Steve Sells

Designer
@stevesellsstudio

Interview by Charlie Price
Edited by Tiaja Pierre

You hand dye all the silks you use in your work – how did you come up with this technique? 

I began creating Shibori dyed fabrics for my clothing designs more than 25 years ago.  Originally a painter, I transitioned to creating large-scale textiles for interior installations in the late 1980’s. Some of these dyed, painted and pieced textiles became the basis for my first clothing designs.

Japanese Shibori dyeing became a primary focus of my clothing line while studying the research of Yoshika Wada, the Professor of Japanese Studies at Berkeley. I was captivated by the “language of stripes” and bold geometric patterns achieved through this intricate resist dye process. Whereas I began creating vibrant clothing that combined multiple layers of Shibori pattern in bold colors on silk. This was in the late 1980’s, the era of the “Art To Wear” movement, exuberant and expressive clothing designed by artisans combining labor-intensive craftsmanship with luxurious materials. My over-the-top Shibori dyed silk and velvet event wear of that era perfectly fit the needs of affluent women who dressed to be seen (and dressed to impress) at the opera, symphony, theatre as well as at lavish cocktail parties.

Now that we have moved into an era of more casual dressing, my complex Shibori dye patterns have transitioned into a more subtle upscale daywear look… using a minimal, Zen-like approach to Shibori dye work, which is now applied to highly textured Japanese cottons, Belgian linens and Italian wool crepes.  We still create a “Capsule Collection” of evening and event wear each season, although the focus is now on the Shibori dyed “luxury casual” segment of the line.”

Your pieces are sold in boutiques all over the country. What type of store do you feel showcases your work the best? What do you look for when seeking them out?

We sell to more than 40 upscale independent boutiques across the country. These are stores with impeccable customer service, know their clients by name and strive to meet their individual needs. They cater to women who are somewhat affluent, are often mature and travel frequently. The storeowners / buyers will often buy pieces or “Capsule Collections” from my line with specific clients in mind.

Many of the boutiques are located in resort towns like Sarasota, Palm Beach, Harbor Springs, Martha’s Vineyard, Palm Desert, etc…Where our customers vacation or have second homes. In larger cities the boutiques tend to be in prime retail shopping destinations…The main Denver boutique has been in Cherry Creek North; in Chicago on the Miracle Mile; in New York on Madison Ave and Beverly Hills in LA.

We show in New York twice a year, and always keep an eye out for new accounts that are a “fit” for the location, lifestyle and service that match the needs of our clientele.

How do you formulate the concepts of your runway shows – you seem to favor a singular vision for each one – a unique narrative. 

The starting point for my design process, whether for runway or for the New York Market, is always textile driven. Rather than using a mood, theme or story as a starting point…I’ll begin with new fabric samples from the mills I work with in Belgium, Italy and Japan; and head straight to the dye studio. This is a part of the design process I really enjoy. The surprising texture a new weave structure takes on when being boiled, or the unexpected result when a natural/synthetic fiber blend reacts with a bleaching solution can become the starting point and inspiration for an entire collection. This season, the bold geometric diamond pattern of a Japanese eyelash jacquard fabric of one garment in the collection is serving as inspiration for both a new oversized geometric Shibori dye-pattern and a coordinating digital print based on my Shibori stripes. This will be incorporated in other garments in the collection.

I allow the drape, texture, body and pattern of these resulting textiles to play a large part in the design process. Part of the design process, as always is to ensure that I am meeting the evolving needs of my customer base. The use of relating dye/print patterns, similar style lines and unifying color palette all allow the collection to tell a story.

Who are your style icons? 

A Style Icon can be anyone who fearlessly expresses themselves through fashion…regardless of age.  From a young ingénue like Zendaya to Tilda Swinton, to an Advanced Style icon like Denver’s own Judith Boyd,@stylecrone. Carmen Dell’Orefice at 89 years old is a timeless style icon.

In addition to “regardless of age” I should add “regardless of gender”. Billy Porter is a boundary breaking style icon, who has worn my designs while performing on stage and in Vanity Fair Magazine.

I know you are passionate about civil rights – does this notion of liberty play a role in how you design clothing? 

In the past I have kept my beliefs about civil rights and politics separate from my clothing line, thinking it was ‘bad for business”. That all changed this past year.

Painting fabric in my studio alone during the pandemic I was feeling frustrated and hopeless over the response to the health crisis, civil unrest, as well as the rise of authoritarianism in America. I was listening to Billy Porter speak on the importance of using your “Art as Activism” while deliberating what I could do as I was thinking about the urgency of the upcoming elections.

I began painting graphic designs that read “8645” and “VOTE” across tunics, dresses and caftans.  They were ordered first by private clients and then by boutiques. We partnered with people who would use their platform and visibly to stress the importance of voting; from influencers and activists to musicians and actors.  By Election Day our simple “VOTE” message had been seen by millions of people through social media, on the runway, in magazines and on late night talk shows.

It was the first time I have mixed Art and Activism, but it will not be the last.

What does being a citizen of The West mean to you? 

I started my first clothing line while in the East, believing that proximity to the markets in New York was necessary to success in the clothing industry. After twenty years in the East and as that clothing line was drawing to a close, I found love here in Denver and made the move to the West to start a new life… and eventually to start a new clothing line. I have been amazed at the variety of independent clothing designers, stylists, and fashion photographers’ living/working here. It is a supportive community of creatives. I am still able to show my collections in New York each season, while now living somewhere I love. Having grown up in California, Arizona and Colorado, The West means home to me.