Photography: Lucien Smith
At the tail end of New York Fashion week, I spotted a woman wearing an impossibly chic, pleated, blush pink jacket dancing with abandon under the disco ball at Paul’s Baby Grand. Given my insatiable thirst for lightweight outerwear, I asked her where I might procure such a jacket. As it just so happened, the woman had designed it herself, which is how I found myself in the Soho showroom of Vivien Ramsay, slayer of dance floors, maker of cool jackets.
Hand-dyed in open-air vats outside her studio in the Philippines, each piece in Ramsay’s namesake collection is as singular as the designer herself. And there’s plenty more to covet than simply outwear. Billowy white dresses with hand-stitched embroidery, embellished bodysuits, the perfect pair of dark wash denim—Ramsey’s SS17 collection has it all. Cheekily titled, “Psychotic Domestic Housewives,” it evokes ’70s nostalgia with an it-girl attitude.
Previously stocked in luxury boutiques alongside the likes of Margiela and Dries van Noten, the brand recently found a younger audience, thanks to Ramsey’s son, contemporary artist Lucien Smith, who stepped in as Creative Director two seasons ago (given her youthful appearance and ageless spirit, it’s nearly impossible to believe that Ramsey would have a 27-year-old son, but I decided to take her word for it). The dynamic duo even collaborated on a blood red varsity jacket, which features a miniaturized version of one of Smith’s paintings, for Dover Street Market. Naturally I just had to cop one of those too, but not before chatting with Ramsay about her latest collection.
Who taught you how to sew?
My mom. There are five of us—four girls and one boy—and my mom used to make all of our clothes. If you see our kiddie pictures, we all have the same dresses. Four girls in the same blue dresses, the same gingham dresses, sometimes with a different neckline…
How did you feel about this at the time?
Oh, we were mortified. When we were little it was fine but when we got to be 7 and 8 it got a little hairy. That’s when we started diversifying, so we’d rip all our clothes apart and put them back together—we were already deconstructing things ourselves way back when. We were kind of self-taught.
You and Lucien seem to make a great team. Was there ever a time when you weren’t great at collaborating?
I think we’ve always collaborated, whether it was playing or making art or exploring or traveling. This time, when he came to me, he was like, ‘I’d really like to work with you on this.’ He actually appointed himself Creative Director. He said, ‘I’m your Creative Director now, Mom. Starting this season.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Okay! That’s awesome!’ We started two seasons ago and it’s been really good. We’ve always been great collaborators, and it wasn’t always just clothing.
In what ways did the brand identity change when Lucien came in?
There was a really big shift towards relevance. Although I do have a young spirit, I’m 48 and Lucien’s 27. I also don’t live in the city full-time anymore—I live in the tropics in the middle of nowhere—so sometimes my sensibilities are too esoteric. Before he came in, the collection was beautiful but it was definitely geared more towards the ’30s or ’40s category. We still have those customers, but when Lucien came in he brought a sense of relevance for somebody in their ’20s.
When you’re approaching a collection, are you actively seeking inspiration or does it sort of just comes to you in spurts?
Things just come. Lucien is so immersed in social media and imagery, so we would work through iCloud and flip each other imagery all day long until we finally come up with something that feels like it’s coming together. Then we start a new folder and we start writing narratives about it. But it starts mostly from imagery and emotion. We’ll say, “How do we want our girl to feel this time?”
So how is your girl feeling in this collection? What is a “Psychotic Domestic Housewife?”
It’s a mentality. There are young women, middle-aged women and older women that are housewives, but it’s not that they’re sit-at-home housewives, it’s just the mentality going into a relationship and having a house to take care of. Like, who am I? Have I lost my identity? So the collection kind of reverbs off that narrative. Even single women gets this idea in their head that’s like, ‘I want to meet this guy and have a house and have kids.’ It’s this roleplaying.
I know you shot the lookbook in Montauk, where Lucien lives, and there’s definitely a Montauk-y feel to many of the pieces. What about Montauk resonates so strongly with the two of you?
Our connection to Montauk is our connection to the ocean. We surf, we love the water—we’re water children. I’m in the tropics in the ocean and he’s in Montauk in the ocean so the two are always combining. Aesthetically, there’s that 70s, pseudo-hippie vibe, but it’s still very modern. The proportions of the shirts are shrunken, the dresses aren’t super billowy.
Have there been any particular fans of your designs that have surprised you?
Actually, there was a movie recently, Neon Demon—Elle Fanning was wearing our top in the opening. I love her. We like girls who are more divergent.
How else would you describe your dream customer?
She’s definitely masculine/feminine—not girly at all. She’s got to have a good sense of confidence. She’s independent, travelled, a free-thinker. Ageless.
Like you. What does your work environment in the Philippines look like?
Oh, you should come. We live in an area called Zambales. It’s always 80-something and dewy, so your skin is quite supple all the time. The studio is in an industrial zone, but there are mountains everywhere. We live on top of a mountain, so I usually ride my bike down the hill to the studio. It looks like a vintage Jean Prouvé building with a big awning that comes out over where we do our dying outside. It’s super analogue—we don’t use crazy machines. It’s all just big, stainless steel vats in a row and we have huge mortar and pestles where we pound everything. For example, all the black is from Indian almond leaves. I would order 50 kilos of Indian almond leaves, we’ll put it through the muncher, then we’ll boil it and extract the pigment.
Where do you source your other materials from?
Mostly Japan and Italy. A lot of the knitwear is from Japan, bottomweights are from Italy, so is the leather. But we do develop our own fabrics. All the hand-woven stuff is done in the Philippines. The silks are obviously from China. But we get everything white. Even the threads are white.
So every piece must have its own character.
Oh yeah, each piece is unique, because we stitch it up and then we dye it. So no two pieces will ever look identical, but we like that. When we ship a rack of black, it’s not one black, it’s fifty shades of black.
Is that the follow-up to Fifty Shades of Grey?
That was an awful movie.
It sounds like a utopia over there. What is your workday like?
I have a loose schedule. In the morning, Allister, Lucien’s brother, and I will play chess and do our juicing, and then I get him to school. Then I’ll run, swim or surf—I have to do that every morning, it’s my religion. Then I have a late breakfast with my husband, Edward, who’s my CFO, he also does all our production planning. He wakes up really late, at eleven or twelve. Then we start our day. We’ll get home at around 6, make dinner, watch a movie and then start working again at around 1am. That’s a really good time to work, because it’s so quiet.
You’re living the dream. Do you ever miss the city?
Not really. Because of technology, I feel like I never leave. I’m always talking to people here, I’m always seeing imagery, I’m on FaceTime, I’m on Skype… So no, I don’t miss it at all.
What do you think is the most important piece of advice you’ve given Lucien?
I always say, ‘You can do whatever you desire.’