Sander Lak on his Mother, and Finally Feeling at Home

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Sies Marjan S/S19Courtesy of Sies Marjan

In the wake of a personal S/S19 collection, the designer behind Sies Marjan talks about persuading his mother to walk the show

Sander Lak, the designer behind New York-based label Sies Marjan, will not be found listing inspirations to journalists backstage at his shows. Not because he is evasive, nor because his collections appear from thin air – rather, for Lak, who won the CFDA award for emerging talent in June, a collection begins simply: the colours he likes, pinned on a board, and swatches of fabric. Those colours – which are most often vibrant, and have come to characterise his work – may be plucked from Lak’s memory. As was the case for one particular orange and pink coat, which only afterwards did he realise matched the shades of the Dunkin’ Donuts logo.

This season though, notable for a resolutely grown-up approach and pared-down colour palette (if just slightly – a men’s suit in hot pink remained, so too an electric red bowling shirt and shorts worn by Presley Gerber) Lak began his S/S19 offering with something more tangible: his father, who passed away when the designer was young. Drawing from recollections and photographs alike, the collection, in his father’s memory, became his most personal yet. “I realised halfway through the process that a lot of the choices I made were related to things that related to my dad, like what he used to wear, related to my upbringing, related to my state of mind,” he tells AnOther. “It became like a therapy session.” 

In practice, this was purposefully ambiguous – the various riffs on cargo pants and nautical stripes were the only overt reference to his late father in the collection, and evoked a pair of utility shorts and Ralph Lauren striped polo shirt he would wear while living in Saudi Arabia – Lak preferring the collection to “stand on its own”, prompting reaction whether or not those viewing it knew the story behind it. “It also is a little bit random in a way, but it makes sense in my head,” he says. “I didn’t want to filter that too much, I didn’t want to try too hard to have it make sense.”

Instead, the collection came to more broadly reference the idea of “home”, something Lak admits he has had little concept of – his father’s work saw the designer spend his childhood in Brunei, Central Africa and Scotland before studying at Central Saint Martins in London, followed by design tenures in Paris and Belgium – until now, in New York, where he has spoken of feeling finally settled. “Having that feeling of home, which was always a foreign concept to me,” he says, “it probably made me want to put a closure to certain things.”

A memorable – and fitting – addition to the show was his mother, who walked alongside Lak’s friends, colleagues and models Anna Ewers, Malgosia Bela, Kaia Gerber and Debra Shaw among others, women the designer has long admired. Here, he tells AnOther how he convinced his mother to take part – and how she made the day entirely her own. 

“I’ve always had this idea to include friends and family and people I love in my work. When Sies Marjan started we did ‘The Girlfriend Project’ with Nigel Shafran, where he shot my friends in the clothes; these people that I love and that I’m familiar with. But we never really did it in our shows – for that we’ve always done it in a more traditional way, with models. And I love models, so I never wanted to reject that, but I really felt like I wanted to add something more personal to it this time. I thought it made a lot of sense to put my mum in it – this collection was so about my dad, who is not alive anymore. It would make sense that the tribute would also involve my mum.

“So that’s kind of how it went. Everyone really wanted to do it. It was a very special moment. For my mum it was obviously a very special moment too, and I didn’t tell her the whole story of what the collection was about because I didn’t want her to feel the weight of it. She needed to actually walk on the catwalk, and I didn’t want her crying her eyes out! I explained it all at the end, afterwards. In the soundtrack we used an REM song at the end, which was my dad’s favourite song before he passed away. What’s nice is that only a small, inner circle understand that. But if you don’t – which is 99.9% of the people who will see the work – it means it still has a feeling, the sensibility of something very personal.

“When I asked my mum to be in it, I think she had felt it coming. I think she felt something in the air. I had always worked my way towards it! When she tried the actual outfit on, that’s when it started becoming real, and then she got nervous. Then we did a hair and make-up test and got more nervous. But on the day itself, she was fine – she was introducing herself to everyone as my mum, and was owning the room, and everyone was cheering. It was totally her own show. 

“That, combined with friends and people I work with all being part of it meant it was really beautiful – it wasn’t just another show, it was a celebration of all of us. My work is my life and my life is my work and it all kind of comes together. It feels like I am home now, and I’ve lived so many places that it feels new to me to say that. It’s like a feeling of first love.”