Interview with Clio Sage
by Mary Winkenwerder
Mary Winkenwerder is a writer, blogger, seasoned beauty expert and published makeup artist. She blogs at Ultimate Report when she’s not helping others in the industry expand their visibility through her philanthropy project called Published Project. You can find her blogging lifestyle (fashion, runway, beauty, seasonal color, food, family) at Ultimate Report.
Editorial Note: In our lead-up to New York Fashion Week, we’re showcasing designers who may not be “household names” yet, but are making waves in the fashion community. Meet some of the big-name designers of the future.
Brooklyn based designer Clio Sage offers more than creative garments that draw you into to enjoy their intricate craftsmanship details. Each of the pieces that made up her first collection has a voice of their own. TESSELLATIONS took to the runway at Vancouver Fashion Week for SS2017. In addition to the incredible detailed work that made up each piece, the collection also reflected a spirited artistic collaboration. Wanting to know more about this new contributor to the fashion world, I reached out to understand more about the brand, its inspiration and driving force.
(Photos: Ed Ng Photography)
Q: At what point in life did you decide that you wanted to express through design?
I see my relationship with design in two clear phases, my first exposure to it coming from my high school architecture program and the second being my college education. I was really lucky to have an amazing architecture professor in high school who really focused on both perfecting technical fabrication abilities through rigorous model making, and then understanding design on a more formal level of spatial relationships and balance. I remember my work back then being very aesthetically based, using modernism and minimalism as a root influence. I think it was only really towards the end of high school that I began to understand architecture as rooted in human experience and that it could be just as conceptually expressive as art even though it’s a more “practical” field of design.
My college education was entirely opposite to this, completely based around pushing our conceptual approach and rethinking what we even considered “architecture”. It was during those four years that I began to take my assignments and give them narratives that pulled from my own vulnerabilities as a method of self-understanding and catharsis. It was really during this time that what I began to understand the fluidity both between different art mediums (architecture becoming sculpture, sculpture becoming fashion) and between personal experience informing spaces for shared human experiences. The real breakthrough of my expression through design though really came after I was entirely out of school there was no more assignment-based need for it but a purely internal craving to start creating again.
Q: How has being a designer changed your life? Has it enhanced your point of view? Do you experience a new depth of life through design?
Designing on a more regular basis has become fundamental in stabilizing my life through unexpected shifts. In this last year especially, it became something that I knew that no matter what was going on personally, that no matter how bad surrounding situations may be, I could be putting out something positive that was a physical representation of growth and perseverance. It’s become a constant, and even though at times it can be miserable staying up all night trying to solve a problem or finish a piece, the feeling of personal satisfaction and pride that comes with each completion and milestone has given me an unprecedented amount of positivity in my life.
I think it’s definitely revealed the depths of my abilities when I’m motivated to explore them, and through that has made me more self-confident not just as a designer but in general. For a long time I fell into a narrative that I’m a person with qualities and abilities that can’t be changed or helped because that’s just the way I’ve always been and everyone knows you can’t really change who you are so why try. But now looking back at everything I’ve accomplished in the past year, in terms of success with my work, putting genuine effort into my personal relationships, and finding strength in the bleakest of situations, I completely reject that we are in any way forced to be constants. While of course there are things that can’t physically be helped, there is so much ability to change the things we don’t like about ourselves through determination to do so instead of falling back on this idea that people are “take it or leave it” singularities and that past behavior is entirely determining. Successful design is constantly changing and growing, and trying to improve itself and I now try to make that positive progression in all aspects of my life. A lot of it was just getting over the mental block of thinking I couldn’t.
Q: How important is seasonal color when creating a collection? What motivates your use of seasonal color?
Color is one of my biggest struggles since I grew up in an entirely greyscale house and have been much more interested in pursuing material and construction methodology in my work over everything else. I understand the general idea of seasonal colors, but I think my focus moving forward is going to be concept which then informs everything else.
Q: When you wake up in the morning, what is your first thought generally? How does this first thought inspire and spark activity into your creative day?
My first thought is usually what’s the maximum amount of time I can continue to sleep for without being offensively late to work. Creativity is definitely not morning-based for me, I stew on things for a long time and the breakthroughs happen when they’re ready, most recently during my commutes to and from work or in the middle of the night.
Q: How long is a typical workday for you? How do you stay motivated?
I work a standard 8 hour day at a professional architectural model shop so any work on my collection aside from laser cutting has to happen outside of that. When I’m really in the thick of having a pressing deadline this can mean going to my job from 9-6 and then going home and working on my stuff until 2, and then doing that on repeat for weeks at a time. And this is definitely taxing and at points can be absolutely miserable and hard to justify, which then breeds all sorts of questions about why I’m even doing this if I don’t love every minute of it and does that mean I’m not doing the right thing. But my biggest motivation is the memory of excitement every time I’ve completed something entirely new that introduced a different design solution, and then the bigger successes of being able to show all that work in one show and (so far) have it be so well received and understood both by friends and strangers. It’s really rewarding to set up challenges for myself (can I execute this article of clothing out of this material that’s definitely not meant for clothing) and then accomplishing that, which then generates a whole new set of subsequent questions and challenges through the process.
Q: How does everyday life inspire your work? Were there any daily life elements that inspired your collection? If so, what are they?
This past year has been especially hard for me personally due to unprecedented changes in my family situation as a whole and the individuals within it struggling with mental health. But at the same time, I think having to go through something of that caliber forced me to reconsider how I regard myself and more importantly how I relate to other people. I was really lucky that in the midst of a lot of fear and grief and confusion I was suddenly introduced to a whole new group of individuals that without knowing what was going on in the background welcomed me personally and supported me creatively from the very beginning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately because it was a major quality in my family member that suddenly experienced really severe psychological change, and was really devastating to realize that it wasn’t present in him anymore (and something I still struggle to fully consider as a current reality). Empathy is such a tricky thing because it not only requires you to have complete openness to others, but (what I think is much more difficult) a complete openness with yourself as a whole, messy, fluid being. I’ve found through all of this that I’m at an age now where essentially everyone I know has been subjected to their own personal experience of fear and pain and hurt, and to be able to articulate that in a way another person can understand and relate to, and have that person be open to hearing, considering, and responding to it is such an amazing thing. So to get back to the question, even the smallest moments of pure human empathy are what really stay with me in my everyday life, and are much more frequent if you’re open to them. And it’s not just through pain, but through the sharing the complexities of any emotion and willingness to attempt to pull apart and articulate every fluctuation and nuance of that experience despite feeling vulnerable or fearing being misunderstood.
Q: What message did you want to convey through the creation of this collection? Why is it important that this message be understood? Do you believe that this message has been clearly heard?
What I’m doing with this collection is really exciting for me because I’m still pushing forward with the pure experimentation in material and craft but going back to rooting my work in concept. I felt a lot of different pulls when deciding what to do with this collection, primarily between what has been going on in my life personally and what has been going on in this country politically. I’m at a point now where my work has been given a clearly public platform and it would feel wrong not to use it to try to communicate a larger idea than, “look what I can do”
So what was tricky was walking that line between personal and public and not wanting to force an explicit message either way, but trying to inspire the viewer to consider the internal condition of just being a conscious human with thoughts and feelings and a history of influences in general. And my hope was that initiating real reflection of this condition that acknowledges and exposes its messiness may start a more fruitful conversation about how to both better understand ourselves and reconnect with each other in a country that feels so broken. I think a lot of anger and hatred comes out of misinterpreted feelings of self-dissatisfaction and insecurity and fear of the unknown, and that it’s just easier to default to projected anger rather than look at the root and try to break down that generalized reaction into its complicated component parts.
It’s a really hard time to fully consider what’s going on or why, and I think the easiest way to make a lot of it understandable was to put everything in terms of polarized sides. Even to go so far as to set up two camps of emotional thought- that half of this country had suppressed their pain to a point of feeling entirely overlooked and that the other half revolves around more and more intricately defining their particular experience of pain and comparing it against those of others so that understanding either side seems impossible. I don’t think either of these things are a positive handling of the human condition, and while it’s easy to just fall into a camp and be angry at the opposite side it’s more important now more than ever to look internally at our similarities of being human rather than insisting on our differences or that there’s no way we could possibly understand each other.
So that’s what I’m trying to do with this collection, not give any kind of specifics but communicate that we all share a divided internal and external condition and that maybe by trying to create a more fluid relationship between the two that doesn’t romanticize the experience of being misunderstood or build self-suppression on preconceived ideas of what strength looks like, we may actually be able to humanize each other without any particular experiences in common. And trying to communicate a message like this comes with no guarantee that it’ll be explicitly understood on a conceptual level, but I think my means of abstracting this process of self-reflection, acknowledgement, and strength through acceptance will at least be shown through a legible narrative even if its only understood in literal terms of the clothing. I’m keeping it general enough that the viewer can project their own personal experiences onto it, without fear of them being comparatively disregarded as not worthy for real consideration.
Q: Let’s talk about hair and makeup. Who is the team you chose to work with to create these finishing touches? Why were these artistic touches important in presenting your collection?
I have a great makeup artist, Jane Meng, and hair stylist, Aishia Wright, who I met a long time ago during a shoot for my very first pieces and have not just been so amazingly willing to help me out but always do amazing work. I think it’s important to acknowledge the areas I’m weak in, makeup and hair is definitely one of them, so being able to come to them with pretty general ideas and terms and be able to entirely trust their interpretation and technical abilities significantly reduces my stress when it comes to shoots. And I try to give a platform for experimentation and discovery for everyone’s work so that we can all put together something entirely new we can be proud of, so it’s exciting for them to come in wanting to try a new vision or narrative or technical skill and I think that reads well with my work.
Q: What is your favorite out of studio activity? Why?
Aside from trying to stay up to date with interesting art shows that come through the city I try to keep myself social. My friends work in all sorts of different fields from architecture to art to music to branding and they give me all sorts of recommendations and perspective that I wouldn’t arrive at on my own. It’s so important to not just get lost in a closed bubble of creativity without taking a minute to step away and come back to it with some new ideas and knowledge, especially from people entirely outside of it.
Q: How does your brand help to develop or aid others in the community/area/ region/nationally? How long have you championed these causes?
When I started designing and making, I was doing it purely for myself, my needs, and my self-satisfaction. Once I moved into the public realm, the responsibility of using that opportunity for positive influence felt overwhelming. On one hand, I don’t think art can save the world or make a major difference politically. On the other, I try to remain active in doing what I can with the medium I’m working in to help shift things in the right direction. For example, actively diversifying how I cast and staff my shows since there is a clear racial imbalance within the current fashion industry and presentation culture is something I can control. With the current collection, I’m trying to politicize my work in a way that I think is more effective than explicit protest art, and inspire thought and conversation over generalized dissatisfaction with the current situation. And looking beyond this, since I’m so fortunate to support myself with a job entirely outside of my design work, I’m looking forward to doing some vendor fairs again this spring so that I can donate the production value of my pieces outside of material cost to programs that are going to need it most after the political shift.
Right now I’m trying to focus on humanism because through this year’s election we were taken back to questions of human rights and social equality that seemed unbelievable in that they were still up for debate. And the result of the election did definitely show two bubbles of social awareness, and that there is so much within this country that I was not conscious of or wrote off without any real consideration. It’s so easy to be angry and hurt, and to some extent we should absolutely experience those feelings. Everyone who feels them should take the time to scream and protest just for the pure catharsis of physical action. But then we should move forward without generalized hatred and really try to delve into understanding each other and ourselves, find common ground with the people who we see it with the least. It feels especially easy right now with the internet to just keep screaming into the void without any real social engagement or progress, and we need to all incentivize each other to actually try to reconnect with each other as people, not as subscriptions to political parties.
Q: What aspirations do you have for the growth of your line moving forward?
Definitely more collaborative work. My first collection introduced this with the inclusion of paintings by abstract expressionist Addis Goldman into a couple of the pieces, which was a really great and experience and will definitely be revisited in the future. This collection is going to be done in an entirely different kind of collaboration with Giovanni Dulay, who’s a really talented and inspiring fabricator and visual effects artist that I met through my current job. I want to keep encouraging an environment of collaboration over competition, and continue expanding my work into more irregular materials and mediums to see where it goes. It’s a hard balance, but I’m really striving to walk the line between strong concept and active experimentation without becoming unfocused or confused in my pursuits, which means to some extent slowing down and really trying to create specific narratives and evolve my work step by step rather than doing everything all at once.
It’s a weird thing to be working in fashion and over the course of the year the definition of my day job or my design work being my primary and most time consuming focus has become more and more unclear. On top of which, I still struggle with even calling myself a fashion designer because what I feel like I’m more actively doing is interpreting fashion through a lens of architecture and technical fabrication techniques for model making to create body scale architectures. To some extent the fact that I don’t have a clear picture of the future is freeing because I don’t feel bound by specific goals or aspirations, I just want to keep creating and building and experimenting and seeing where it takes me. But one pipe dream I’ve been entertaining lately is finding a way to tap into the film community and maybe find a project for which my pieces would make sense to help enforce a futuristic ambiance. That would be really cool and I think a really great fit for my work.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome when creating this collection?
Approaching this collection felt entirely different from my first and only other one. The first collection, TESSELLATIONS, was just a personal project I was doing for myself, built off of my body and for me to wear and just see where it went with on whims of material inspiration and collaborative ideas. This is the first time I’ve approached a project with the clear intent of being directly presented to the public without having an incubation period of just keeping it to myself. I think especially since the first collection was so unbelievably well received for something I had no prior experience in, the pressure is even higher on this one to be equally exciting. Which means not just falling back on repeating what I know, or losing the identifying factors of what made the original pieces so interesting. I’m trying to build a recognizable brand but also want to show clear progression and evolution in my work this time around by expanding into concept, new unconventional materials (resin, rubber), new conventional materials (felt, wool), and new fabrication techniques (casting).
It was extremely overwhelming to even get myself to a mental state where I was ready to start designing again, and I’m definitely moving much more slowly in approaching these pieces in comparison to the instant idea to fabrication sequence without much dedication to clear design intent that the first collection had. Interestingly, it was going back to looking at my college sketchbooks and how I began approaching those assignments that was most helpful, and I’ve taken certain elements from my design process from years ago (drawing up storylines and pressure diagrams) to help focus down on what this collection was going to be about. I’m also really lucky that Giovanni has been a driving force for me to get this going and encouraging that I just enjoy the process instead of getting lost in what the public reception ends up being. I’m definitely holding myself to a much higher standard this time around and trying to use that pressure as a positive motivator rather than letting myself become overcome by it. What’s so ironic about this specific collection is that it’s about encouraging us to understand each other, and my greatest fear is that it won’t be understood and that I’ll end up with the confusion and questioning of myself that comes with feeling that.
Q: In terms of demographic, who does your line speak to the loudest?
Definitely the art community more than the formal fashion community. I think that because my work isn’t bounded by pulling from historical fashion knowledge or formal fashion training it can be either refreshing or frustrating to see. I’m not trying to build a merely consumable brand, but maybe tap into a community that sees value in these pieces for specific events whether it’s just to be seen or performed in. I’m most excited by the people that see creative compatibility with my work, even if our mediums aren’t directly related. One of the most amazing things to happen in the last year was that I reached out to my favorite band, Son Lux, whose music has been so affecting and inspiring to me in hopes that they would let me use their work for my show in Vancouver, and they immediately responded with a yes and that they could see the connection between their work and my own as well. And that’s I think what I like the most about working in this medium, that it expands so directly into so many other fields (art, music, architecture, film) and gives me a common ground with so many other creatives who until now felt so inaccessible.
Q: If there were three things you could have the consumer market take away from this collection, what would they be?
Self reflection through breaking down superficial suppression of human complexity, consideration of the fact that fear or rejection of others (on a personal or more generalized social scale) can be rooted in fear or rejection of oneself, and the benefits in empathy both between people but also between artistic mediums.
Q: Collections are made up of pieces that cohesively come together for presentation. What types of pieces make up this particular collection?
This collection communicates through a clear progressive narrative that’s supposed to take the viewer through the cracking and shattering of a controlled external structure, to exposure of and envelopment by the contained internal condition, and then a fusion of both to create a newly accepted fluid state. I’m dealing with two clear states, solid and liquid, as metaphorical tools in showing this experience, so each piece will subsequently evolve off of the one before it to show a clear timeline. It’s really helped to focus on physical states and diagrams of pressure to inform this collection so even though the pieces will definitely be extremely different the narrative should remain legible.
Q: Do the colors that make up the collection represent a global meaning? If so, what is that global meaning? How did you want the colors that make up this collection to speak to the consumer audience?
Again, color has definitely not been my focus but there is definitely a stark contrast to indicate the separation and consideration of two states vs. what happens when they are combined. Luckily for me, the concept plays directly into focusing on black, white, and grey rather than trying to bring color theory into it as well.
Q: What are the most meaningful things in life? How do you stay centered in such a forward moving creative space?
…empathy is definitely at the top of my list because it is so personally and culturally beneficial. And it’s also something that isn’t bounded by a time period or phase and can be experienced in so many different forms. I try to keep conscious of that as I move forward, and its definitely helped me so directly by allowing me to have a community of different people I can relate to regardless of their personal passions or talents or goals. I think for a long time I was really locked into the idea of being an architecture student that becomes a working architect and that was pretty much the end of it. Even though it was frustrating at first, the fact that I was pushed so hard in college to consider things so far outside of formal architecture design really did help me find my passion for a creative life, even if it can’t fall into a singularly defined category. And I don’t want it to be! I just want to continue following my interests and inspirations and allowing myself the risk in feeling passionate connections. It’s the greatest irony that allowing yourself to truly care about anything also allows the possibility of the greatest disappointments and feeling hurt, but I try to maintain the opinion that I’d rather have a fully feeling and fully experiencing life, even if its painful, than fall into the safety of comfort, apathy, or numbness. A creative life is definitely a life without guarantee, and inevitably can’t always be at a high, but it offers a very difficult and important test of whether you can take a misstep and still use it as a learning experience to continue into the future.
Q: Did your childhood activities ever reflect your current passion for design? If so, how so? If not, how so?
I don’t really see any direct connection between my work now and my childhood, except the influence of growing up in a modern and monochromatic house. My parents prioritized academics and I didn’t have a natural talent for the more traditional arts, so I didn’t really even attempt to seriously pursue creativity until later in life. But I think the later craving for creative expression without being able to draw or paint or write it out pushed me to find different methodologies and solutions that capitalized on what I’m good at. And I think to some extent that’s what is really at the root of my fashion work, using materials I’m good with and reapplying them to fashion in a new way rather than struggling with fabrics and pattern making which intimidate me with their unpredictability. I like the control of working with hard materials, so it was just a matter of finding a way to use that to my advantage in creating wearable textiles.
Q: In this collection, how are accessories and shoes worked into this creative mix? Did you create your own or did you partner with another designer? If so, who did you partner with and why?
While I know the general look I’m going for, I’m still nailing these specifics. In comparison to my last collection, I’m pursuing “streetwear” for this one since the message I’m trying to communicate is universal and in no way avant garde or inaccessibly high fashion. But one of the accessories I’m including is definitely pulled from my own life, and going to be my first introduction of a “branded” item. (20) What is your take on using sustainable materials? Do you use them? For what reasons, if so? (Some do and some do not. This may be non-applicable).
Q: Hand created design elements can make incredible finishing touches on garments. Does this collection bear any hand created elements? If so, what are they?
Aside from the laser cutting of all the individual units within all my pieces, everything is hand assembled entirely by myself. To some extent I see the laser cutter as doing an equal amount of work as I am because if I were to cut and drill press each piece by hand it would take just as long as the assembly of them does. What’s unique to this collection is the fabrication and painting Giovanni is doing and what I’m most excited to be incorporating into my work. He and I are both approaching it as a learning and discovery process so I can’t wait to see where it all goes. (1) How does classic artwork impact your creative process? (This can be music, art, design, furniture, etc.) (2) How does modern artwork impact your creative process? (This can be music, art, design, furniture, etc.) (3) How does pop art impact your creative process? (This can be music, art, design, furniture, etc.)
Q: Who are your top three favorite artists and how have they inspired you as an artist?
I’m going to answer these all together since my inspiration sources are always changing. I’m always excited by artists expanding outside of their field to create something new, in music the artist Hot Sugar immediately comes to mind because he creates his beats entirely out of sounds he personally records from everyday life and distorts into foreign but eerily familiar sounds. In furniture, I remember going to a Paul Cocksedge show to see his designs that used thermodynamics as a means of joinery. And in fashion I was always inspired by Iris Van Herpen who was at the forefront of incorporating 3D printing and laser cutting into avant garde design. For me, inspiration from other artists is least about agreeing with them aesthetically and most about what they’re doing to bring their fields into new, more creatively experimental realms. There’s a lot of beautiful design in the world which I do genuinely appreciate, but a lot of it only has purely aesthetic value. A great artist is one that inspires thought, a question, or deeper reflection on a feeling. I like an artist that makes me wonder how they got to their final result, and then shocks me with how they did. Or one that challenges me to really consider what definitions like a “space” from a “room” from a “door”. I look for art that isn’t just self-serving, and that is humble enough to share its tools and secrets in pursuit of a better, more inspired future.
Q: Where are you based? How does where you live impact your work? Does it impact your work?
I’m based in Brooklyn, which to some extent feels like a great fit because of its prominent creative culture but also has a certain pop fashion design culture that I don’t exactly fit into. But it’s definitely been a great host to connecting with other creatives in all sorts of fields and the right place for me to be based, much more-so than Manhattan.
Q: Official name of most recent collection?
TESSELLATIONS was what I showed this fall for Vancouver Fashion Week, but for New York Fashion Week I’ll be showing what I’m currently working on, which I’ve decided to call FUSIONS. This is in reference to both its chemical term of a solid becoming a liquid and the more basic definition of joining separate things into one entity.
Q: How many collections created to date?
This will be my 2nd collection.
TESSELLATIONS, Clio Sage’s SS2017 and first collection, showed at Vancouver Fashion Week this past season. There, for a fabulous moment in creative time, something refreshing graced the runway that transcended traditional garments, adding true artistic edge to fashion as we know it. As a whole, the detail oriented and thought provoking collection was well received by all.
The designer never set out to be in fashion or even to design textiles or garments. Earning an education in what she considers to be “architecture,” her educational path proved to produce something much greater than a conventional career. When reflecting on the years that led up to inspiring an interest in fashion, Clio shares that, “it was during those four years that I began to take my assignments and give them narratives that pulled from my own vulnerabilities as a method of self-understanding and catharsis. It was really during this time that what I began to understand the fluidity both between different art mediums (architecture becoming sculpture, sculpture becoming fashion) and between personal experience informing spaces for shared human experiences. The real breakthrough of my expression through design though really came after I was entirely out of school there was no more assignment-based need for it but a purely internal craving to start creating again.” The purity of the creative drive behind this brand is both inspiring and intriguing, resulting in an interest to learn more about the designer who resides in Brooklyn and the force that drives that mind to collaborate and create.
Clio’s hero work is not only in the intricately created details that make up each facet of every textile but also in the thought processes that spark inspiration. The non-conventional fabrics that define the human shape beautifully has one wanting to know more about who and what make up these artistic messages. Forces that come together and unite in collaboration for a better point of view, good message and unique presentation are forces that stand solid. The collaborative works that made up some of the garments in TESSELATIONS, stood for some of the collection’s most unforgettable statements. How will the designer express and satisfy the artistic mind through future collections? FUSIONS, Clio’s second collection and first New York Fashion Week show, is fast approaching.