Why Fashion Needs Isa Arfen Now More Than Ever
In an industry teeming with men, Isa Arfen's designs hold a mirror up to women.
If you’re not already familiar with Isa Arfen, it sits alongside the likes of Rejina Pyo and Magda Butrym, producing the perfect fusion of clothes you lust after and clothes you actually have the confidence to wear. The brand has become synonymous with off-the-shoulder silhouettes ideal for cocktail hour, and an off-kilter femininity that blends frothy dresses, print-laden fabrics, and Victorian blouses with everyday denim and cozy knitwear. After the success of her fall/winter '18 show, which had a steel band play Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" as models danced down the runway, why did Sama decide to change things up?
"I decided to take things a bit slower and present only one collection [during the resort window] instead of two separate outings," she tells Refinery29. With an industry in flux, designers are moving cities, opting out of the traditional show schedule, and rewriting the rules themselves. "I am trying to make sense of it and figure out the best way forward," she says. "The increasingly fast pace, the crazy number of collections expected of designers and ever-shortening attention spans are starting to feel like a cocktail of greed and disposability. But who is going to have the courage to slow down and jump off the carousel first?"
Perhaps Sama’s ability to step back, slow down, and assess the bigger picture was influenced by her upbringing in Ravenna, northern Italy, "a beautiful jewel of a town" where she would devour her mom’s Italian Vogue "and spend entire days drawing girls in different outfits, in a daydream kind of state." Her childhood has certainly shaped her approach to clothing in that she creates with women in mind.
"I was surrounded by very strong female figures, my aunts in particular, who each had a very individual sense of style, and fueled my fascination with clothes and the act of dressing up from a really young age," she notes. Going beyond the act of dressing up, this influence can also be seen in the fabrics and cuts she produces. "Their love for eccentric vintage pieces, folkloric costumes, and antique handbags was inspiring for me to witness and seemed almost irreverent in a town where everyone tended to dress homogeneously," she says. "It definitely had an impact on my design aesthetic and the way I approach fashion."
After leaving Ravenna, Sama studied at Central Saint Martins, taking a year off to intern at houses like Marni, Lanvin, and Marc Jacobs before moving to Paris to work at Chloé, first under Paulo Melim Andersson, then Hannah MacGibbon. Then, she had her baby, Ari, and "everything slowed down for a while." She worked on various freelance projects, but "really started missing the design process, and felt the desire to create something more personal."
What started out as a "very small collection of summer dresses, very wearable, one-size-fits-all, super easy, relaxed and fun" snowballed into a word-of-mouth label that sold really well. "The enthusiastic reaction to those little summer dresses, together with the incredible learning experience at Chloé, gave me the confidence to start working on a new, more 'serious' collection, with the idea of creating a small wardrobe of desirable, beautifully made but realistic pieces that would feel feminine, sophisticated and relaxed, with a touch of Italian eccentricity." Isa Arfen (an anagram of Serafina’s name) was born.
Alongside her formative years surrounded by strong, fashion-minded women, Sama has spoken about being inspired by American photographer Slim Aarons’ portrayals of socialites and jet-setters. "I guess what I find so appealing and fascinating in them is that sense of relaxed glamour, that sophisticated nonchalance with a dose of decadence," she says. "When I translate them into my designs, by creating exaggerated volumes or using opulent materials, it’s always with a touch of irony." She often describes her clothes as "feminine," though she points out "the word 'feminine' is very subjective."
"When I describe my clothes as feminine it’s because they are created from the point of view of a woman, and always keeping a real woman in mind. I want them to be relatable, realistic, and desirable, and to feel good when worn. I am not interested in making something that feels restrictive, uncomfortable, or stereotypical. Every woman has many different facets, and through my clothes I try to express a variety of them. Strong, vulnerable, gentle, ironic, humorous, relaxed, eccentric, intelligent, sexy, irreverent — these are some of the ways I would describe my kind of femininity."
Alongside the brand’s fall/winter 2018, offering, all heritage checks, puff-sleeved trench coats, easy knits and denim, from November the newly launched site will host Isa Arfen’s next collection, a sort of amalgamation of spring 2019 and resort. "It’s an ode to endless Italian summers of my childhood in the early '80s on the Adriatic Riviera," she says. "The mood board was full of Luigi Ghirri, Charles H Traub, Martin Parr, and Massimo Vitali photographs, and I wanted the collection to feel light-hearted, airy, humorous, with a color palette that would look like the counter of a gelateria…a perfect wardrobe for holiday adventures."
It’s this intelligence, and her referential, playful attitude towards clothing that we so love about Serafina Sama. In an industry teeming with men — in the boardroom, at the helm of brands — Isa Arfen holds up a mirror to the femininity (by her own definition) of women.