This interview appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of RAIN magazine. Sies Marjan has since closed its doors. Support print. Purchase your copy here.
Interview by Mark Benjamin
Photography by Justin von Oldershausen
Editorial styling by Noah Diaz
Hair: Kabuto Okuzawa
Makeup: Deanna Melluso at See Management
Models: Ali Morgan at The Society and Jonah Weissman at Click
Casting: Olivier Duperrin
clothing and accessories by Sies Marjan menswear SS20 and womenswear resort 2020
There’s something inviting about Sies Marjan, the New York-based fashion brand and the Dutch creative director behind it, Sander Lak. Founded in 2016, the label is ushering in an era of liberation through the use of vibrant color, relaxed silhouettes, and appealing materials across men’s and women’s ready-to-wear. A natural savant for color, Lak produces collections that are widely celebrated among critics, celebrities, and fans alike in a city known for its endless affection for a darker palette.
Prior to establishing his label, Lak spent time working for Marc Jacobs in New York, Balmain in Paris, and Dries Van Noten in Antwerp. Born in Brunei in 1983, he was brought up in Malaysia, Gabon, Scotland, and the Netherlands, because his father, Sies, was an engineer for Shell. Lak sat down with RAIN to talk about how this notion of borderless living led to the sense of freedom and liberation that permeates his collections, as well as culture and the enduring appeal of Sies Marjan.
Mark Benjamin: Many great designers like you start out at Central Saint Martins in London. How were those years for you?
Sander Lak: I did my bachelor’s in Holland and my master’s at Central Saint Martins. It was January 2008 when I graduated, but the financial crisis was already in the air. It was a weird time to graduate. I felt like I needed more experience. I felt like I needed to learn more. I knew who I was. I knew what my contribution to fashion would be, but I didn’t know what the industry wanted at all.
It was all very foreign to me, so I started working. I was lucky to go from one job to the next, getting better jobs at completely different companies, in completely different structures, for completely different products. I knew what it was like to be a designer, but I didn’t know what was required to actually run a business, or organize things, or to have people work for you.
MB: Where do you think your fascination with color comes from?
SL: It’s a natural thing. I thought everyone had it when I was a kid. I always had very strong physical reactions to color and so I thought it was the same as breathing and eating. It wasn’t until I went to art school in Holland that I began to understand. When people looked at what I was doing, they would look at the colors I had chosen and say, “Oh, that’s unusual,” or, “That’s really specific.”
I would say to them, “Why? No, it’s normal.” It was only then that I started to realize that it’s not something everyone has. It’s something that is like a well that you can keep using, because it’s authentic and unlimited.
MB: Mark Rothko would never have been like, “Oh no, I’m out of colors.”
SL: Exactly. That would never have happened because it came naturally to him. I think it’s the same for me.
MB: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I think, for Americans, color often represents risk- taking. I think the average person tends to wear a lot of dark within the context of fashion and their identity.
SL: As an artist, which I would never say I am, sometimes it’s more acceptable to be as colorful as you want to be. But sometimes in fashion you have to do something to make a certain statement. Then, from a commercial standpoint, it is challenging in a different way.
MB: Like forecasting?
SL: I think about context a lot, but I don’t think about context within a country or culture because I’ve lived all around the world. That’s too complicated for me. I do think in the context of an overarching collection, or an idea, or an identity, but I don’t necessarily think about trends.
MB: I also want to talk about the appearance of exotics in your collections. They’re printed, right, not actual exotic skins or leather?
SL: Yeah, we never use actual exotics. It’s the idea of luxury, the cliché of luxury. I don’t think exotics, real exotics, are the right thing to do anymore. There was a time and place for that. I do like the history that [wearing them] was only attainable for certain people because of money but also taste. It was sort of the highest form of something in a world when fashion was actually a small thing.
Now fashion is entertainment. It’s the same as music and movies— it’s like one big circus. To take some of the highbrow, high-luxe elements and bring them down to a more accessible level while still keeping that kind of taste, that’s what I think is a more modern way of working. That’s what Sies Marjan always tries to do, sometimes successfully, sometimes not enough. It’s a fine balance. I love playing with that.
MB: I recall seeing you and Doutzen Kroes at the Heavenly Bodies gala at the Met last year. People were talking about the stunning color gradient on her dress. It was a statement piece that went viral. The way people consume fashion today has changed. Now it’s all online, which is perfect for the pop of your colorful pieces.
SL: Beyond small decisions, nothing is done in a collection based on what the market dictates or if it will work on Instagram. It’s a big part of our marketing, of course, but I’m lucky that the time is one where the product really translates visually, especially when visual consumption is the only thing that counts. Before, it was about the integrity of the garment and its design.
The industry has turned into entertainment, but we aren’t entertainment. I don’t do this for you to like on Instagram. No, you need to buy it, otherwise we don’t have a business. Sometimes it’s contradictory. Something may blow up on Instagram but in real life it actually doesn’t have that same value. The investment for people is disconnected. Other times things sell out in stores and we promote it on Instagram and nobody cares. If it doesn’t have any effect on Instagram, that’s fine, but it should still be there.
MB: That brings me to my next point. We then have our good friends, the establishment fashion critics, who are sitting on the front row, closely watching every collection. So now you have the online public and then you have the old world of critics who are seeing it in relation to fashion history. Do you read criticism? Do you care?
SL: No, I don’t read it personally. I used to in the beginning. I was always in awe that the people I respected so much would even just write down my name and talk about something I’d done. It’s not that I don’t care. I respect what they do, but it’s almost like I’m not the one who should be involved with that. I think it’s a hard thing, because when you are in a play or something, somebody can give criticism and you can actually change something about your performance. But by the time of a show, I’m done. There’s nothing I can do after it’s been presented. By that point you’re already working on something else.
I think it is important that criticism stays. It’s important that people with very educated opinions and well-thought-out consideration are as honest as they can be. That doesn’t always happen now, sadly. But then there are a lot of people who shouldn’t say anything, they should just shut up. I think that’s kind of where we are today.
I also don’t look at my work immediately after [a show]. I take time to let it be and then, a season or two afterwards, I’ll look at it again. My opinion a year later is my actual opinion of the collection. Only then do I have enough distance. Then I might read criticism and wonder, “Oh, what did they say at that time? Were they right?”
“Now fashion is like one big circus. To take some of the highbrow, high-luxe elements and bring them down to a more accessible level while still keeping that kind of taste, that’s what I think is a more modern way of working”
MB: That makes sense. Your spring 2019 collection… I think of all the collections we have seen so far, this one was a divergence. I would say the use of white as a prominent color, or lack of color, was differentiating. There was a utility feel to the collection, as opposed to evening- or formalwear. I was curious about what that collection meant to you.
SL: That collection was about family. My mom was cast in the show, my friends were in it. The casting was based on the idea of… I hate the word “inclusivity,” because it’s such an Instagram word. I was born in Asia, I lived in Africa, I lived in Europe and America. I’ve lived all around the world, so inclusivity is something that’s natural. For me, that isn’t necessarily the angle, even though that’s what a lot of people took it as. Like, there’s age and size diversity…
It was really about my dad. It was about my family—my given family and my chosen family. It was about New York. There were a lot of references in there that were personal. A lot of things were taken from what my dad used to wear when he was alive. That’s where that utility aspect came from. He worked for Shell, so he used to work all over the world. He would be in boilersuits and live in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia and all of these places. He had a few Ralph Lauren shirts, so there are a lot of Ralph Lauren influences in it, too. I love the idea of doing something where the reference was only for me and my mom and my direct family. For everyone else, it was just, “Read it as you like.”
I didn’t communicate that as clearly at the time because I felt like it was really for me. It was a collection I wanted to do. It’s one of the collections I’m probably most proud of. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best work I’ve done, but it’s the most personal, and something my mom will take to the grave.
It’s nice to see people, especially after a certain amount of time, talk about that collection more and more. Even if people didn’t know my dad and don’t know what he looked like or what he used to wear, there’s something in it that is so personal that people connect with.
MB: Your SS20 collection was shown at the Surrogate’s Courthouse in Manhattan. I realized later that the incredible double staircase was designed by Fay Kellogg, often described as the foremost woman architect in the US of the early 20th century.
SL: I didn’t know that. That’s so fitting. It was such a feminine collection—not in the way people talk about female power today, but it definitely carries the same message, in a language that was more refined. I really wanted it to be luxurious.
Having just done the first men’s collection right before that, which was all about male sexuality and what it’s like to be a man, I wanted to make the women’s collection be like only a woman can feel… Only a woman can present themselves in that way and be everything that they are when they wear clothes like that. And when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and their brand, there’s something empowering about that. And the idea of luxury…
Maybe it’s an old context, but it isn’t just about the thing that flashes, it’s about the quality of the garment. How is it made? What is the fabric like? The color isn’t just a red, it’s the red that has gone through a filter, it’s the exact red that meets that blue. Everything was so considered in that collection. There were no happy accidents. I wanted it to be how it used to be. You used to have six months to make a collection. You would have time. I didn’t have that. I had three months basically, but I forced myself to consider things, which is a real luxury these days.
“Luxury isn’t just about the thing that flashes, it’s about the quality of the garment. How is it made? What is the fabric like? The color isn’t just red, it’s the red that has gone through a filter, it’s the exact red that meets that blue”
MB: I read the press release at the show and it was commenting, a bit critically, on celebrity culture. Then you had these big confetti guns go off at the end in a sardonic celebration. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, which I am sure was lost on most of the audience.
MB: We live in so many contradictions today.
SL: I can love something one season and then absolutely not want it the next season, or even the next moment. I think completely differently, and I hope I always will. I don’t want to get stuck in one thing. This season was about the rejection of irony and sarcasm and parodies. This idea of making fun of things or reality-TV shows and all of that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t actually like reality TV, because I love it.
MB: What’s your favorite?
SL: All of them. Housewives of everything. There was just a moment when I felt I wanted to reject it. Obviously, that has a lot to do with the current political landscape and what we consume and how we consume what’s happening. I felt I only wanted quality. I wanted to pack up my stuff, live in an Hermès store, and only watch PBS and only read true poetry. I didn’t want any of this cheap shit.
That was that moment, and I’m still a little bit in it, but I’m also getting attracted to other things again. But then again, if I wanted to do a full, high-end thing, I still needed to make sure I simplified it enough for the people who don’t necessarily go up there. You need a little moment. I think the celebration at the end was also giving into that idea as well. It isn’t because I feel that everything has to be like that. We probably had more celebrities attend that show than any other show before.
It all kind of worked out the way that it should. It was quite fitting that Courtney Love was there. I’m the biggest Courtney Love fan and she came to the show. She was looking amazing. It was the perfect summary of that collection as well. Everything happens for a reason. Everything finds its way.
MB: What was the dynamic like, having women’s in New York and men’s in Paris this past year?
SL: Well, the men’s collection in Paris was a one-off. We are taking each year as its own. This year we’ve done three shows. We did two women’s shows in New York and a men’s show in Paris.
I think the men’s show was needed because I felt that I hadn’t communicated what the expression of men’s is in the proper way. It was always a side project, so I needed to have a platform where, for once, I could [communicate it], even though there were also a few women’s looks in it. There was a message that this is the Sies Marjan man. Next year it’s going to be very exciting because we have a whole different plan.
MB: I wanted to ask you about the name Sies Marjan. I thought it was nice that you named your label after your parents. It must have a lot of meaning for you.
SM: I didn’t want it to be my name because I already understood that the weight of having your own name on anything is huge on top of the weight of doing what I do. I didn’t want to call it something arbitrary either, because that doesn’t work for me. It had to be something that connects to me without being me.
I looked at family names. Sies is my father’s name. Marjan is my mother’s first name. It looked great visually and sounded like it could be from anywhere, and I am from everywhere and nowhere, so it worked in that way.
MB: I get a 1970s vibe from a lot of your collections, especially this season. I’ve always looked back at where we’ve ended up in culture since the late 1960s, 1970s, and wondered what that alternative path would have been without the 1980s, without Reagan, Thatcher, all that.
SL: That’s actually a really nice idea. I like that idea of freedom, the sexual revolution.
MB: Well, everyone thinks culture is always progressing, but it’s not really. We go back and forth.
SL: Everything is progress but then it kind of isn’t and then it goes backwards. I like the idea of having the 1970s, and then the 1980s and 1990s never happened. The early 2000s are a shit show as well. [So we should] have the 1970s continuing.
In the collections, it’s kind of that idea of freedom. I’m very lucky that I was raised in a family that wasn’t based in one country. I was raised in many countries, some that had no freedom, but my environment has always been very open and free. I was born into that, so with it comes a wide view of openness. It’s kind of a hippie mentality, in that everything is cool. Any skin color, any religion, it’s all fine by me because I’ve seen it all. I was raised in all of that. That’s interesting, though, about the 1970s, I’ll talk to my shrink about that.