At once waifish and sleek, Sally Beers’s clothes are ultramodern. They move, silently, neither hindering the body nor proclaiming, “fashion statement.” They are more about a lifestyle—with the unnecessary stripped away—and a little humor thrown in, as we never know when we might need it.
Elizabeth Cannon I’m struck by how many ideas there are in your work.
Sally Beers I experiment a lot, it’s true. I like to try a lot of things, and repetition is not one of my favorites.
EC I recall that you had something to do with Paraphernalia? Were you selling your clothes there?
SB No, I did sell some clothes at Abracadabra, when I was just out of design school.
EC That was in the ’60s?
SB Early ‘70s. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it was a time when everybody was really excited and could be extreme if they dared to do so. I started this little company with a partner, and we made felt dresses out of orange and purple, and (laughter) all these bizarre color combinations.
The ideas were fun and our attitudes were great, but since we hadn’t really had the experience yet, they were probably thrown together. I mean, I know they were; I remember what they looked like. We tried to be a little careful, but … (laughter)
EC And yet you still sold them.
EC But that was in the spirit of that time, that impromptu attitude.
SB Yes, I’m glad I grew up during that time, because it gave me freedom and made me accept myself as a fiercely independent person. We could all use a bit more of that now.
EC You see so many designers doing versions of the same thing.
SB A lot of the companies are not hiring senior staff people, designers, anymore. They’re hiring patternmakers who copy. It’s blatant, it’s well-known.
EC Who are they copying, American or European designers?
SB The really cheap companies are probably copying the better Americans. The more expensive companies are copying the Europeans.
EC What is the time it takes to knock something off from when they see it on the runway? Or do they see it before it gets on the runway?
SB I don’t think there’s any rush. They can even wait until it gets into Macy’s. Then they have the patternmaker go to Macy’s, buy the thing, bring it back, copy it, and then return it. They don’t even spend money on buying it.
EC It looks like you are involved in every aspect of creating a garment in your company. First of all, you work in designing the fabric. I remember the birch and maple bark prints on silk. That was last spring. Which prints are you doing now?
SB Paw prints, cat paw and tiger paw prints, snow leopard and dingo, a wild dog—on silk.
EC Did this have anything to do with the controversy that’s going on about the use of fur?
SB Yes. Leather started to feel—although I wear it a little bit—barbaric, almost like wearing fur. I’m not hard and fast about fur and leather, but I think it’s more ecological, to try to be better neighbors, right? I wanted to replace my leather work. I found a really luxurious fake snow leopard that looked just like the real thing—very soft and fluffy. I thought it would be nice to have a print that went along with it, one thing led to another. The wild-animal theme is a reference point for the collection.
EC How has living around race cars influenced you? You live in a kind of unusual house with racing cars in your living room.
SB My boyfriend Bill is a car enthusiast. A couple of months after we met, he was looking through an ad in a car magazine, and said, “Oh, should I get a couch, but look at this race car … ” And his face lit up. I said, “I think you’d better get the race car.” In one of my collections right after, I made a print of overlapping racetracks. I experimented with car-racing-inspired color blocking on dresses made out of bathing-suit fabric. Next week, I’m taking two days off for race car lessons.
EC Your clothes do seem very play-oriented. If not meant for non-work activities, they seem very playful in spirit.
SB I enjoy play and pleasure. In general, people work really hard, and it’s nice to have a little pleasure and fun, even if it’s just with your appearance. It helps your attitude.
EC In many of your clothes, the fabric clings to the body. You also work a lot with cut-out shapes. You don’t seem to make clothes that hide the body. In fact, it’s the other way around, they seem like a skin. The woman could be very vulnerable to the outside world. You aren’t making clothes for people to hide in, I guess is what I’m saying.
SB In general, I like to feel that the strong female body is there in the garment, and somehow shows through. It shows strength. It makes you more aware of your body. Having something fitted is more direct and sexy. But the sexiness is not really the attraction. It’s also that stretch fabrics are more adaptable to a modern way of living. You can pack them and they spring back. If you gain or lose a pound it’s no big deal. It’s the nature of the knit. I guess you could wear baggy knit clothes, but I never thought of it.
EC You work in a sculptural way, and leave room for yourself to change your mind, that’s a part of what excites you about it.
SB The experimentation is fun. It’s a luxury to be able to just change your mind and do what you think you want to do, not what somebody else wants you to do.
EC How does an American designer survive today? Before you answer that—I’m always curious to know how American designers perceive their place in this culture, because we’re supposed to be very new and modern, yet, the new in design is not really respected. What actually seems to get exported to foreign cultures as new is more of the indigenous street fashion, like bicycle shorts and what the messengers are wearing.
SB Like what Jean-Paul Gaultier does, although I really love his work—he’s a great, inventive, courageous person. As he, himself, has said, he’s more of a stylist. We all are, in a way, if we use two sleeves and two legs.
EC You’ve rebelled against that. I saw some dresses you made that looked like they had four arms and gloves. They were very wearable, even though they were silly.
SB It was supposed to be a spoof on fashion. Actually, maybe I should do that more, I wear two of those styles myself, and they are wearable. They just put me in the right mood sometimes.
EC What do you think is the real, the most interesting function of clothes? Is it that they have the ability to change one’s mood?
SB I think it is. I often wear really awful clothes, partly because it’s the opposite of what I’m doing. When I’m helping Bill in the garage with the cars, I like to wear ugly clothes. (laughs)
EC It probably makes you feel very free in some way.
SB It does. I can wear a plaid shirt. I hate plaid shirts.
EC It’s like another persona.
SB Maybe that’s why I’ve come to like changing clothes, because they have different personas. I could never figure out why you have day and evening clothes. But people want to feel more relaxed in the evening, have a little luxury in their lives, another way of living.
EC Or some people want to be more …
SB Utilitarian. Probably laundering has more to do with fashion than anything else.
EC What do you mean?
SB Maintaining your clothes. I feel that 50 percent of my clothes should be washable.
EC In your last collection you have this great terry cloth—is it a dress or a robe? It looks very dressed up, like a take-off on a Chanel, and yet you can just throw it in the washing machine.
SB It gets fluffier and thicker every time you wash it. Chanel is on the bottom of my favorite designers, but people like things that look like Chanel, so I did that dress with that in mind. It was a slight spoof on Chanel.
EC So you’re playing again. Taking an idea, and playing with it. Is it hard to keep that sense of play? You do two collections every year. Do some seasons feel much more inspired than others? Or do you have a pretty constant flow of inspiration?
SB I have decided to do only one show a year, because I can’t compete with the Oscar de la Renta’s, you know, the big guns, and there’s no reason to try. When I do the collections, I’m not trying to compete with established companies; I’m just doing it because I like to. I guess when I stop enjoying it, maybe I won’t do it.
EC Then you’ll become a racing car driver.
SB Oh, no, that’s really too expensive.
EC What was the gun that you had printed on the jersey fabric?
SB Oh, that was a toy Buck Rogers gun.
EC And then you had the falling safety pins?
SB Oh no, they’re thrown keys.
EC Thrown keys?
SB Keys in a scatter.
EC Tell me about this big influence, the inspiration you had when you were 13, that is still with you today.
SB When I was 13, I said a lot of things. I wasn’t gonna’ get married and wasn’t gonna’ have children, and I was gonna’ race cars. Of course, you have big ideas when you’re 13, but I knew that I was really excited about cars. My father used to come home with different cars all the time, that was the era when you could trade ’em in and exchange cars, no big deal. And one day he came home with this 1955 Cadillac convertible with red leather interior that had beautiful tuck and roll. And when I did this collection of leather jackets, I wanted them to look like car interiors. That was fall ’88. I did tuck and roll on the backs and the fronts of the jackets. Recently, I thought I would like to do car upholstery.
EC Let me just interject that the back of this jacket is in the shape of a car seat. When you take the jacket off the body, theoretically, you could put it on your chair and sit on it, just like a car seat.
SB Yeah. And when you sit down, it would be padded. I called it a car-seat jacket, actually. It’s got the tuck and roll on it, and it’s very padded and soft so you can sit down in comfort.