Tuesday, March 16, 2010

LB talks real fashion with Albertus Swanepoel

LB: What were the opportunities that came your way that you took and that you are glad about taking?
I think its important to edit opportunities (follow your gut) in terms of things being offered to you. I’m a stubborn person and so only pursued the things I thought made sense to build my brand.

LB: You are referred to as New York’s main Milliner. Could you trace the significant steps of your development, beginning in SA to the present?
I studied Fine Arts at Pretoria University (which I thought gave me a great reference field through the years). After graduating, I went to Leggatts and studied Fashion design for a year. Worked for Marianne Fassler and had my own store for 6 months in Norwood (big mistake!). Arriving in NYC in 1989, life had other plans and I couldn’t continue my career as a fashion designer. After working for a glove maker for several years, I started hat making courses for two years and apprenticed for seven years with Lola. Also two years with a theatrical milliner. As my job is very tactile- I think its very important for someone (like a draper, pattern cutter, designer) to get hands on experience from known, experienced designers.
I only got noticed in 2004 after I did hats for the Marc by Marc Jacobs runway show. Being a runner up in the Vogue/CFDA fashion fund competition in 2008 made a huge difference in my career.

What were your thoughts when you left SA?

It was a sense of adventure at that point. Yes, I (falsely) thought I was at the top of my career in South Africa and the world, but little did i know the challenges of the international market or what I was up against. Talent is not a competition, but the demands of the international market are very intense. It soon proved to me that I knew very little technically, nor businesswise and was not equipped to compete with the best designers in the world in New York. Many years of self doubt and hardship followed.

LB: How long did it take you to be noticed in New York?
AS: It took at least seventeen years before I got really noticed and started to make a name for myself.

LB: What does it take to get recognised internationally?
I think one must have a clear vision, have integrity and a sense of perseverance. Never waiver on your goals or your vision on how to build your brand and be prepared to sacrifice a lot to obtain this.

How many hours do you work a day?

AS: I work an average of 12 hour days, usually seven days a week; except before and during fashion weeks, when we work 16 hour days. My work never stops for me, where ever I am- I think in terns of my work, how to solve problems and move forward.

LB: How many staff do you have?
I have two assistants and use 3 more people as outside contractors.

LB: If you do not have access to the fashion predictions, how do you keep up with trends?
AS: I strangely enough, don’t really follow fashion trends in my work. I try to create shapes and forms that I find interesting and challenging. I do follow colour trends (which WWD publishes) and I do look at during the collections (but by that time, my own collection has to be ready.) I get inspired by things outside fashion- architecture, books, opera and ballet, people on the street.

What is the process from being contacted by a designer to do a hat for the Collections to when it comes out on the runway?

It works in different ways- some designers give me a specific brief and I execute their ideas for them. Others give me a drawing or inspiration sketch and we collaborate until we are both happy. I make several muslins or mock ups for them in both cases and suggest ways to do it technically. It is usually a two to three week process. As hats are always the last thing they think about, it is very stressful on my part to conclude the process for them and get it runway ready.

LB: What did winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards mean for your business?
Being the first runner up in the Vogue/ CFDA fashion fund competition has probably been the most important thing in my career. It catapulted me to a different level- I got introduced to people I never had access before and in terms of PR ( that I cannot afford myself) it is invaluable. I am now part (in their words) of the Vogue and CFDA club and there is no better 'membership' to have than this! I now have a platform to stand on and to continue building my business. I was also last year nominated for the Swarovski/CFDA Accessory designer of the year; and I don’t think this could have happened if my name wasn’t out there because of the competition.

LB: What do you hate about this industry?
I hate the emphasis on celebrity. What we do is a craft and takes many years to perfect, and we are all struggling to some degree. I think celebrities slapping their names on clothing labels diffuse our workmanship and talent. I also think stylists play too big role, especially with runway shows; and it blurs the designer's true vision.

LB: What do you love about this industry?
I love the constant tension, the search for the new, and the immense effort it takes to maintain one's place in the industry. Above all, I love the work, the craft. Personally, I’m the happiest creating something in my room. As Alber Elbaz said- "Success is like a perfume – smell it, never sniff it and never drink it."

LB: Is it realistic for a designer to achieve success in less than 10 years in the international fashion industry?
Yes I think it is possible with a good PR team and loads of money – hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The issue is to stay successful, not just achieve it. I did it the grassroots way, without any financial backing or PR.

LB: What are the South African Designers’ advantages?
I think South Africans have a vast and untapped source of inspiration. Many Europeans designers (to name a few – Gaultier, Dries van Noten, Galliano and the late McQueen) have been inspired by Africa. There is no reasons the denisons of the country cannot be either – its right in front of them. The fine line is not to create tribal costumes, but modern day fashion.
There seem to be a sense of rebirth in the country, some very exciting things happening creatively and its important for a fashion designer to tap into trends- whether it’s architecture, furniture design, technology or fabric research, to push forward and be informed.

LB: What are their disadvantages?
AS: I think the sad think is the infra structure is failing. Learning the craft of cutting, constructing and sewing is essential and there a few qualified people to do the training. The lack of good quality fabric is also an issue in the country, but again, one can make a great garment form honest cotton, rather then a piece of cheap imported silk.
I think it’s very important for designer in SA to leave the country and train with an oversees company, whether its an internship or employment. Only then will they learn the true skills of being a designer and what it means to run one's own company in the bigger world.
Sadly, South Africa is not on the world map of fashion and it’s not a competition, but for those who think they have arrived, there is a huge surprise in the making!

LB: You opened the Carolina Herrera show – how did it feel?
It is still very exciting to me to work with the top designers in New York. It still feels unreal in a way. The pressure is immense, especially now with the internet and the knowledge that your work is seen by the whole industry worldwide, every quality of stitch counts.


Which other designer Collections featured Albertus hats?

For the Fall 2010 shows I created hats for Narciso Rodriquez, Carolina Herrera, Jill Stuart, Derek Lam, Peter Som, Cushnie et Ochs, Timo Weiland, DKNY, Suno, Reed Krakoff and Nathan Jenden (who shows in London).


Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’d like to be living in the National Kruger Park! All fantasies aside, I'd like to work more internationally, open my own store and hopefully have more cash to spend!


  1. Thanks! So do we...we will be posting more interviews with designers and others from the industry in the future! DA