The rain-heavy clouds have only just swept past this city block and a crisp beam of winter sunlight now rays down upon the shop front of Vancouver’s Greenhorn Cafe. Blanche Macdonald Fashion Design graduate-turned-instructor and eponymous label owner Sara Armstrong ambles up the sidewalk, folded in to the dark cocoon of her coat, and we pause together to marvel at the timely turn of the weather. As we upright a couple of chairs outside, brushing off a few errant drops of water, our conversation turns to the magnificent line and craftsmanship of her jacket.
“I finished it just now, actually. I’d been feeling a cape, but I think I might stick with this,” Sara says with a humble shrug. Her shoulders are framed in angled raglan seams, sloping and structured all at once.
When she speaks, it’s with dream-like deliberation; every word—the right word—matters, her sentences themselves like sharp garments patterned and sewn with precision. “My style is a strange combination of fashion and sculpture,” she says, “though I actually feel that combination should be more common. It’s about transforming a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional form. I reference this a lot in my architectural seams. My background in sculpture has also been helpful in being a bit more fearless with materials.”
Sara received her B.F.A in Intermedia & Sculpture from the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, the province she calls home and the city where her foray into art-as-career first began. Though she ultimately decided that sculpture wasn’t the medium for her, her studies became the lens through which she developed her fashion aesthetic: Dynamically arching lines and intriguingly formulated silhouettes that have garnered international acclaim.
“When I was doing my degree,” Sara says, “I was focusing mainly on public sculpture. I thought, ‘Well, what do you do – work on one project for five years? How do you stay inspired through that?’” She smiles. “Fashion design is my own kind of public sculpture, I suppose. Everyone can take a piece, and what I want people to do is to make their own stories and life around them. I don’t think of them as these trendy one-season pieces. I want the people who own them to incorporate them into their lives.”
It’s no secret that inspiration works differently for every artist, so as I sip the foam off my latte I wonder aloud how Sara goes about conceptualizing, building and showing a collection. “Silhouette, shape and form always come first when I’m thinking of a theme,” she begins after careful consideration. “Then I think about what it sounds like or what kind of scene it would be in. From there it runs into runway, music, and video. All of those things together make a collection. I can’t say that I’d be interested in showing a collection if I didn’t have them all because they’re what bring it to life. It’s completely holistic.”
Taking cues from the melody of “Peruvian Nights,” Sara’s Spring/Summer 2015collection featured romantic, gender-inclusive looks with compelling proportion and a structured ease that fused urban design with the effortlessness of backcountry strolls at dusk.
Her vision continues to wow fashion media and fashionista fans alike. Last year, the third season of Sara’s eponymous label stalked down the runway of Vancouver Fashion Week to grand success. Reaching a new culmination of hype in the fashion community, eager requests for pre-orders and editorial pulls rained down upon her after the show. Her line was picked up—and featured on a global scale—by the likes of Vogue, Glamour UK, and ELLE Italia.
Of course, bringing a vision from mind to harmonious matter each season is no easy feat.
The support of a fantastic team, Sara adds, is essential for every task at hand. “A good leader—a good brand—has great people behind it. Delegation is huge because as someone who’s designing and working full-time and trying to build a type of brand, you can’t do it all on your own.
“You need people with the right skills who are just as passionate. This is especially true the further I go with my collections, photo shoots and videos. Even my music last season was completely made from scratch. It’s the only way to really take it to the next level—you need next-level people.”
When it was time to expand her team of trustworthy associates, Sara returned to the Blanche Macdonald Fashion Marketing classrooms seeking PR expertise for her label and selected Laila Fox straight out of the program. She knew that hiring students from the Top Fashion School that first launched her own journey meant she could be confident in their knowledge, skills, and industry savvy.
Despite critical career success and global recognition, she still felt like she remained a part of that community during her ascension, having kept in touch with Fashion Career Director Mel Watts and the friends she made in the Fashion Design Program into her post-graduate years.
Of the courses she took, Fashion Awareness was a particular favorite. “I’m such a history buff,” she reveals, “so…Peggy Morrison’s Fashion Awareness class is still something I think about a lot when I’m designing. When I want to pair a sleeve, I think about how they might have done it in the 1940s or some Gothic era.”
Would she say that her time in the program helped prepare her for the success she’s been met with at this stage of her ever-evolving fashion career? I ask her. Sara doesn’t hesitate. “There’s so much that I learned over that year and I literally use it every day. Even when I’m doing press releases, or writing out the description of a piece.”
Nowadays, it’s a desire to generate new experiences and to keep evolving that drive this self-professed ambitious designer forward—she’s forever on the move, taking in and drawing inspiration from the world at large. “I’m a lifelong learner,” she explains. “I love the academic environment.” After her string of runway and editorial successes, she’d made tentative plans to undertake a Masters degree in Britain when her mentor, Fashion Director and industry-renowned editor Tyler Udall, offered her a position at Blanche Macdonald lending her skills, advice and expertise to aspiring Fashion Designers.
It’s a role she was able to slip right into, like an expertly tailored coat. “I love the collaborative aspect of teaching,” she says, “especially with design students. They’re working on their own collections and I like being able to problem solve with them. For many of them, it’s their first time making something. In the Blanche Macdonald classrooms there are a lot of people willing to experiment, not just make a pretty dress, and that’s where I love to be, in that experimental…”—she brings her hands together and curls them into an elegant sculptural shape, interlocking her fingers—“…dome. That’s where I live every day. It’s been fun.”
Sara’s academic background has helped shape her approach to mentorship, which is just as considered and deliberate as her aesthetic. “As a teacher, it’s important to be open to being taught something in return,” she says. “Whether it’s what I’ve been learning lately – like how to manage a room of 10 different types of personalities – or, for example, what to do when someone has a question and there isn’t one right answer, as there often isn’t. So how do we find the best way for them to do what they want to do? If you’re not learning from your students, you probably shouldn’t be teaching. In design, it’s about your own process as a student and not about right and wrong.”
Latte finished, the ever-shifting sky above us silvers over. It looks like rain on the horizon once more. With what time we have left before the weather takes a turn for the worse, I ask Sara what’s next for her and her eponymous label. With a successful present that’s stuffed with projects and the responsibilities of teaching, how does a designer-in-demand draw up plans for the future?
She has a few rules for herself—but that doesn’t mean she follows them to the letter. “I’m a loose person,” she qualifies with a laugh. Nothing can’t be experimented with. Still: “You have to give yourself the time to grow and go out and do things, but not enough to stop yourself from being hungry. You’ve got to keep yourself driven. You’ve got to give yourself a time limit. I’m a huge goal-setter; I have a life vision board; one year, two year, five year plans. It’s all up here.” She smiles and gestures to her brow.
Not that ambition ever stops her from experiencing the moments of joy that emerge—often delightfully and unexpectedly—from pursuing her passion. “I feel like I have an ‘aha moment’ every day,” she says. “I just have to do it. It’s an inclination to design and create.”
With international recognition and strong local support so early in the game, Sara’s line is set to flourish in the years to come—and the world is eager to watch. Reflecting on her success so far, she has apt words of acumen for the next generation of emerging Fashion Design talent:
“Own your craft. Own your future. Make your own curriculum. Go to your classes, do well in your classes, but also look outside in your community: What workshops can you take? What can you do to be the best version of yourself? When I went to [Blanche Macdonald], I really dove in…and was committed to learning what I wanted to learn.
“That’s the biggest thing,” she says. Across the table from me, her bright blue eyes stand out against the dark of her coat and the shifting light of the afternoon. “You can go to the best school but if you don’t have a vision of what you want to make—of who you are—then it doesn’t really matter. So own it.”