Sue Stemp of St. Roche has come a long way from her English roots. On the winds of fashion, she’s swept across the globe, from London to New York to Los Angeles, where she calls the legendary Laurel Canyon home. Infused with the essence of her worldly travels, her grassroots label continues to thrive in the California sun, and has gained a cult following including the likes of Kim Gordon and Kate Moss. Here, Plan de Ville catches up with Stemp and her sartorial tour de force.
Sue, I’d love to hear about your early experiences as a designer. Where did you study, and what were your biggest influences?
I was brought up in rural Southern England. At the age of 14 I discovered fashion through books, and was influenced by the iconic designers born out of late ‘60s London... Barbara Hulanicki, Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. Late ‘80’s style bibles like i-D and The Face Magazine opened my eyes to current street style and pop culture. My pursuit of a career in fashion lured me to London to study fashion at the University of East London and later to work at Ghost, my first design job, just off Portobello Road. Ossie Clark was a good friend with the owner, Tanya Sarne. He’d often pop in for lunch and then the next minute he’d be up on the table making the most incredible one-piece pattern for a dress from memory.
I was soon frequenting the City’s nightclubs, hanging out in an influential scene that included Leigh Bowery, Boy George, Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen...fearless English Eccentrics that went on the change the face of fashion.
In ’95 I moved to New York to explore new opportunities, at first working for emerging contemporary designer Daryl K. I lived in the village. Downtown was having an exciting and creative moment, stimulated by the cultural mix of fashion designers, photographers, artists, models and musicians that all lived in the neighbourhood. I became co-head designer for Tocca, famed for their ultra feminine embroidered dresses and I also began designing clothes for a private clientele of high profile it-girls. I met my now partner, Paud Roche, who encouraged me to develop my own namesake collection.
The Sue Stemp label debuted in 2005 and for 4 years it successfully sold internationally, showed on the runway during New York Fashion Week, featured regularly in the fashion press, accumulated a celebrity following and I was invited to join the CFDA. During this time I also became a mother to my daughter Kitty.
In 2009 I made a career move and went to Los Angeles with my family - and had baby number 2! My life evolved and we now live and work in a converted cottage (Led Zeppelin once lived there) in historic Laurel Canyon. I have embraced the So Cal lifestyle yet hopefully still retained my New York mentality and London roots.
Tell me about the experience of launching your first collection of St. Roche for the Resort 2015 season. What is one memory that stands out in your mind?
St. Roche was launched with a small Resort ‘15 capsule collection in June 2014. Really we wanted to see if there was even any interest in the brand and what we were trying to do, and whether we could turn this into a profitable business. I was determined to keep the price as accessible as possible whilst creating unique, consciously designed clothes. So that was and still is the big challenge.
My stand out memory is shooting the lookbook with my friend, photographer Nino Munoz. It was really hot and we had basically no budget; I wanted to shoot on location, so we all climbed over a gate and shot on someone’s empty land near my house. It looked like Kenya, it was amazing.
What was the inspiration for your Spring 2016 collection?
Spring 2016 was influenced by our family road trip to through the South of France early last summer combined with my on-going interest in artisanal Indian textile techniques.
Classic Riviera stripes, the wild hedgerow flowers that grow all over the Cote D’Azur, Matisse’s cut-outs and the romantic antique French lace, crochet and embroideries we found at the flea market just outside St. Tropez have all been re-interpreted and juxtaposed with graphic Indian handmade Ikats and Batiks.
Traditional Provencal fabrics, “Les Indiennes de Nimes,” are themselves influenced by Indian hand block printing. Our “Provence” block print this season was inspired by a vintage print from the early 1900’s we found at the antique market in Nice.
The colours of the collection were evoked by the beautiful nature and wildlife in the Camargue - a neutral palette of Ivory, Cream, Black, Grays and Indigo, accented with delicate blueish-green shades of Eau-de Nil, dusty Sage and Fern and bursts of vibrant Poppy.
Who are the women that inspire you each season?
I’m really inspired by my friends with fantastic style or other women I see around or work with; multi tasking and still managing to look relaxed, feminine and cool at the same time.
St. Roche is committed to sustainability. Tell me a bit about GOTS certified organically grown cotton. Is it challenging to keep your production environmentally responsible and ethically made?
We use GOTs certified organically grown cotton each season, as well as locally grown and handwoven Indian khadi cotton. It’s almost impossible, especially with a small business, to be completely sustainable and eco- friendly but we try where ever there is an option. We can’t use vegetable dyes though as the colour fades rapidly in sunlight and there’s no eco answer to lurex thread! It all has to be a balance, but we’re working on improving our efforts all the time. We are very careful with who we manufacture with, working directly with family run businesses who employ ethical work practices.
I’d love to hear about your early experiences with the fashion press.
My first experience with the fashion press was with my previous label Sue Stemp. A hand silk-screened dress I’d designed made it onto the cover of WWD before the first collection was even launched and I was in Ibiza on holiday at the time… so that shocked me into realizing we were in business!
Tell me about your first sales season for St. Roche. What did you find challenging? Rewarding?
Being a new label I found it challenging to get across the fact that we’re producing ethically made, high quality, original clothes with beautiful hand work (ie hand block printing, embroidery, beading and dying). At our price point many stores just don’t care, which is frustrating.
It’s always rewarding when people see and love your collection for the first time and then actually wear it. Instagram has been great in sharing those images and meeting our customers directly.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career thus far?
Learning to be flexible yet true to yourself and there’s also no substitute for hard work.
What’s the most rewarding part of your business?
Being able to plan my own schedule (to an extent!), being my own boss, not having to answer to “the man” and being as creative as possible within the constraints that we have. Feeling that by trying to consciously design and manufacture our label, every little effort towards sustainability helps. Also, learning more and more from the local artisans and family businesses that we work with in India has been really eye-opening and rewarding .
What are some challenges that you face in your business? How have these challenges evolved in the last year? Two years?
Being a small, independent fashion company, it’s hard to compete for attention on a marketing level against larger, better funded competitive businesses.
What motivates you as a designer?
Fashion, textiles, traveling and new ideas.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring fashion designers and fashion students, what would it be?
When you’re a fashion student get as much industry experience as possible and intern as much as you can. It’s invaluable first hand knowledge and you can make lifelong important personal connections.
What’s next for St. Roche?
In the near future to continue growing St. Roche steadily and increase awareness of the label. I’d love to collaborate with other likeminded people or brands in the coming year. I would also like to have the time to get more involved with a specific charity and to start giving back.
Photo Credit: Bibi Cornejo-Borthwick