Interview: Sarah Williams of Williams British Handmade

September 22, 2010

The staunchly traditional angles of Sarah Williams and her handcrafted luggage might appear familiar at first. Switch viewpoints though, and those hard-edged airs and graces are all a ruse. With her debut collection, the British accessory designer wants to call your bluff, creating cheeky trunks and valises that veer off in a suspiciously surrealist direction. One briefcase melts down the stairs in a Daliesque droop, another attaché curves on its hinges. The project was kickstarted during Williams’ theory-based MA at the London College of Fashion, completed in February of this year. Called Fashion Artifacts, the program challenges students to privilege concept and craftsmanship over trend and design, ultimately bringing weirdness and vibrancy to old traditions facing extinction. Williams studied age-old methods of leather working and luggage construction, then merged the craft with her own subversive vision. She’ll give up Dali’s ghost this fall to take a design post at Daines & Hathaway, the century-old British luggage company in Walsall.

What drew you to luggage?
I was always obsessed with building boxes, containers and little bags. But during my masters course we were asked to produce a fashion artifact that was based on Salvador Dali’s work. I thought luggage would be an interesting form to play with surreally because, as an idea, it’s not messed with that much. I saw Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist purses—she’d put lights on the inside. So that had been done, but not luggage.

Is the idea to merge art with functionality?
Yes, I suppose. Although if I didn’t have to worry about money and getting a job, then I probably would go further, more art than function.

If money were no object, would you still be playing around with traditional forms?
I think so, because I think that’s what makes it so surreal. People look at it and think, Oh it’s a briefcase. Then they take another look and think, Oh is it a briefcase?

What was the first piece you produced in this style?
It was the briefcase with the curve in it. I had been looking at Dali’s melting clocks. He had made some 3-D sculpture versions of the clocks and so I made my own melting briefcase.

Is it hard to produce these shapes?
That was one of the easier ones. I experimented with plastics and papier maché but I ended up with just bendy plywood. I had already taken an internship at a leather company and learned a really traditional saddle stitch, and so everything is hand stitched. The whole project was three months long, and that includes the design, the development and experimentation. And then it probably only took a week to make it.

You go beyond craftsmanship with your work.
Yes, it’s a principal I have. I see it as metamorphosis. I have to create something completely original out of these typical forms. That’s why craftspeople do this work. It’s about creating something new. And especially now, since fewer and fewer people do crafts, it’s important to push it.

Do you ever think about what should go in the boxes?
I’d like to leave that up to whoever would own it.

What do you use to carry your equipment around?
I use a really boring suitcase, a really generic one from a shop. Not an interesting one, and it has no sentimental value.

You’re moving soon, too. Do you have insight into packing that we non-luggage makers don’t have?
I don’t think so. I’m just going to chuck everything into the van. I probably won’t even use suitcases.

Interview: Sarah Williams of Williams British Handmade