envisage the Isa Arfen show experience to be like?
I enjoyed the presentation I had in Paris because it was intimate and beautiful. It’s important for me to meet people and talk about the collection to them because there's so much of ‘me’ in it. If there were to be a show I would still like to keep the element of intimacy but it’s still early days to even start thinking about a show experience.
Who are your favourite designers?
As an Italian one of my favourite designers would be Miuccia Prada. I love what she does for Miu Miu and Prada, she makes you desire things you didn’t even know you wanted. I love her mix of references and her boldness, at the same time kept so lux, ladylike and chic. Her clothes appeal to different ages, from a 65 year old woman to a 20-something year old girl, they will both look amazing wearing her designs.Out of the younger ones based in London I like Simone Rocha; Marques’ Almeida has a different aesthetic to my own which I like and admire. Ialso admire Christopher Kane and what he does...There are lots of designers I like for different reasons but my top one would definitely be Prada.
For a designer who has just started out, your line has been picked up by big retailers (Opening Ceremony and the to name a few). What do you think you offer their clients and what's the relationship like between yourself and the retailer?
I was working on my first collection without knowing if anyone would get to see it, so I sent out thousands of emails to press and buyers. When Opening Ceremony replied saying they wanted to see it, it was very exciting. I went to a hotel in London to meet them with my rail in the hotel lobby and after a long wait they took a risk and decided to put in an order. The same thing happened when placed an order for the first season. And then a shop in Toulouse that sells very high-end designer pieces by Alaïa, Celine, Stella McCartney and now my label too. She doesn’t stock many brands so it was I felt a bit embarrassed seeing myself amongst these already established designers.The selections they all make are very different. Opening Ceremony buy more bold and fun editorial pieces while the shop in Toulouse buys more classic pieces like white Oxford shirts, black trousers and brown trench coats which they use to fill in the gaps with other designers. is a mixture of both commercial and editorial pieces.
Opening Ceremony has been especially supportive of the label. The buyer is photographed wearing pieces and speaking about it in the press at every and any opportunity whether it is in magazine interviews or events, in order to push the label and get noticed.
As an up and coming designer, what is your relationship with digital media?
I’m not the most digital person. I have fun using Instagram because I can just take the picture and post it. I’m not very good at Twitter. When I do use it, it’s mainly as a tool to share links to recent articles that have been written about us or to thank someone. I’m not very good at thinking of a tweet to write. If I’m at an event,the last thing I think of is tweeting about it because I’ve gone out to have fun. If I’m bored I’m not going to tweet because I have nothing to say and if I’m at work, I’m busy working. I’m not as witty as other people so I don't have anything funny funny to say.
Who is the Isa Arfen girl?
She’s feminine and sophisticated but relaxed, with a sense of humour , who doesn’t take herself too seriously. She loves clothes and has fun dressing up. She appreciates beautifully finished clothes and has an eye for detail.
When you’re not designing what do you do in your spare time?
When I’m not designing I spend my time with my son, which is a good way to switch off from work. We go to museums and the park. He loves trains so we play with his toy trains.
I love music and watching documentaries. I listen to more rock music but enjoy all genres. I’ve watched the David Bowie documentary many times, I’m obsessed with Queen and recently watched the Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd documentaries. I find it inspiring watching these amazing stories of these talented individuals and it makes me want to roll up my sleeves and work harder.The time I spend with my husband is quite relaxing. We go for nice meals and spend time with our son together. I’m not a crazy party girl anymore now that I’m a mother and wife with a family. I prefer chilled and relaxing days and nights. I also love watching contemporary ballet. When there is a show by Wayne McGregor I try not to miss it, I’m a fan of his work.
Without fashion…
Without fashion I would still be a happy mom doing something else but most definitely happy.
Are you mom or designer first?
Definitely a mom first… but I’m also a designer. But no doubt I'm a mom first! Thank God I was a mom first because I would never be able to switch off from work and I would go crazy from the stress of it all.