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The Spotlight | Isa Arfen

After presenting the third season of her prim yet playful womenswear, designer Serafina Sama of Isa Arfen talks to BoF about her burgeoning brand.
Source: Isa Arfen Spring/Summer 2014 Lookbook
By
  • Lisa Wang

LONDON, United Kingdom — "The idea when I first started Isa Arfen was, I wanted to start creating a small wardrobe of pieces that were more desirable versions of your everyday basic pieces … You can live your life in them, not just stand still. They don't just have to look [in] a picture, but they actually have to fit nicely and feel good," said Serafina Sama, whose womenswear label — named after her grandmother and also an anagram of her own name — is now in its third season. Italian-born Sama, willowy and with a warm laugh, graduated from Central Saint Martins with a BA and worked for two years in Paris at womenswear label Chloé, whose influence is evident in Sama's hyper-feminine meets utilitarian aesthetic.

Serafina Sama | Source: Courtesy

In many ways, Sama defies the now-common stereotype of the highly experimental London-based young designer. Her design studio is in the sub-level of her stately west London home, rather than a converted warehouse in Dalston. Her clothes make you look twice not because they are subversive, bleeding-edge or technically complex, but because they are supremely wearable, youthfully elegant, and appealingly simple.

Inspired by the dewy romance of early 90s portraits by Paolo Roversi, her Spring/Summer 2014 collection featured mix-and-match separates rendered in a range of rich purples, flattering neutrals, and fluoro-bright neons. "I always try to keep an ease to [the pieces] so for example I usually place the embroidery on the hems of the sweatshirts. They are precious but they don't feel too intimidating in a way," she said.

That same philosophy of accessibility guided her choice of fabrics; cloqué silk textured with rosettes gave the clothes “big, bouncy volume” without added weight, and durable cotton poplin for her bustier evening dress felt fresh rather than fussy. At the same time, her cropped lengths, exaggerated bell silhouettes, and petal shapes gave the collection feminine charm. Isa Arfen is currently stocked at Opening Ceremony in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, TheCorner.com, and the Départment Féminin boutique in Toulouse, among others.

Growing up in picturesque Ravenna, a city connected to the Adriatic Sea on Italy's northeastern coast where "everyone knew each other," Sama picked chestnuts in the summer and drew "hundreds and hundreds" of girls in dresses in her spare time. Her mother and two aunts all had vibrant and eclectic wardrobes that fascinated her.

While doing her undergraduate degree at Central Saint Martins, she undertook work experience at Marc Jacobs, Lanvin, and Marni, where she assisted and befriended the design director Paulo Melim Andersson. It was a fortuitous meeting for Sama, who applied to be a design assistant the following year at Chloé, where Andersson had just been named creative director. "I got a phone call suddenly, and it was like, 'can you start in five days?' It was really exciting," she recalled fondly.

The two years she spent at Chloé were formative to her commercial awareness. “It [was] the first time I saw from beginning to end how collections happen and I was present during the whole process. Because obviously in college everything is really abstract and you’re really pushed out of your comfort zone, but then it’s a different thing to see and work and to know that you have your customer in mind.”

After leaving Chloé, Sama applied for and was offered a place on Central Saint Martins’ MA fashion course at, but only stayed for a few months before leaving. “[I was] working in a place that is so commercially oriented and so feminine, flattering, and realistic. And suddenly [I was] finding myself as a student again and having tutors telling me to make things look awkward and uncomfortable. Of course, it was to push me but at the time it seemed a bit…” she trailed off diplomatically. “Maybe the timing was not the right one.”

Sama soon fell pregnant, cementing her decision to leave Saint Martins, and secured freelance work, researching silhouettes, colours, and accessories for Marc Jacobs, Chloé, Acne, and Charlotte Olympia. Doing part-time research afforded her the flexibility to give birth to and care for her infant son, but “I just started missing doing something of my own, something a bit more personal,” she said. And so it started very casually. I designed a very small collection of summer dresses: very easy, one size, elasticated waistband, ties, something very easy to wear and summery.”

The hundreds of dresses she would draw as a young girl came to life as cotton and washed silk dresses, with split skirts and playful dropped shoulders. She found a factory in Macedonia that produced them for a good price and held a private sale in her home. They proved a big hit with her friends and family, and the next summer, Sama repeated the experiment — and sold over 200 dresses. The proceeds from the dress sales allowed her to launch her label in earnest.

Isa Arfen for BoF

Isa Arfen’s rendition of the BoF logo highlights one of the most intriguing motifs of the Spring/Summer 2014 season: an multi-hued illustration of an open eye done by Marcela Gutiérrez, an illustrator who attended Central Saint Martins with Sama. “It was the first time that I ever introduced a print and I knew I would turn to her because I was such a big fan of her work. And we started thinking about something feminine but also high energy,” she said.

Although the first few seasons were — and still are — riddled with trial and error, from sourcing fabrics (“We went to Premier Vision the first time and a lot of places didn’t even sell us the swatches we requested because they were like, ‘who are you?’”) to production hiccups, Sama and her studio manager Julia Reimann have seen clients and orders grow slowly but steadily. They already have plans to introduce accessories and knitwear in future seasons, but insist that Isa Arfen’s simple but wide appeal will always be a key tenet of Sama’s design philosophy.

“I love the idea of different ages and different styles being able to find a piece and make it their own. My aunt, the eccentric one I was talking about before, is now in her mid-70s and she has some of the pieces and she looks really great in them. I like the idea that everybody can find something. Maybe not everything can look good on everybody, but there is something for everyone.”

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