There are many brands that come thundering on to the sartorial merry-go-round each season; of these, a rare one or two may find the stars converge and they’re able to take that momentum to create a label that lasts, but the majority take a single turn on the carousel before finding themselves cast on to the scrap heap of last season’s names. Then there are those interesting few that arrive with relatively little fanfare, stepping noiselessly on to fashion’s dizzying ride and quietly settling in to create and craft. Isa Arfen joins the ranks of the latter.
Serafina Sama’s eponymous line (Isa Arfen is an anagram of Serafina) came together in the autumn of 2011, when Sama felt it was time to step into her role as designer following success with a privately launched line among friends and with experience working alongside maisons including Chloé, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. A discreet presentation was offered for spring/summer 2013 and Sama’s signatures blossomed over the coming seasons. Fast forward to 2017 and the Isa Arfen woman is certain of a thing or two: the classic is nothing without a deft hint of eccentricity, fabric and fit come without compromise, and throw-away fashion is for other people.
Each of these concerns has its roots in Sama’s heritage. A childhood spent in Ravenna, eastern Italy, gave Sama her earliest education in style, while a move to study at London’s revered Central Saint Martins brought a brand new vision of fashion’s unique landscape. Stints working in New York, Milan and Paris followed, before Sama found her way back to London’s rain-washed pavements.
“When I was growing up, my aunts – my mum’s sisters – were always really eccentric,” Sama recalls, as we spend time one afternoon chatting on the phone. “They had a very unique sense of style, they were very much into vintage, or folkloric costume. Ravenna is quite a small town, there was almost a fear of standing out or of doing something out of the norm, and the fact that I had these more extravagant figures in terms of style when I was growing up, I think had a big influence on me.
“At the same time, when I moved to London I immediately fell in love with its sense of freedom, how free people were in terms of their identity, their aesthetic and what they wear. It was much more experimental.” Mentions of Sama’s Italian family pepper our conversation, from one of her aunts who loves to wear the brand – “she’s now in her eighties and still orders some of my pieces – she looks amazing in them!” – to her mother, who guides her understanding and appreciation of respecting ethnic reference points in design.
It’s no surprise that cultural appropriation, currently a trending topic, is a hot-button concern for Sama, too. “It’s something I think about because I get inspired by so many different cultures around the world. It’s a very delicate subject, and it needs to be handled in a very sensitive way,” she acknowledges. “I think it’s important to ask yourself questions and make sure that you’re not using it as something very frivolous and superficial. It’s important to stay sensitive and to question and to do the right research. But at the same time I think it’s a beautiful thing that there is this exchange and celebration of ideas. I don’t have the answer …” she concedes, searching for a way to explain her genuine and compassionate point of view on an idea often ignored by bigger brands than hers. Words like “respect”, “sacred” and “celebrate” litter Sama’s dialogue. Hers is no simple see-it, steal-it philosophy; there’s a meaningful exploration and a desire to reinterpret and lend a new lens to often deeply rooted and culturally significant ideas.
It isn’t hard to see the global influence on Isa Arfen’s presentations. Spring/summer 2017 was a foray into the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, where tribal communities have used body decoration for centuries, inspiring Sama to bring bold, raw prints and paintings to her design table. Initially, this collection was due to explore a more shamanic route, but a chance encounter with a book in the library concerned with the Omo Valley redirected Sama’s gaze.
“It immediately gave me ideas for prints and for colour combinations,” she explains. “I loved the fact that there was a very strong primitive and instinctive and quite raw element to it, but at the same time there was something very, very delicate and conventionally beautiful there.”
As she speaks about drawing inspiration, you can imagine Sama surrounded by tomes of images, losing herself in the process of discovery, pulling together snatches of colours or symbols and filing them in her internal catalogue of ideas. The Italian designer makes regular mention of concepts finding their way into her mind, connections being made, and combinations gradually coming together before a starting point appears that will eventually grow into her collection. “I try to stay curious and keep my eyes open,” she shares.
For autumn/winter 2017, that means a Sama-filtered view of Italian film director and screenwriter Federico Fellini’s aesthetic, a generous nod to carnival vibes (you can’t miss the Pierrot diamonds and deconstructed harlequin collars that litter the line) and a hint of arty oeuvres with Marcela Gutiérrez prints worked onto slippery satin styles. Did we mention she likes to tip her sartorial hat to the eccentric? Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that this ode to the slightly askew comes at the expense of form, fit or feeling: “I love to tell stories by combining different kinds of textures and different weights, but it’s very important to feel comfortable in the clothes you wear; not necessarily in the physical way – you know women can feel comfortable in very different things – but that they feel effortless and that they can recognise themselves in the clothes,” Sama says, resolutely.
Giving women a platform to see themselves properly represented is a force of habit for this designer, who readily admits that while she may not actively (consciously?) involve these sorts of politics in her body of work, a sense of inclusiveness and diversity is important to her. “It’s more about uniting than dividing, more about exchanging and supporting each other than the opposite; it’s love and hope and communication, more than fear or hate or building walls,” Sama says, carefully, before admitting that she hopes her presentations have a “human vibe” rather than appearing as an army of soulless static models.
It doesn’t get much more human than Serafina Sama. Speaking to her is a lesson in how to stay humble while building a label designed to withstand flitting seasonal desires on which so many brand names have staked their success and perished. Sama’s vision to create a wardrobe comprising designs of unwavering quality runs parallel to her notion of what luxury in style should mean.
“It means finding something that you can keep forever and come back to in five years time and still find relevant,” she says, “instead of accumulating a lot of things that you wear a couple of times. To me, that is real luxury: building a wardrobe of pieces that you can count on, that can stay with you for a long time and maybe even pass on to your children. It’s something intangible.”