Future of Fashion: Sarah Maxwell

There were several excellent designers at the Academy of Art University graduation show, but there was one whose style and vision really stayed with me even a week later.

I noticed Sarah Maxwell in the far corner of the school’s gallery, standing there alone by her portfolio. Unlike the other designers, her work was designed (supposedly) for children. She explained that one reason why she was not included in the runway presentation of the student’s work was because she couldn’t get any child models.

As I leafed through her portfolio I was incredulous — the only place you’d see a young girl dressed like this is in a Japanese horror film! And then I looked at Sarah. It was like looking at one of her illustrations!

(Read more about Sarah after the jump)

Wearing a little cotton top with pink stripes, the kind of thing you might see on a 7 year old, the petite designer, hair pulled back in a casual ponytail, had a naivete I found absolutely transfixing.

She reminded me of a figure from the Brothers Grimm: like Gretel, the clever girl who bakes a murderous witch; Rapunzel, the twelve-year-old with long blond hair trapped in an enchantress’ tower; or the girl forced to weave straw into gold under threat of death in Rumpelstiltskin.

Sarah explained that the inspiration for one of her collections was the 1976 Dutch book “Gnomes,” which she loved as a child (it was published in the United States by the man who was then Martha Stewart‘s husband, and was a fantastic success, paving the way for Martha’s early career as an author.)

She places gnomes in some of her watercolor illustrations, which have a surreal, uncanny style one simply doesn’t see in either fashion illustrations or in children’s books.

As in the great fairy tales, Sarah’s art gives the unnerving sense that things are not what they seem. These are not clothes for school children. There’s something of the occult and transgressive about them in their faux naiveties: the crisp calico and gingham, the folk-style cuts, the lace around the wrists, the frilly little-girl skirts, are all put together with a sophisticated northern European mentality.

When asked where she sees herself in the future, she didn’t respond with the usual names (Lagerfeld, Galliano, Westwood) but said she’d like to work with either Agatha Ruiz de la Prada in Spain, or Oilily in the Netherlands.

May I suggest they’d be lucky to have her.