ALVAR meets… Sarah Hellen
In an industry saturated with those seeking to exhibit a new and unforeseen vision, Sarah Hellen is a unique figure in the menswear landscape. Unlike those that strive towards the avant garde, Sarah determines to revisit the retrograde, building a brand on familiar ground.
Post MA at Kingston University London, Sarah Hellen is a menswear designer rerouting the heritage of Wales into contemporary threads that have seen her hop from graduation to a London Collections: Men AW15 showcase of wit, skill and distinction.
Through working for the Berlin-based designer Hien Le, and absorbing his diligence and discipline, the desire to establish her own label seemed like a natural progression.
Her principles stemming from the decision to explore Welsh heritage, and her heavy referencing of vintage forms plied from the past lends itself to a narrative that is paradoxically modern and refreshing. By doing so, she turns the age-old adage ‘expect the unexpected’ on its head, exploring the notion of the unforeseen buried in the past and brought to the forefront.
Sarah’s pure and transparent vision is a welcome change to the future of menswear design. We had the pleasure of meeting her and finding out more.
How did you enter design? Was it always a passion of yours?
When I was younger I used to love rummaging through charity shops back in my local town, I’d get home and take things apart and play around with my sewing machine. I was always making something, there wasn’t much skill involved but it really got me interested in how garments are constructed and then when it got to university I learnt how to pattern cut and loved it. I don’t think I had fully decided I wanted to be a designer as such until I took a year out of my degree. I spent a year in New York and Berlin interning for a few different designers. I learnt so much and and after that I knew I wanted to set up my own thing one day.
Talk us through your AW15 collection.
My Idea behind my AW15 collection was take rural skills, traditional crafts and Welsh textiles and reinterpret them into a contemporary context. Blankets, quilts, weaving, wool and other techniques are integral to Welsh culture and I wanted to reflect this in a totally new way, whilst trying to keep the traditional links apparent. I contacted lots of different craftspeople with my ideas and met so many talented artisans, some of which I worked with to create different elements of my collection. There was Mary the basket weaver, Becca, a copper artist, Alan the shoemaker, Mari, a slate artist, a group of hand knitters from my local village, I sourced fabric from two of the few remaining Woollen Mills, used a quilting machine in my local town and had this amazing heritage blanket sponsored by Blodwen General Stores. The aim was to bring it all together to show the variety of resources in Wales and use this as the foundation for my brand which I can build on and develop more links within Wales and demonstrate he versatility of rural crafts.
I took inspiration from my local home town to create a narrative throughout my designs. Alright la is a typical saying in Wrexham, and has this kind of chavvy charm to it. I took local sorties that are light hearted and amusing like … And had my friend Alex illustrate them into character portraits which I used in quilt and embroidery designs. Garment shapes and details came from an old box of photographs my Dad keeps, so it’s all pretty personal to my local and personal history.
Why did you choose to explore Welsh heritage in your debut collection? Does it hold expressively personal significance for you?
My AW15 collection is the outcome of my MA degree, I spent a lot of time looking into arts, crafts and textiles traditional to Wales and found there was so much to work with in terms of history and heritage but also lots of crafts and rural skills being practised today at various levels, mostly cottage industry style businesses and I really wanted to see if I could interpret these techniques into menswear. I am originally from North Wales so I have grown up surrounded by this amazing culture, even if I hadn’t really realised it. It is personal to me, I love my home and I’m glad I can involve it in my work.
What was it that drew you to menswear?
My main interest in fashion is in the fabrication, the details and the making processes which naturally fits in menswear. There is a limit really to what you can design, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in menswear so I think it can be more of a challenge to create something new and unique. I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy too so maybe that’s why!
What does menswear have the power to achieve?
There’s such an amazing foundation of history in Menswear that is still so relevant today such as Saville Row being a perfect example, and think how many men have been empowered by a good suit. I think it’s all about how what you wear makes you feel.
Where do you feel menswear is going? Towards cultivating a new approach to the way men dress? Towards changing an attitude?
Menswear is really exciting at the moment, and has been particularly for the last few seasons. Mostly because I feel like there are boundaries in menswear, there are so many garments realistically that you can make, adapt and change, unless you create something totally unwearable and catwalk focussed the real focus is on making an impact through fabrication, details and really the overall concept and narrative behind the work, and i think there is still a real sense of appreciation of this. I don’t think there is need to change the way men dress, I think it’s just about refreshing old garment styles and ideas and keeping it contemporary and exciting.
Do you feel womenswear and menswear run parallel to each other?
Not really, if i’m honest I think they are like completely different worlds! Maybe I’m in a menswear bubble, but I find the two to be completely separate. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all, I think there are different things being achieved in both and they move at a different pace. I mean that in a catwalk sense I guess, it’s really interesting and quite exciting about the new unisex idea coming in, to Selfridges etc. it should be interesting to see if this changes the direction of the industry at all.
What can we expect from you in your next collection? Will there always be a signature thread that runs through your work? A theme, etc?
I’m continuing to build my Welsh influence, so next collection there will be more Wales! My aim really is to one day be an all ‘Made in Wales’ brand, this is important to me. I’m really going to focus on documenting the making processes of my work, I want my customer to know the story behind the garment when they buy it, so I’m working a lot with that. So yeah, more Wales, hopefully in some unexpected ways!
Words ISABELLA ROSE CELESTE DAVEY
Photography JACK REED