"Everything is so dark..." Sander Lak, the man behind New York brand Sies Marjan (the name a combination of his mother's and father's names), tells me over coffee in London. "Everything is doomed, it’s all so apocalyptic; so there’s something really nice about wearing a bright pink shirt on a day that you really feel like shit – it lifts you up." The shirt Sander is wearing right now is actually a baby blue tie-dye number, but no less joyful. The designer’s optimism, charm and lack of pretence – evidenced in his choice of attire – has garnered Sies Marjan a cult following, and unsurprisingly so. When a single scroll through Twitter reminds you of Brexit, nuclear war, and men in high places abusing their power, protecting yourself from the ills of the world with a piglet pink shearling coat, high-shine holographic two-piece, or egg yolk yellow silk cami is the mood-boosting antidote we all need right now.
"I don’t directly consider the political climate when designing but, like everyone else, I’m in the centre of it all and sometimes want to crawl in a corner or hide myself under a blanket," he says. "Other times, though, I want to just burst into colour."
With metallic burnt golds, vibrant tomato reds and delicious mint greens, Sander’s collections are a kaleidoscope of colour, from pastels to paintbox brights. This vivacity came as both a shock and sweet relief to the previously sombre and monochrome New York fashion scene. When the brand’s first collection landed in Barney’s et al, in February 2016, it stood out amid the black, grey, navy and white. "People said to us, 'You’re in danger, nobody in New York wears colour'."
How wrong they were. From the once-unspoken rule, upheld by giants like Diana Vreeland in her signature monochrome attire and Grace Coddington in her favoured black, New York is now a city – and fashion week schedule – awash with colour. Just look at SS18’s offering: slinky serpent greens at Adam Selman, chirpy blue rain macs at Calvin Klein, buttercup yellows at Marc Jacobs. Of course, this can’t all come down to Sander’s vision at Sies Marjan, but he has undoubtedly had a strong hand in altering the city's sartorial aesthetic.
Beyond serotonin-boosting colour, what’s so appealing about Sies Marjan is the sense that the clothes really are for everybody. Sander has cast trans models in his shows, presents menswear and womenswear together, and wears the pieces himself, a walking advert for the tactile fabrics and playful cuts that embody the brand. While we fall in love with and admire clothes every season, it’s not very often that we feel we can wear them in real life.
"We are a high-end fashion brand, and our lookbook is always a fantasy, there’s a reality in everything we do," Sander tells me. "Our clothes aren’t driven by the full look, where if you have only one piece it looks out of place. I think that’s why streetwear is having such a big moment – it’s grounded, it’s about reality; that’s what people want."
This outlook comes down to Sander being simply "a lover of clothes", a designer that creates pieces he wants to wear, which would suit his friends and fit in with their lives. "What I’ve always found weird is when a designer proposes a certain look and then comes out to bow at the end of a show in a black T-shirt and black jeans," he laughs. "I wear our menswear and womenswear, it’s important for people to connect with me and the brand this way. I wear colour and full tonal looks; I practise what I preach."
This we saw at the 2018 CFDA Awards in June, when Sander wore a playful Sies Marjan ombre red and black two-piece suit, also dressing actresses and models Julia Garner, Bria Vinaite and Lineisy Montero in the brand’s pastel-hued and reflective pieces. The colour naysayers certainly ate their words that night, as Sies Marjan picked up the sought-after Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent. Yet despite that newcomer nod – the brand was founded in 2016 and applauded by editors and critics alike, who left the debut show buzzing about its pieces – Sander has been working behind the scenes of the industry for some time.
Before moving to New York in 2015 for Sies Marjan – he’s based in Manhattan because "Brooklyn for me is like London, Berlin, Antwerp, like a fake Europe" – he held tenures at Dries Van Noten in Paris as head of design, and before that at Balmain with Christophe Decarnin, Phillip Lim, and Marc Jacobs. "What’s great about the experiences I’ve had is that they’re all so different – not just in terms of aesthetics, but in how they run their business," Sander explains. "I loved having a frame to push up against, where it wasn’t about me and I had to navigate through it." Learning the various aspects of a fashion house – from new languages and a social presence to business models – gave him a 360° perspective, meaning he could jump into Sies Marjan knowing what was to come.
Adaptability comes naturally to Sander, who grew up all over the world. "I was born in Brunei, I lived in Malaysia, Africa, Scotland," he tells me, "so I was exposed to so many different things, from the colour of nature in a place to people’s religious beliefs." While he wouldn’t say his work is a direct product of that global upbringing, he admits it brought an openness to his designs. "I’ve seen so much from such a young age that not a lot surprises me – there aren’t a lot of things I find really 'wrong'."
This broad-mindedness could also be attributed to his time studying under the late Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins. "She was very tough, but really understood what she was able to do with me, to push me," Sander says of the legendary professor. "For me to doubt myself as much as I did when I was under her wing was so healthy, because it broke down all of the little tricks and trades I had always thought I could charm my way into," he laughs. "She broke you down and expected you to build yourself back up, and she created this stressful environment that totally prepared us all for the industry – it was like therapy, one of the most important experiences of my life. I do miss her."
While Sander – like many of Wilson’s students – is now thriving in the industry, he wasn’t supposed to be at Central Saint Martins at all. "I only went because I didn’t get into film school. Fashion was sort of an unimportant mistress on the side of my marriage to film," he chuckles. "I’d never even touched a sewing machine, but once I got to school, it made so much sense. Being a designer and a director are the same thing with a different end product; you have a vision, a team of people that contribute, a premiere or catwalk show, reviews, then you have to see if your film has longevity, if your clothes work off the catwalk. There are so many parallels."
It’s unlikely we’ll be watching a Sander-directed Sies Marjan fashion short anytime soon – "I never look at films and fashion with the same eye" – but one film that inspired him years ago was The Fifth Element. "It’s a shitty movie, but Jean Paul Gaultier did the costume design and had Milla Jovovich with orange hair in the orange braces. That was the first time I was distracted by the clothes in a movie."
This first love is one of the many reasons Sander is an intriguing designer. Another is his avoidance of Instagram – unlike figureheads such as Virgil Abloh who use it to promote their brands, friends, collaborators and subcultures. While Sies Marjan the brand has an Instagram account with 90k followers, Sander explains that he’s seen what overexposure and an invasion of one’s privacy can do to a person. "I’ve been in the industry for a while, and I’ve seen what both immense success and crashing failure do to someone. I’ve always been behind someone going through that, and I know what it would do to me. I stand by social media as a tool to make my business work, but I want to keep a part of myself for me and my people, because I know I could get lost in it."
Luckily, he says, he’s not a creative that needs to be battling his inner turmoil to make great work. In 2018, when it's easy to be seduced by the followers, likes, and fame that one’s personal brand brings, it’s refreshing to hear someone in the centre of a circus assert the importance of self-preservation. In an industry full of egos and characters, Sander is someone you’d want to grab a drink with and chat for hours about a director’s best film – and of course, to dress you in every colour of the rainbow. Even in the face of the relentless volume and pace of collections, presentations and shows, he remains optimistic. "I love working, I love creating, and if I have to make more, I will – I don’t want to do anything else, and anyway, we get to rip up the rulebook now – it’s so freeing."
Sies Marjan’s fuzzy, silky, shiny, kaleidoscopic clothes perfectly translate its leading man’s magic. So here’s to more positivity and more colour in fashion – and in the world, too, please.