words by Lindsey Malia Okubo
Sander Lak, the designer of Sies Marjan, wields color like god turns seasons, with the wind when the feeling was right. Precise but limitless in his approach, his palette ranges to spread the hues of dusk like butter on toast, taking inspiration from the many skies that he has lived under during his lifetime. With sensibilities guided by the diversity of emotional nuance, Sander’s extensive experience working in the industry, having spent many of his years at the likes of Dries Van Noten, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Balmain by Christophe Decarnin, has lead him to stand at the helm of his own label that pays homage to his roots while birthing (sans uterus) a legacy of his own. NR chatted with Sander about finding home in his multiplicitous upbringing, the evolution of masculinity and why he would love to be the father to a baby girl.
Lindsey Okubo: Before the creation of Sies Marjan, you’ve lived almost everywhere from Borneo to Paris and for me, as someone whose only known two cities in their lifetime, the idea of home is such a central concept to who I am but I can’t imagine that that’s necessarily the case for you so what does home mean to you? How does it affect who you are and how you design?
Sander Lak: Yeah well I mean that’s quite an existential question, home is something that I’m still trying to figure out for sure. It’s something that I understand and I see the value of it and what it means to a lot of people in my life but it’s something that’s a foreign concept to me. I’ve never really experienced it and I don’t really know what it is so I don’t really know what I’m missing. For me, I feel like home is where my stuff is, where my work is, where I have my clothes and my books. It’s a little bit more location based and not necessarily emotionally based like how a childhood home would be.
For me right now, New York is home and a few years ago it was Antwerp, and before that it was Paris, and that’s how I’ve always lived my life. I never do collections about home or the countries I lived in, I find that a little bit old school, but indirectly it influences me because I have a very broad sense of the world. I was born in Asia and spent my childhood in Africa, Europe and America and I’ve really been exposed to so many things at an early age, so many different cultures, languages and differences and I feel like that definitely opens and widens up the spectrum of stuff that you can play with. Things for me that seem really normal, other people have trouble with and the other way around as well. I am who I am obviously but I’m also shaped by what I’ve been exposed to and therefore the brand that we create here is a result of all of that.
LO: Right and I think so much of the time it’s more so thought of in a way where we need to be taught what diversity means and what it feels like but more so for you, it’s a lens that you see the world through.
SL: Yes because I’ve been exposed to all of that and I’ve asked all those questions as a kid, I feel that that’s quite a rich thing to have been added to my life at such an early stage. That’s why sometimes I have trouble with some of the things going on because it’s like are we really dealing with this now? I was dealing with this in like ‘85 when I was two years old [laughs] but it’s really because of the life and the lifestyle that I had. This sounds very PC right now, but I don’t see color in skin tones, I don’t see nationality differences. I move somewhere and I adjust to a culture and within a month, I can understand the country, the culture to some extent and what I can and cannot do, I’ll start to learn the language and for me, that's just such a natural thing.
LO: Especially in today’s world of social media and #activism, there’s a huge conversation surrounding identity and culture and I’m wondering as someone who moves so seamlessly between cultures, how do you simultaneously maintain your identity as it also shapeshifts and adapts to new cultures?
SL: I’m not going to pretend it’s so easy and sometimes it gets to be messy because I have all of these different cultural shifts and changes that I’m also experiencing internally. Every time you adapt to something, it becomes part of you and when you then move onto something else, you get a watered down version of a mix of these different things but most of the time, I feel like I have a very strong internal compass that guides me. I had that as a kid and have found myself to be quite resilient, I don’t get fooled quickly and I can take things and analyze them, separate them and figure what I need and I don’t need, what I think is relevant and what is not and I think that’s kind of how I keep and find a balance. That’s something I’m used to by now and I wouldn’t know what it would be to be one nationality and that’s why patriotism and that kind of stuff is very strange to me. I don’t really understand how you can just stand for one thing. I find that very complicated and that has more to do with me than anyone else.
LO: As it seems that we are moving towards a culture of globalism, do you feel an excitement in that and do you feel that it allows you to be a little bit more understood?
SL: Yeah for sure, I wonder what it would be like 30 years ago if I was my age now, doing what I do now and being the person I am now, I think it would’ve been much more foreign to other people. I think especially the younger generation, they are in this mix between having so many different influences from so many different cultures but then, kind of not at all, because it’s just a filtered down, digestible version of it and it’s not really reality. Just because you have a best friend online that you never see that comes from South Africa, doesn’t mean that you understand South African culture. But that aside, there is definitely more of an understanding and appreciation for diversity. Instead of it just being just like, “oh, you’re well traveled,” I think people are seeing that this idea of globalization comes from understanding cultures and the differences between cultures and being able to try and figure out how to find the middle ground, but it doesn’t always happen. Globalization isn’t always happy go lucky but I think this is definitely a good time for me to be where I am right now.
LO: Right and I’m wondering how you think diversity breeds better work especially in your own company?
SL: Well I think sometimes, we are all guilty of it, myself included, but because we’re so busy with creating, trying to figure out how to be relevant and blah blah blah, we forget that what we do is really to provide a product to an undefined audience. That audience right now is absolutely diverse and there is no such thing as a “white, rich woman” and she’s your only client, that’s just not the case. There are so many different levels, ages, skin tones, sizes and the spectrum is so wide that it would be so limiting to tie yourself to one idea of a human, or one idea of a woman, that’s why I find muses terribly old fashioned and not relevant today. A muse really limits the idea because it says, “this is thee woman” and it’s like, what about the 99.99% of the rest of the women? What about them? I think that’s something that I feel like maybe my generation, our generation, is a bit more aware of because we’re seeing that diversity in our own lives. It wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t implement that in my company because in the end, the product needs to speak to all these people and it’s really necessary for the product to find its audience. Of course that’s the conversation at the moment and it’s great that it all kind of comes together in a way where it’s not just to be PC but it benefits your company to move in a direction of where we should be going instead of it just being this hierarchy with a really strict set of rules that says you have to be this person and this and this, it’s nice that it’s off the table.
LO: Your use of color has been lauded and talked about incessantly. In conjunction with that, it’s also an interesting commentary on women through a certain kind of soft power that color holds. I was talking to a Nepalese jeweler who told me that color for women in Nepal represented vibrancy and expression and when their husbands die, they’re not allowed to wear color. There’s this whole dichotomy of how color really pinpoints a certain emotion, directly and indirectly simultaneously. I’m wondering how you see yourself reflected in women as a man and what have you learned from women? You have such a strong sensibilities of how things flow on a woman’s body and give new definition to femininity and grace.
SL: That’s always nice to hear and it’s really funny because I’m a trained menswear designer and had no interest in womenswear for the entire beginning part of my career. I wanted to do menswear initially because I was thinking about myself and what I wanted to wear, how do things look on me and that’s why I thought for a long time that I wouldn’t be able to do womenswear because I’m not a woman. However, I then quickly understood that you don’t have to be the sex, to understand the sex; even though I’m not a woman, I understand them and I can make clothes for them in that way.
I started working on some womenswear because of my sensibility with menswear and people told me I should also do it and that’s how I really learned it. I’ve always had a better understanding of women than men. I have a lot of girlfriends, I have a lot of women around me and I have always had more affiliation with -- this is going to sound really pretentious, female emotions more than male emotions. I’ve always had this idea that if were straight it would be so amazing because I would have all these amazing women around me that I would marry and date [laughs] but I’ve always really understood women and I’ve always really got their needs, desires and what they want but there’s something nice about not being a woman myself so I can keep the distance and not be shaded by my own POV. There’s something about the way women position themselves and have had to position themselves and things are changing, thank god, and sometimes the male sex can be a little bit simplified. To put in a very sociological way, the male sex is going through a transformation and it's going to be very interesting and probably will make me want to do more menswear as well. I have to say that now that I’m doing some menswear again, it’s really nice to jump from one [gender] to the other because I think it relates back to me always moving.
LO: Yeah it’s a reflective process.
SL: Exactly and to be able to move from one sex to the next, there’s something really liberating about it. In the end when it comes down to it and what the essence of it is is that you need to create a product, a thing, a person, man or woman, that makes your customer want to spend the money and feel good about themselves.
LO: Obviously as I’m thinking about your story and timeline, I’m thinking the most consistent thing in your life must’ve been your parents. You mentioned that you had a strong internal compass and I’m imagining that it points north towards your mother, the learnings from your father and if you could even tell us more about them because the brand is named after them afterall.
SL: My father passed away when I was younger, my mom remarried and my step dad has been in the picture as my dad. The brand is called Sies Marjan, Sies is my father’s first name and Marjan is my mom’s first name. Initially that was meant to kind of be a personal name without it being my name because I didn’t want it to be about me. I’m not doing this for any kind of recognition for myself and I don’t need to have my name hypothetically on a billboard to feel like I’m doing what I should be doing; but I did feel like I needed something that was connected to me, otherwise it becomes like a cold thing. It’s kind of the best of both worlds because it’s a name of someone but not really, Sies Marjan as a person, doesn’t exist but both names are my parents names and therefore, are directly linked to me but I can still can hide behind it. Most of the people who buy our product, don’t know about me necessarily and they think Sies Marjan is a person or designer.
My parents are the reason that I exist obviously but are also the reason that I had the life that I had and am having. There is something quite personal and nice about putting your parents on a pedestal in that way as a kind of reflection of who I am and where I come from. My mom is obviously so proud and happy that this has happened and she would be equally as happy if I had called it something else but there is something about giving back in a way that I’ve thought about. I’m most likely not going to have kids, but also thinking about what if this becomes something like that? You put something out there that is going to be the future generation of your family and there’s something nice about doing that in an abstract way like through a company. This is kind of like my legacy, for however long it will exist and it will have my parents name on it. I would find it really weird to call the child [in this case the brand], my own name.
LO: If you were to have a kid, hypothetically speaking, would you want a boy or girl?
SL: Oh god that is difficult, probably a girl [laughs]
LO: Yes! [laughs] Why a girl?
SL: Because I feel like I might be able to understand her going through this process of being a kid and teenager. I might be able to understand her better than a boy but I don’t know, it’s a hard question. I also think the more women the better, so let’s forget about men in that sense and let’s get more women in the world that we can educate and will become the new president and everything else [laughs]
LO: We were talking about masculinity as a concept and how it is changing, I’m wondering for you as a man, how do you ideally see that changing and what pressures do you feel to live up to masculinity’s current ideals? Especially designing for the Sies Marjan man, I don’t think he is all about the blazer, enormous biceps, a button up suit and disagrees with the saying, “real men wear pink”.
SL: Well I think masculinity is going through an interesting stage. Sometimes I wonder how honest I have to be about certain things and our menswear really, when it comes down to it, for me [laughs] is because I need clothes. I want to wear stuff that we make and it’s not as considerate as the womenswear. Also, because I am a trained menswear designer, I know exactly how to make a menswear collection and I feel like if I were to get into it, it would require way more of my myself than I actually have so we kept the first collection very simple and capsule-esque.
It isn’t necessarily about putting a masculine cliche out there or statements about masculinity but the main thing is more so like two shapes of pants that I can wear, a shirt that I like and a sweater or sweatshirt in the materials we use; but with that, something that does happen that is very intentional is that you get such a clear link to the womenswear. You can put the boys next to the girls and see that they are basically the same and that also relates back so much to who I am as a person and everything that I told you before about my ideas about women and men and how they are kind of the same and how I understand all of those things. There’s something that unconsciously happens.
I think what we we are seeing now from doing one men's capsule is that when it comes to the kind of high-end menswear customer who is out there, they really are hungry for the combination of the simplicity of wearing something that is not making them too feminine but also not making them a cliche of masculinity. I think that’s a conversation that happens especially within the gay community and that’s where we are hitting these nice sweet spots of things that are touching the sensibility of having a feminine shape, but it is really masculine and the color becomes this weird, fourth dimension that brings them somewhere else. That’s interesting and where masculinity is going because it’s going to be challenging for men to figure out who they are now. Now that are women are gaining power and calling everyone out as they should, it’s going to be interesting to see how men are going to react to it. It’s asking as a man, what is your masculinity? What does that mean? In the same way that women have had to ask themselves that for ages and ages, what it is to be a woman. Men never had to ask that because it’s you’re a man, you get it and you do it. It’s an incredible time.
LO: Totally and pivoting towards a more sensible question [both laugh] I think I’m supposed to ask you what’s in store for fashion week and what your process has been like? I know you’re usually a calm guy when it comes to these things but even with Alexander Wang opting out of fashion week and so many folks deciding to show in Europe, what does it still mean to show in New York? Especially because you’re a New Yorker in the sense where people say that New York is home for the people who don’t have one and for you, that must be a special thing.
SL: It is funny because I’ve worked and shown in all the existing fashion cities and I have experience in all of them. There is something within certain parts of American fashion culture that puts European fashion culture on a pedestal and there are many valid reasons for it but for me, that’s not really a thing because I’ve done that and New York is an exotic and interesting place, you know? That’s also really why I was so happy when all of this sort of came about in New York because I know what Paris is like, I know what London is like, I know what Milan is like but I never 100% necessarily understood the American fashion landscape; well, I understood it but I wasn't clear about what I could add to it and I think that conversation faded with Sies Marjan because we are very aware that we are here and we are a New York based band. We’re not necessarily an American brand, or a European brand, our product isn’t European or American but it’s kind of as I am, from everywhere. Therefore New York makes a lot of sense and I feel that the product looks good in New York, it makes sense here and it would be interesting to see what it would look like in Paris or London and maybe at some point that would happen but I do feel that New York is home for Sies Marjan and it should always be that. I’m sort of trying to create a home for the child that we are creating. My child needs a home that I never had and I’m trying to give New York as a home to Sies Marjan and of course, we can travel and take holidays somewhere but I do think home should be really in New York.