Trino Verkade of the Sarabande Foundation on Alexander McQueen’s life-changing legacy
By Davina Catt
Davina Catt talks to one of the most dynamic fashion insiders working in the industry today, Trino Verkade, founding trustee of Sarabande Foundation and trusted ‘right hand woman’ to legendary British designer, the late Alexander McQueen. Sarabande was established because McQueen believed that creative minds with the potential to push boundaries and overturn prevailing orthodoxies should be given the same opportunities he’d enjoyed during his career.
Born in Liverpool before attending Chelsea Arts College, imbibing the dressed-up decadence of London in the late 80s, Verkade was by McQueen’s side as he flourished from talented Central Saint Martins graduate to globally celebrated, household fashion name. Synonymous with a golden age of British fashion and daring creativity during the 90s, Verkade was involved in all aspects of his business, from design and show styling to buying and finance. It is this all-seeing eye she brings to his legacy foundation, Sarabande: a ‘fashion accelerator’ (the first of its kind), named after his S/S 2007 collection, offering scholarships, mentorship and studio space to nurture fresh new British design talent and multi-dimensional voices. In an exclusive interview, Verkade gives us a real insight into how Sarabande works to support new talent, developing creativity, and the future of the luxury sector.
How did the idea for the Sarabande foundation come about and how you would define it?
Alexander McQueen actually set up Sarabande whilst he was still alive but at that time it was just to give funding and private support to creatives he wanted to help, as well as all the other charities he worked with. When he died [in 2010], his estate was passed to Sarabande; there was no direct instruction as to how it should progress, so we thought how we could have the most impact and what does the future of creativity really need to support it? We wanted to reflect McQueen, who was so ahead of his time, working in a multi-disciplinary way with other artists and designers; so we work in three different ways. The first is offering scholarships to those in art and fashion who can’t financially afford college (including McQueen’s alma mater, Central Saint Martins and Slade, where he previously applied) for a BA design degree to go through the system. We like to support both art and fashion; this year Iris Van Herpen chose the fashion scholarships and Marina Abramovic judged the artists. The second is our Sarabande studio building, situated in a beautiful Victorian stable block in Haggerston, in East London: we have 15 artist studios and we give them out to the widest range of creatives we can – film, photography, fashion, art, painting. We look for artists with a very unique vision (not necessarily a commercial point of view) and execution of their craft at the highest level. It is important to get the right mix of artists in the studio, who come at their work from all different angles and can inspire those around and coming up behind them; finally we mentor how to creatively work your way through a project, something I learnt from my time with McQueen in the 90s.
What have you had to reassess at Sarabande during this pandemic-driven time of reflection? How do you think it has altered your approach to design and creativity?
I think we’ve been in quite a fortunate position because Sarabande represents next generation, future thinkers and creators, and that is where many luxury conglomerates and consumers have pivoted their thoughts to. We work with an array of designers from the likes of menswear talent, Craig Green, who’s young but at the top of his game, to ‘up-and-comers’ like WED, but what they all share is that they are producing something really unique. I think this has been a time where people have really sort this type of creative out; it has given designers a chance to think fully about what they really want to create – so we’ve been at the forefront of watching change. House of Bandits was a way to bring small designers together and give them a physical space, as well as an online channel, because many of our young talents don’t have the manpower to open up their own distribution – it’s offered a sense of community.
The fashion industry in particular has finally come to address questions around the overly fast pace of production and saturation of collections. How do you see the industry moving forward from this – what changes do you think will be ignited?
I think the presentation of fashion shows (since they have largely been cancelled) is being re-examined – it’s given designers the chance to think about their product, meaning values instead of the pressure of that big group fashion show schedule. I think they now see they are not beholden to do a big show every season. John Alexander Skelton – one of our designers – has always just done one show per year and on the alternative season, he will do something slightly different, like a made-to-order collection about the garment or material. In that way, he keeps storytelling as part of his language but without it being constant, time consuming and financially draining.
House of Bandits was the immersive pop-up space you set up to give your variety of creatives a physical shop front that worked like an exhibition area – from a Roberts Wood towering, shaped, seamless white dress which reached the ceiling, to Isaak Brandt’s break-dancing body inspired sculptures – tell me about your vision for the space and the opportunities it has created for the Sarabande artists?
It was actually a last minute decision due to the global situation; a third of Sarabande activities include talks, workshop programmes and group events which were obviously put on hold. We had over 45 artists across fashion, art, jewellery, design – many whom had store orders cancelled due to the lockdown, and we wanted to give them a physical platform; from Cecily Ophelia, who designs bespoke, hand beaded bags in collaboration with Kanyogoga Mums (a group of craftswomen in Uganda) to Emma Witter, who creates a series of mini sculptures called ‘The Living Dead’ from leftover oyster shells and food waste (kindly donated by Fortnum & Mason), to illustrator Berke Yazicioglu, who works with large textile-based multimedia drawings. We don’t want the space to feel elitist like a gallery; we are the only place that mixes together a true version of fashion, art and jewellery.
Do you see the democratisation of luxury and the merging of categories as the future landscape?
Yes, to some degree: I like the idea of people looking at what they enjoy and not feeling judged or boxed.
What mentorship and support do you offer artists when they have finished the programme to enter into the main fashion schedule system?
We don’t take on creatives who have just left college; we think Sarabande has more to offer those who have done a couple of years’ work, have made mistakes and are still determined. However, once an artist or designer has been with the foundation, they are always part of our community. Roberts Wood, for example – who are a Vogue Talents Award Winner, sold internationally through Dover Street Market, who straddle the line between craftsmanship and innovation with their non-stitched, seamless construction and use of digital technology – gave us 10 bespoke pieces for House of Bandits. They moved their studio out of London due to the costs and space required for engineered pattern cutting, so they still come and use Sarabande studios as a showroom or for castings. When they organised buyer appointments, we simultaneously co-ordinated the selling campaign of menswear designer, Stefan Cooke, so stockists like Matches get to see different designers all at once. We aim to follow the values I worked with at McQueen; you were free to creatively make things happen, to organise a show in a disused building or underground car park if it worked, or to design with leftover waste. We mentor our designers that it is in their hands to make things move and it’s made easier by the support of our Sarabande community. We even have a meeting space in the building we have unofficially named the ‘therapy room!’
Amongst the fashion designers, artists and jewellery makers, I came across Kristina Walsh, a sculptor working on prosthetic limbs. Indicative of Mcqueen’s multi-disciplinary perspective, how do you want to keep expanding the foundation whilst remaining true to its central ethos?
We now really want to offer more physical long-term support to some artists – we currently only have 15 studios (creatives can occupy for a year or sometimes two) and some aren’t that large, so we are looking for other studio complexes. Also we give bursaries to recipients for a year, which is enough for mentoring and to stabilise the financial side of a business (as they aren’t paying studio rent), whilst thinking about their next steps creatively. But it isn’t ultimately long enough to build a truly sustainable platform – so we’d love to have another studio complex to afford them more time.
We remain true to our multi-disciplinary ethos: Walsh, as you mentioned, works with choreographers, prosthetes, performance artists and engineers, whilst, diversely, we also support Auroboros, a designer who creates clothes to wear in the digital gaming space. The idea is that whilst all the artists are creating completely different things, they get to bounce off each other, to think how to keep telling character-driven stories. Ultimately, there are many sides to the business – not just design – and you have to think of yourself as a self-employed business as you go along. We started with a handful of scholarships, then acquired the studio space and every year add 20 new people to our ‘system’ – whilst also continuing to offer support for those who have left.
What does the future have in store for Sarabande?
We took House of Bandits online to continue to give artists a space to sell as the physical store had to shut and they’ve had great sell through from it. We did some innovative 3D scans, which creates a really immersive experience. So you can now do a virtual walk tour of the Sarabande building – this is something we will continue to develop. I don’t like to predict the future but there is so much conversation about having cultural experiences without being present – I saw the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] virtually this year guided by one of the Sarabande patrons, Andrew Bolton. We will also continue to grow our successful digital workshops started this year – including Giles Deacon teaching a virtual illustration class to artists in residence, Karimah Hassan and Izaak Brandt hosting a ‘Fairly Fast Drawing Workshop’ (on 28th April), which will teach expressive drawing based on their street dance practices and energy based performances.
We’d also love to take Sarabande abroad – New York, China, Hong Kong – whether that be through the studios or House of Bandits. London is such a dynamic, cultural melting pot – we currently represent artists from 27 different cities – but it’s important for us to look at creatives through a wider lens, from cultural background to family dynamic, as a way to understand what has informed their design-making. We like to celebrate the ‘fight through’ and tenacity. Aside from that, we are going to keep developing our programme of events, of which there are over 50 happening a year. Moving forward, I would like Sarabande to develop support for ‘unusual’ artisans who don’t always feel like they have a natural discipline.