When people think of art, the mind flashes with images of sculpture, painting and expanses of canvas. Yet one forgets that every object we interact with on a daily basis is a result of the influence of art. The garments that we wear to protect ourselves from the elements and express our individual identity started off as someone else's creative vision. London-based fashion designer Sami Armstrong, known for her passion for print, illustration and colour approaches the garments she creates with the same ethos as an artist taking to a blank canvas. Her experiences, travels and emotions conjugating into wearable pieces of art. We sat down with Sami to talk about her time in Cornwall, where she grew up, travel and her hands-on approach to dyeing the fabrics she uses.
Have you always wanted to be a fashion designer?
I always wanted to be a designer but not necessarily a fashion designer. I have tried not to pigeonhole myself too much as I believe being diverse is essential to creativity. Growing up, I was always very artistic growing up, and I used to paint a lot as a child. The dream used to was to be to become an artist living by the sea, but over time I figured that dream could wait for now as the current ones are incredibly exciting. At school and at college, my interest in Textiles and Graphic Design seemed to naturally evolve towards Fashion. I never felt like I have to make a conscious decision toward being a fashion designer. I was a very organic progression.
Could you tell us about your time growing up in Cornwall and how that shaped you as an artist?
I had an incredibly lucky upbringing in Cornwall. My creativity was always very much encouraged positively through both my family and my schooling.
A very close family friend and artist took me under his wing and supported my love of painting very early on. He lived next door to my Grandma and used to teach me watercolour painting every Saturday morning from a young age to my mid teens. I was also lucky enough to go to a school that supported my creative interests too.
This combination of early support from family, friends and education helped to build a creative confidence and gave me a really early focus towards my work. My very first form of income was made selling my watercolour seascapes locally in Cornwall over the summer holidays. I would photograph and paint my very favourite beaches and also did ink illustrations of local buildings with a watercolour wash too. The visitors loved them, and the process built some amazing local contacts that I am still in touch with. My fortunate upbringing was the building block of a much bigger journey, and the level of support from the collaborative creativity in Cornwall has played such a key part in my evolution as a designer.
How important is travel and culture as a source of inspiration for you?
Travel and my interest in culture have always been a big source of inspiration to me. I consider it very important, not just because of the knowledge and new concepts it provides but because it educates us and allows us to view things with a new perspective which can be really interesting. I find this perspective during travel a real inspirational fuel for new ideas. It provides that diversity I try to maintain and generates new challenges that can positively disrupt too much routine within our lives. Travel and culture feed us with energy to try new things and push ourselves that little bit further. When I travel, I try to record as much as I can through notes and drawing without disrupting the experience too. I also try not to plan too much ahead as that sense of freedom alongside apprehension and fear of the unknown has often resulted in some incredible memories and experiences.
Have you always hand-dyed your fabrics? Could you talk us through the process?
I try to be as interactive as possible with the materials I use, whether that is through considered sourcing or my own manipulation. I feel continual progression is really important as I want my work to be more than just product but an artistic representation of my approach as a designer too.
Since colour is so important to me, dying my own fabrics initially came from the challenge of trying to source specific colours. Dying Fabrics myself proved a far easier way of achieving exactly what I wanted. I can be quite a perfectionist, which is a good yet frustrating trait to have from personal experience. To be honest, the process involves a lot of trial and error. There is always an element of risk, variation and handmade quality, which I really like. It means that each fabric and therefore each product will forever be slightly unique from another. I have tried the process of natural dyeing too. This doesn’t always quite achieve the level of colour I aim for but to I hope to develop ways of incorporating this into my work somehow. I am always on the lookout for new ways of working within my practice.
Could you tell us a bit more about the term ‘Seawolf’ and its relevance to your work?
Seawolf is a concept that I hope will make a true impact one day. I am a real believer in life-balance and how our work should never cause any elimination of other interests in life as it is inevitable that they will compliment each other somehow. Ironically, even as a lover of fashion, I also have a real resistance and distaste for aspects of our materialistic culture. I think we often forget that true happiness does not come from the quantity of stuff we possess but people and our surroundings. We forget the value of those who support and inspire us, the positive euphoria gain from contributing towards another’s happiness and the satisfaction of materialistic simplicity. Seawolf is the Idea that materialistic success can be capped and beyond that, we should apply our energy towards shaping and evolving greater things. The success of a product is not just about the sale and satisfaction to the wearer but the positive, extended product effect. Seawolf is dynamic, diverse collaborative and ever-changing. It is what makes us think less about immediate production and more about the people, process, longevity and impact amongst a much bigger picture.
Do you think the fashion industry needs to do more with regards to the biological impact it has on our planet?
Absolutely. I don’t want to be too negative as there are always ways we can do better, but the fashion industry has the power, as a major contributor, to positively address this. I do think that a majority of brands have the ability to consider and respond to these issues without creating a negative impact on their business. Our culture is so open to these changes, and I hope for it to be part of the natural evolution within Fashion now. Where speeding up this evolution is the added bonus and products what were perhaps once desired are replaced by less biologically impactful ideas. To work for a brand that takes these issues seriously and reduces their impact where possible does give me a feeling of pride. I do feel that this should be at the forefront of the fashion industry and I do consciously try to make an effort to engage in these issues myself. In my opinion, it’s all about being involved, taking responsibility and educating each other about these issues positively. We are controllers of our own future, and together we can make a difference.
Is there a personal goal you would like to achieve apart from your art?
I like to think of myself as a bit of an adventurer. I always wanted to be an explorer, and I would be lying if I said that dream didn’t still exist in a slightly less obvious form. I love to challenge myself beyond just my creative interests. I am a very active person and really took advantage of living by the sea growing up. One day I will live on the sea and explore the world with a new perspective. I would like to travel without a plan for period of time one day, using my creative focus to become involved and contribute along the way. My character is generally quite driven and disciplined, but I do have a very strong element of free spirit that enjoys disrupting too much routine. I think it is this element that drives my need for diversity within my work and obsession to travel and experience new things. The unknown is a powerful and exciting prospect.
You recently did some work with the Coppafeel charity, could you tell us a bit about how that came about?
One of my hobbies is running, and I signed up for the 2017 Bath half as a personal challenge through the Coppafeel charity. I became properly aware of Coppafeel back in 2015 when I ran my first Half Marathon, also in Bath. Running for a charity is important to me. This time I wanted to think a little outside of the box for new fundraising ideas. I have been inspired by the charity and what they do so simply began illustrating in response to that. A local Printing company called 3rd Rail clothing had a new service called Print Social, and with their help, my illustrations soon evolved into the perfect fundraising t-shirt campaign. This was a great way for me to be creative and effectively fundraise while spreading the word through new, exciting product! Print Social helped me to launch a limited edition campaign and sell efficiently for a limited time. The team at Print social, Coppafeel and myself supported each other through the promotion of these sales, and every single penny of profit went directly to Coppafeel. It was a fantastic collaboration, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these teams and creating a unique limited addition product, inspired by those who truly make a difference.
What is your driving force as a designer that separates you from your contemporaries?
I believe in the process but also in something further than just the creation and sale of a product. I was to impact others beyond the ordinary. I don’t work within fashion to add to our culture's reliance on materialism, I do it to create beautiful, considered product that goes further than the product itself. To generate a product that is entangled, whereby its function is one thing, but then its design evolution and positive effect through production and sale is another.
I source with consideration, collaborate where possible and build positive relationships which continue to help, support and generate a new ethos within the industry. I want to confront the industries greed, selfishness and abuse toward skills and talent and generate creative support and new energy, extending into other industries and charity based projects too.
Would you ever consider moving back to Cornwall?
One day I would yes. Cornwall is incredibly special to me, and I do often miss the lifestyle. However, I do love living here in London as the energy, diverse opportunities and fast city pace really suit me right now. I am aware that this may not suit me forever, so my aim is to learn as much from the industry as possible to build a network that enables me to be flexible about where I choose to live. To one day gather enough skills and support within the industry to sustain myself, as a designer in Cornwall would be incredible but whatever happens, I will always have close connections to home. I have always felt very lucky to be able to enjoy city life but also escape South to the countryside when I need it.
What was the best advice you were given?
‘If you make a mistake, use it!’ My first Art tutor and close family friend gave me this advice. It has since helped me to build a positive, creative approach to my work and to try not to get too anxious about creative decision-making. I believe that things in life often happen for a reason, but we are also controllers of our own happiness. My advice from Alan compliments this belief and helps me to make the most of the things within both my creative practice and life’s opportunities too.