An Italian. Educated at Saint Martins. Trained at Chloé. Living in London.
That’s designer Serafina Sama’s story in less than 140 characters, but once you see the clothes you’ll surely want to hear more. What I like so much about Sama’s line, called Isa Arfen, is its wearability. London fashion tends to be about the wild and unfettered, and it’s refreshing to see a young designer making something that’s really neither of those things. Which is a sort of rebellion in itself.
In fact, Arfen seems to be more influenced by British designers from the generation before hers–Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney and Clare Waight Keller, who make real clothes for real women–than her contemporaries. I spoke with Sama last week about the collection, and where she’d like to see it go.
Fashionista: Tell me more about how you got your start.
Serafina Sama: I started at Central Saint Martins in London. Before graduating, I did some work experience at Marni, Lanvin and Marc Jacobs. And then I finished college and got a job at Chloé, so I moved to Paris for a couple of years. I was working there with [former Chloé designers] Paulo Melim Andersson and Hannah MacGibbon. Then I moved back to London and had my baby so things slowed down a little bit. For about three years, I was doing freelance, consulting and doing a lot of research for Chloé, Louis Vuitton, Acne and Charlotte Olympia. Then I started really missing designing something personal. Also, I was getting lots of inspiration from all this research!
Two summers ago, I started, really casually, a small collection of dresses. Cotton, one size, with an elastic waistband or tie. It was just for friends and family, and I did it by word of mouth, but then I ended up selling quite a lot of them. So it gave me a little bit more confidence and the push to start something a bit more serious. I started to work with the idea to create a small wardrobe of pieces that could be layered and combined in different ways, more desirable compared to your everyday pieces. Then about a year ago, I showed my first collection.
Who were some of the first stores to buy?
Opening Ceremony, which was really exciting, and the Corner.com. And Département Féminin, which is a really beautiful store in Toulouse, France. They took the risk the first season!
Those are three big ones for your first season. And how many seasons in are you now?
This is my third.
How do you see the collection moving forward?
We are still a really small team. It’s just me and one assistant, so I’m taking it one step at a time. I would love to see it grow slowly, organically, to become a complete collection. I would love to introduce some knitwear, hopefully for the autumn and winter. For this season, I introduced print for the first time. It’s a collaboration with an illustrator, Marcelli Gutierrez. I dream of doing accessories at some point in the future but I need to be realistic and take it one step at a time.
There was some sort of collaboration with Charlotte Olympia, right?
Yes, yes. She’s been doing my shoes for my look book for all three seasons. They’re not in production yet but, of course, I would love in the future to see how that can work.
What is it like—right now—being an emerging designer in London? I feel like five or six years ago there was this burst, and all these people came up on the scene. Now, they’re all becoming more established.
I think it’s a good place to be a designer because there is a little bit more space for starting out. It’s hard, and sometimes my designs don’t really fit into what someone would typically expect out of London because [the fashion scene] tends to be more loud and experimental and a bit more conceptual. I would like to offer something that’s more relatable. I think of real women when I design so I think of me a lot. I really want the clothes to be wearable and maybe not as eye-catching as other designers, not as avant-garde. But for me, the desirability is very important.
That’s a good point.
I would like to be something that can last rather than making it very big impact now and then the trend changes. I would like to slowly build something with a strong identity that can appeal to women and develop in the future, better than making something very loud but then changing it season to season. I don’t think that’s really who I am.
Right, and that’s not how people really dress either.
Some do! I’m a big fan of a lot of London designers but I think I need to stay true to myself instead of try to be something that I’m not.
In terms of your customer base, has anyone surprised you? Has there been a place in the world that has really been drawn to your stuff that you weren’t expecting?
The store in Toulouse–which sells labels such as Celine–picks more classic pieces for an older customer. Then I see what Opening Ceremony chooses and it’s completely different; it’s a younger, more fashion crowd. I find it interesting what the Middle Eastern stores pick and the Hong Kong and the Japanese. I find it really fun and I love to try and include this element, to be able to appeal to different markets.