Oscar de la Renta isn't the only house passing the baton from its founder to a new creative director this season. In July, the founding designers of Australian label Sass & Bide, Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke, departed after 15 years; and Anthony Cuthbertson, an English designer who has spent time at Victoria Beckham and Mulberry, was brought on to take their place. His first collection for the label will bow at London Fashion Week on Friday.
In December, we met with Cuthbertson in downtown Manhattan to talk about his vision for the brand, heretofore known for its its sexy party frocks, which have been worn by the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker (in her "Sex and the City" days) and Madonna. He came with sketchbooks and swatches -- and the kind of the-sky-is-the-limit enthusiasm you see in a person full of ideas and the confidence to execute them.
You've just made a big move from London to Australia. How's it going so far?
It's a big change. I'm excited. [Sass & Bide] is a great brand, and it has huge potential. For the first month I was really going in there listening, learning, really getting to know the team, making an archive for the last 15 years. Fifteen years is not a lot of history, but it is enough to play on and look at the DNA and what really worked and what didn't work. It was all about these two contrasts, and the styling. [The designers] might have had a really soft chiffon dress and thrown a harness over the top to give it this really hard edge... It could be quite theatrical. We've made things much cleaner, really focusing on the level of quality. We're doing a lot more leather, and focusing on a lot more knitwear and incorporating more people into the team who are specialists. I've got a great girl on accessories -- a department that has huge potential. We're expanding our main range to cover all different lifestyles. The brand started 15 years ago in the Portobello Road Market where the girls really focused on customizing denim. So, again, what I've done is get a great person who could really work on that area, and this time I've incorporated denim into the show. I want to bring more of a casual sense to the brand that's very relevant.
When you say casual, do you mean introducing a sense of ease, or is it fabric...?
There's ease to it because I felt that the direction that [Sass & Bide] had been taken was probably more events and more evening. And when I looked at the brand, and where it came from, it was more free spirit, and it was a bit more casual and it was a little more fun. There was a hard edge to it. [Now] it's about playfulness and about making things a little bit easier with a luxury essence and a cleaner outlook. It's not all about embellishments and embroideries. There's much more balance within the collection and it feels like it's more for a range of women, because our customer ranges. You know, we have the young aspiring girl who wants to come in, and the older sister and the mom.
Will the prices change?
Not really. We go from a $60 t-shirt to a $4,000 dress. The leather pieces might be a bit more expensive because now they are made in Europe. We're using a lot more European factories and mills I've worked with previously.
Have Heidi [Middleton] and Sarah-Jane [Clarke] been involved in the reinvention process? There was an overlap between their departure and your start, right?
Yes. They aren't involved in the brand anymore but they were definitely part of the process of me being hired.
You're based in Australia but you sell a great deal to the northern hemisphere. How do you plan to design across so many climates and seasons?
Obviously with being an Australian brand it's always an issue. So what we're doing this season, for the first time, is presenting a northern hemisphere collection that will be ready for sale and you can order it straight off the runway. There will be a lot more outerwear, a lot more knitwear. The knitwear has really expanded. I've brought in a new specialist who can do amazing techniques. Knitwear is our number one because it's so trans-seasonal. It is a lot more focused on texture.
Why did you decide to move the show back to London?
Because the girls had originally started the brand 15 years ago in Portobello Market. With the girls moving on, it felt it was time to go back to where it all started and start the process again. We have to make our mark, and we've got the opportunity. We'll be showing in the Australian embassy. It's the best location; the embassy is quite a hit. It's very grand. What I'll be doing is giving it an ultra modern mood, which is the opposite of what it is. I'm also working on a project with a bunch of women artists... we'll be creating hand-painted pieces for the show.
You mentioned that accessories have 'huge potential.'
Clothing is always important but, as you know, accessory sales are probably the most important. I just took a big trip to the Middle East and it was all about the handbags and shoes.
Do you think that will ever change, that accessories won't be as important as they are now?
No. For women [in the Middle East], you can't always see what they are wearing because they are covered up. It's the shoes and the bag and the sunglasses. It's almost as though these three things reveal who she is or who she wants to be. When you look at fashion generally, and when you look at the high street, customers today they understand the level of work that goes into an item. Last week, I went to this presentation in London and this woman said, "Fashion is over as we know it. You can go and have a lunch and you can go and buy an outfit for [the same price]." It's about craftsmanship now. It's going back to couture, going back to everything that means something.
Do you think craftsmanship will be a big part of your message?
Absolutely. It's something that is our message now. When we talk about our evening pieces and the embroidery, it's all about being touched by the hand. For me, artisan is really important. It makes you different from everyone else -- to know that something is actually being made by hand.
Your sketches are so clean. What is your sketching process like? Is it something you do on the weekends? Can you do it in an office environment?
I maybe have two days in the office that I can possibly sketch. But, to be honest, the days are about running the business because I am not just a part of design; I am a part of the marketing department and the business side, the retail. The weekends are about the only time I get to do it because it is peace and quiet. It's serene in my office. I like to be in my space. I'll play a little music, have a little candle burning, create my own atmosphere. I zone out. I am in my own space.
It's a seven-day-a-week job.
It is. You know, at the end of the day, for this, you have to live and breathe it. There are so many processes. I start off with inspiration, then I start off with the fabrics and textiles and then at the same time I am getting my ideas all together and building up my looks and building up my range. I find it therapeutic just to sit and draw. I find a lot of enjoyment out of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.