An icon of the 1980s mall, SANDRA GARRATT’s Multiples didn’t just sell garments; it offered a whole ethos. Her pieces’ modular designs meant they could be worn in a variety of ways – multifunctional clothing that feels just as relevant now as it did then

Interview by Katie Serva

Coming of age in the relative aesthetic wasteland that was a middle-American suburb in the mid-1980s, there were three things I clung to like life-rafts: magazines, MTV and the mall. And in the relative aesthetic wasteland that was our local mall, my favourite brand – a label called Multiples by Sandra Garratt – provided the promise of unlimited self-expression.

Multiples sold adaptive “one size fits most” jersey pieces that could be layered, wrapped, tied, scrunched, stretched and modified to create a zillion looks. (Wear that cardigan upside- down!) Prints were kept to a minimum, so as not to impede the reversibility of the clothing, and there was typically no hardware to speak of. I was particularly obsessed with the tubes; I would wrap one around my head and another around one calf until my dad would say “What in the hell is that?” – at which point I knew I had achieved prime extra-in-a-Culture-Club-video status. But Multiples was not just for future Rei Kawakubo obsessives like me, though. The line catered to all ages, sizes and end uses, with an ethos that feels more relevant today than ever.

A chance encounter in London led to Garratt working at Ossie Clark for three years, and when she came back to the States to attend fashion school a big idea was born. As she tells it: “The most simple explanation is that it’s a modular system applied to clothing, the same way you can use a modular concept to create a building or, as far as kids’ toys go, Lego or (although they’re not modular) Colorforms. Those were the biggest influences for me. If you want to make a medieval castle or a space station or a farm, that’s all up to you and how you style it and put it together. Once the components are there, it’s just a matter of imagination. You play with the colour and the silhouette; you could sleep in it, you could go to the opera in it.

“I had originally come from a theatrical-costume background, and I never had any intention of working in high-production sportswear – it wasn’t what I wanted. Our graduating project [at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, 1975] was free and open, with one restriction: it had to be high-volume, something that wasn’t handmade but manufactured. I literally was on my knees, like, Please don’t do this to me! But I wanted to get a good grade, so I had to wrap my mind around how to do this… and it came to me in a meditation. This could be a way to make clothes for the future, not in a Jetsons space-age kind of way, but more based on the understanding that the middle ground of fashion would disappear. There would be very high-end luxury, and there would be clothes that were extremely affordable. Knowing that there might not be a large pool of skilled labour, it seemed to me that if you were going to do something, it shouldn’t be based just on an aesthetic vision, it needed to be based on the manufacturers’ dream of what is most efficient and least wasteful.”

After some handmade samples given to a Dallas boutique on consignment sold out on the first afternoon, Garratt grew the idea into her debut collection, entitled Units. The eventual success of Units gave way to a hostile takeover and subsequent litigation, but Garratt re-emerged with the new name Multiples, staying true to her quality standards and overall vision. The business grew to $500 million annually, with Sandra fighting to keep production Stateside. “Before I even started I remember reading an interview with Jean Muir, an incredible designer. I think the statement came from her in the late 1960s, even 1970s? She said that she just couldn’t condone the ongoing exploitation of labour, and that the Third World did not exist to be exploited by the industrialised world. That made a big impression on me.”

If you were to look back at the packaging and store design for Multiples now, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a proto-American Apparel, with its neatly packaged garments sealed and hanging from pegboard. In fact, when American Apparel was first introduced, many thought it was Garratt’s new venture. (She was flattered.) “Once the scale started getting larger, I could see that there was no hanger appeal, and because they were knits, I didn’t want them getting shopworn or bumps from the hangers. It seemed that the next step would be to package it the way men’s underwear or T-shirts are packaged,” she explains. “You had a display to try on and touch and feel, but your inventory was always packaged and ready to go. Any paper we used was not just garbage; there were things you could keep and reuse in different ways.” Multiples’ freestanding stores were similarly concerned with sustainability, even using beeswax to lacquer the walls, and copper printer’s plates (which normally can’t be reused) as decoration.

Multiples is no more, but Garratt still produces a modular dressing system under the moniker SGD-BOX and uses all-organic cotton. (She has been organic since 1992.) Though she loves to hear the anecdotes of people affected by her past work, her gaze stays firmly fixed on the future. Concerned now with the intersection of technological innovation and functional design, she has been experimenting with embedding solar panels that can charge your devices. “The desire to express and be creative and unique is natural, and it should be encouraged,” she tells me. “Because so much change and empowerment is happening now, I think we’re getting ready to see a thrust of creativity… New ways of doing things. Better ways of doing things.”