In fashion, it pays to march to the beat of your own drum
Designer Sharon Wauchob, in New York for a brief two-day stay, is thinking about home right now. No, not Paris, where she has been living for more than a decade, working out of an old, 2,700-square-foot garage-turned-studio in the Marais. And not her native stomping ground of Newtownstewart in Northern Ireland, where her parents still live. She’s talking about home as in the home market—specifically, tabletop items of the crystal sort. After nine years in the fashion business, Wauchob is finally negotiating to do a lifestyle collection. Also in the pipeline: her own fragrance.
Brand extension may be par for the course in fashion today, but it’s still a surprising move for Wauchob, who remains an under-the-radar designer, albeit one with a considerable cult following. But now may be the time to expand, since the designer’s ready-to-wear has gained momentum of late. Sales at her company, S. Wauchob, have grown 50 percent each season for the past three—an impressive feat given that she has financed the firm herself and doesn’t advertise. “When I was thinking about doing it on my own,” Wauchob recalls, “someone said to me, ‘If it feels like you have something to say, say it.’ And I think that’s quite good advice, because you’re going to have to keep saying it over and over again for a long time. You have to believe it.”
Though the designer no longer indulges in the overt experimentation she once did—her early pieces included backward garments and skirts with moldable wires inserted into hems—one thing has always remained consistent: her love of contrasts, apparent in the feminine-yet-edgy vibe that underlies much of her work. “I do dresses from the perspective of someone who isn’t a dress girl,” she explains. And there’s sure to be a twist, an extra something, to her clothes. “When something’s slightly out of context, that’s when it feels right,” she says. “It’s kind of a formula that isn’t a formula.” Thus a simple cotton tank top becomes anything but—languid, with flowing drapes and gathers and delicately curled edges. Often the warped elements come courtesy of asymmetry, a frequent theme in Wauchob’s line.
Black is another. Wauchob’s last three collections were all-ebony affairs, tempered by the occasional flash of white. And on this particular summer Saturday afternoon, the designer is seated at the Bowery Hotel’s new restaurant, Gemma, dressed entirely in that dark tone—sandals, pants and a gauzy top—save for a printed white scarf wrapped artily around her neck. The sole concession to color today: a barely noticeable violet elastic band tying her hair back in a loose ponytail.
This upcoming spring season, however, the designer notes that the collection will take a slightly different tack, moving away from her typical sobriety. “There’s going to be much more freshness, more colors and prints,” she says. “It’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a dark, moody designer.” Wauchob opens her purse and pulls out an oversize plastic bag full of a hodgepodge of items, all offering a sneak peek at spring—it’s a whole other color story.
“When something’s slightly out of context, that’s when it feels right. It’s kind of a formula that isn’t a formula.”
There’s a sketch, for instance, with various strips of fabric attached, one of which, a watery blue print, is being recycled from an old collection of hers. Wauchob then draws out a small chain-mail handbag that belonged to her grandmother and explains how she’s using its multicolor handpainted elements as inspiration. And there are loose fabric samples, including a beautiful metallic-embroidered silk swatch and a white woven floral jacquard. She flips the latter over, exposing the underside of the fabric, which is covered in fringe. “Usually, nobody will see this, because the factories cut it all off,” Wauchob says. She plans to use the fabric in reverse, uncut shaggy side out, to make for some intriguing texture. “I like how it’s a bit accidental,” she continues, “so none of it becomes too contrived.”
After Wauchob graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 1993, she was hired by designer Koji Tatsuno to work in textiles and spent four years in his Paris atelier. She followed her time there with a very different stint working on accessories at Louis Vuitton in 1997, just as Marc Jacobs was arriving at the company. “It helped me to understand the two extremes of Paris fashion, seeing it from an independent’s view and also being aware of how it works from inside one of the bigger houses,” she says.
The dual perspective may have helped pave the way for Wauchob’s success as an independent. “Her runway show might come across as more experimental, but that’s the whole beauty of Sharon’s talent,” says Sarah Rutson, fashion director of the Hong Kong–based retailer Lane Crawford. “Each item, when broken down, is actually so easy to wear. She has an aesthetic that is intelligent without being too complicated for a wider audience. From her first season [with us five seasons ago], we had incredible sell-throughs, which for a new-generation designer to have from the get-go is rare. And Sharon is also an extremely astute businesswoman.” Wauchob’s current retailers number more than 100 in 23 countries and include Holt Renfrew, Ron Herman and Henri Bendel.
Asked where her style comes from, Wauchob doesn’t offer a straight answer. Although one can easily find traces of Japanese and Belgian influences, she thinks otherwise. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe among the northern countries you’re more likely to see a tendency of design. You see a different type of woman there than coming out of somewhere like Rome.” The designer does note that Tyrone, the rural county in Northern Ireland where she grew up, is “sepia-toned, tougher and grittier [than other areas].” Of her childhood home, Wauchob remarks, “Let’s just say you don’t see other houses when you wake up in the morning. There’s definitely a sense of solitude.”
And although she now lives in Paris, she hasn’t left Tyrone behind entirely. Her company is registered there, and Wauchob frequently returns home—she has even brought some of her staff with her. “It’s a good escape,” Wauchob remarks. She also goes back to assist her parents, sheep farmers living in the house her family built nearly 200 years ago, with the yearly lambing, which involves helping the animals with the birthing process. Not many fashion designers come from such backgrounds.
Tyrone, the rural county where she grew up, is “sepia-toned, tougher and grittier [than other areas].”
But it’s this groundedness that informs Wauchob’s collections creatively and has helped her function as a small independent amid a sea of industry giants. And even though she admits that she might listen if the right fashion backer came knocking, she remains proud of her indie mantle. “People are wearing the clothes based on the product,” Wauchob says. “It’s definitely not due to the nonadvertising campaign we have.”