Blending garments and accessories into one another with fearless asymmetry, SARAH APHRODITE takes a playful approach to design. Created with an artist’s mindset and tapping into the idea of fashion as costume, her ingenious creations prove that there’s no need for sustainability to feel dull or worthy

Photography by Katja Rahlwes Styled by Haley Wollens
Text by Daniel Rodgers

Blouse, price upon request, and denim shorts, £261, both by Sarah Aphrodite; blue shoe by Malone Souliers, £525; green shoe by Giuseppe Zanotti, £557

Spin the ingredients of a fashion collection on a roulette wheel and you might come close to the designs of Sarah Aphrodite-Stolwijk. Since 2008, the Dutch-born Massachusetts local has built a world where nothing is quite as it seems – trousers come one-legged, miniskirts masquerade as belts and “bags” are really just a collection of bracelets strewn together on a hoop.

Playful, yes, but it’s in no way random. Blending garment and accessory, Aphrodite is known for skewing traditional codes of dress in favour of a more unconventional language. It’s the result of a long and instinctive design process, honed through time spent working with the artist Susan Ciancolo and teaching at the Parsons School of Design.

Hesitant to create just another line of clothing, the designer has spent two years crafting a collection rooted in notions of costume: collectivity, longevity and sustainability. If what we wear reflects who we are, Sarah Aphrodite is a trick mirror – making us question both why and how we should dress.

You made the decision to become a designer while on a boat in Greece. What led you to that moment?
I was 21 and travelling by myself from Gytheio to Crete (which is where I was conceived, and why I’m called Aphrodite). I was on a boat and vaguely remember picturing some sort of flower-print top. All of a sudden I had an epiphany. I knew instantly that fashion design was what I wanted to do. My dad called me by chance when I was on that boat and he said that according to legend Aphrodite was born out of the foam of the same sea I was sailing through. So the epiphany came full circle. I started art school two months after that, and transferred to fashion design at Artez (in the Netherlands) a year later. Not a day has passed since then that I haven’t been working with fashion. It feels like I am on a mission.

Can you remember when you first started creating?
I would create little worlds from a very young age, through all kinds of mediums. I don’t know why clothes are my medium, but they are – accessories too. I basically use fashion as a way of working out who I am. For years I’ve wondered if I was an artist or a designer, but I’m starting to realise that I am an artist and dress is my medium.

After graduating, you spent a few years working with Susan Ciancolo. Have there been others who have influenced you?
My time with Susan Ciancolo was an eye-opener and I’m forever grateful for it. I interned for her in my third year and later worked for her in New York. I didn’t understand her work at first, but once I got it, it blew my mind. We ended up collaborating for a season on a collection entitled S. Sometimes it’s like the universe listens. A few months ago I was thinking about the dream team to shoot the new collection, and I really wanted Haley Wollens to style it. And what do you know, Haley hit me up out of the blew to tell me she wanted to collaborate and style the collection. She came to my studio and brought the whole collection together like no other. It was magic. Chloë Sevingy is my new muse. I want her to model the new collection, but haven’t asked her yet.

T-shirt by Sarah Aphrodite, £141; scarf belt, not for sale, from Sarah Aphrodite archive

The Sarah Aphrodite collections are intelligent and tongue in cheek –the one-legged trousers, the bracelet “bag”, the skirt belt. It would seem you design with a sense of humour.
My design process is so much fun. I do a lot of playing with trials that I sew from my own patterns – taking clothes apart and playing with everything on my own body in front of the mirror. I sometimes spend eight hours a day in front of the mirror, from when I drop my son off at school to when I pick him up. Deadlines are hard when you design like this, but it’s important to me that the brand is alive. My pieces start with an idea and then they grow through the process of making. This often means that you have to go somewhere you haven’t ventured before, which is risky because the outcome may not be what you wanted nor what people expected. I am not so attached to the outcome anyway; it’s just another step along the way. In fact, you never arrive where you had once imagined, because that’s not what life is about. It’s all a continuum.

It’s these unique pieces that have become cult-worthy and it proves that sustainability does not always equal wearability.
That’s true. My designs are the opposite of that old hemp style which seems to go hand in hand with sustainability. I actually just made a belt with gold chains, buckles and a gold elephant. It’s so over the top and completely recycled. I thought that was funny. It’s something I’m grappling with, though. In a world where there is so much stuff already, should I make things that have no other use than just being decorative? Although that gold belt is very wearable!

The use of vegan materials are core to the Sarah Aphrodite brand. What’s your personal stance on fur and leather?
There are two sides to it. Leather and fur are both natural materials, but they are often treated with so many chemicals that it becomes really toxic to the environment. I don’t want to participate in the abuse of animals, but I have to admit we do use silk and wool. My goal is to create a stable recipe for the business and transfer in more sustainable fabrics over time. It’s very hard to do this with seasonal collections – the fashion pace makes it hard to be an environmentally conscious clothing brand. My fabrics and materials come from all over the world and I handpick them wherever I go. Places like India, Mexico, Turkey. It’s one of my favourite things to do. I buy new materials (mostly from the garment district in New York) but also tons of things from Salvation Army, antique shops, flea markets, clothing and material swaps, things I find on the street or that people gift me.

Top, from Sarah Aphrodite archive; denim belt, £221, and white pleated belt piece, £249, both by Sarah Aphrodite; orange shoe by Giuseppe Zanotti, £895; green shoe by Kenzo, stylist’s own

In many ways the brand exists outside of fashion and you don’t partake in the standard seasonal schedule. Do you follow fashion yourself?
I completely fall out of the schedule. It’s been two years since I had my last collection, which is ridiculously slow in the fashion world. I’ve been working hard, though, and the next collection is almost ready to be shot. I think that’s partly due to my Capricorn nature – I wanted strip it all down and start from the ground up. Taking it step by step. I want to make pieces that are believable, cohesive, together. As far as fashion goes, I take inspiration from the street and Instagram. I love so many aspects of different designers but I really like Y-Project and my always and forever love, 1990s Vivienne Westwood.

Do you feel a conflict between your beliefs on sustainability and simply creating more stuff?
With my current collection I wanted to create a style of costume that would stay consistent over time, like national or indigenous dress. Costume represents longer periods of time than fashion, so I can be more sustainable this way. Now that I’ve developed these costumes (which are amazing), I’ve realised I don’t want to produce more stuff. I’m basically looking for a way to be a fashion brand without product. It’s crazy. We have to figure out both for ourselves and as an industry what this job looks like in the current climate. Because we can’t do business as usual.

What are your goals for the brand?
This is exactly where I’m at right now. I consider Sarah Aphrodite a brand in process, which I’m building from the ground up. The first collection was in 2008 and I’ve kept building from thereon. I’m re-evaluating my goals, but I think Sarah Aphrodite is ultimately an accessories brand and that I should go full-on in that direction. It’s the third time since working on the brand that I’m re-realising that. It always come back to accessories.They come naturally to me. Clothes are much harder.

For full shoot, please purchase our print edition here