For as long as I can remember, the art of drawing has fascinated me. I can still remember the hot, burning frustration I felt in my school art classes as I peered down at the mess of disjointed lines that was supposed to represent the vase of flowers my teacher had plonked down in front of us an hour ago. Next to me, my friend Luisa (who as it goes, has blossomed into a talented artist: http://www.luisacrosbie.com/illustration.html) would be quietly adding to a perfect rendering of the scene, enviable in its exquisite detail and somehow even more beautiful than the still life itself. I had no clue how she had managed it (witchcraft, I assumed), but I found myself completely in awe of how she could describe reality with the movements of a pencil.
Ever since then, the mysterious skill of translating the world on to paper has continued to captivate me, which made stumbling across the beautiful, intricate drawings of Sabina Savage even more exciting. Sabina's designs are translated onto silk, wool and cashmere scarves and feature a cornucopia of animals roaring, rearing and galloping across each of her patterns. Every scarf is a riot of detail, depicting a narrative carefully woven together by Sabina over months of research and visits to London's museums and galleries.
The patient hours Sabina spends drawing each scarf harks back to the couture training she undertook in Paris, which instilled in her an appreciation of hand-laboured detail. “Our whole final collection had to be sewn by hand,” explains Sabina. “I’ve always been passionate about that slow process – it’s never been about quick fashion for me.” Remarkably, Sabina undertook the course despite being unable to speak a word of French, and thanks to instinct and some whispered summaries from fellow students, managed to not just complete the course, but do so at the top of her year with a coveted Nouvelle Couture Award.
From there, Sabina went on to undertake a hugely formative internship at Alexander McQueen’s print department. “I wanted to work there more than anything else in the world,” she explains. “They didn’t give us drawing classes – they sat us down at a table with a pile of photos and printed out pictures for inspiration and left us to draw for hours on end.” The course was rigorous, requiring a team of interns to produce 20 full prints over six months, from which only two would make the final cut. However, the course provided Sabina with priceless training in how to sculpt print to fit the body. “We were given a life-size female template which we would then draw straight on to,” she explains. “They call the process ‘engineering to the body’.”
At the end of her placement, and with all the necessary skills under her belt, Sabina decided to take the plunge and go it alone with her own scarf line, launching her eponymous brand in 2013 (yes, Savage really is her surname). The decision required Sabina to relocate back to her parent’s Somerset house, “in the middle of nowhere,” from which she built a business plan from scratch. “I had no clue what I was doing when I started,” she confesses. “I knew how to draw and create a beautiful product, but I had to learn how to apply for a business loan, how to get the product in front of the right people and get it stocked in the right shops.” Unsure of what her first step should be, Sabina signed up for Pulse – a trade show largely populated by homeware brands. “It wasn’t really the right audience for my brand,” she admits. “I didn’t think to bring a sign for my name – I presumed they’d make one for you – so I had to print one on out on a piece of A4 paper. I didn’t even consider that I would need someone to man my stand while I had my lunch so I just had to work through the whole day without a break – it was a disaster!” she says. However, despite her mistakes, attending Pulse proved to be a lucky decision. “Somehow I won the best new product award,” explains Sabina. “The prize was a free stand for next year so I figured I might as well do it. By chance, at the second event my designs caught the eye of a representative from the Beretta gallery. He said to me ‘you don’t fit in here at all, but I’m going to buy it’.”
With a foot in the door, things began to fall into place, and the brand was subsequently accepted into prestigious French accessory showcase Premiere Classe and then into independent store Wolf & Badger. Another unforeseen stroke of luck came when Sabina visited her old English teacher’s house for tea one afternoon. “He mentioned that his brother, the CEO of Heal’s, happened to be visiting that day and suggested we should talk.” The happy coincidence produced a successful line of exclusive cushions and scarves that gave the brand a valuable stamp of credibility. From there, Sabina's brand has continued to grow, allowing her to move into her own studio space in London and a showroom in Borough, where orders are packed up and sent off to customers around the world.
There’s no doubt that the odd stroke of good fortune has had a role to play in Sabina's success, but there is also a clear sense that none of it would exist was it not for her remarkable talent. Sabina crafts each of her designs using nothing more than her imagination, a piece of paper, a 2B mechanical pencil and the odd squirt of fixative to prevent lines from smudging. Most remarkably, she has never trained in illustration, and her ability to draw in such detail is the product of pure talent and practice. “I love the drawing – it’s like meditation,” she says. “It’s my favourite part of the whole process – if this can be my job forever, then this is the dream for me.”
The story behind each scarf collection is of great importance to Sabina, who spends weeks wandering the V&A, British Museum and Natural History Museum, on the hunt for inspiration. The AW16 ‘Circo Libre’ collection told the story of the escape of a menagerie of animals from a travelling circus train, while the upcoming SS17 collection draws inspiration from a Chinese alchemist’s cabinet. “Generally my designs feature animals,” she explains. “If the animal has its own pattern than that’s helpful because it creates a strong design, but there’s no exact formula for what makes a successful scarf. I would never have thought I would create a pattern featuring monkeys, but that design is one of my best selling scarves of all time.” Thinking carefully about the composition of her designs is one of the most important aspects of Sabina’s creative process. “The corners of the scarves are particularly important to me,” she says. “If you wear it as a neck scarf of tied up in any fashion, the corners are what you’re going to see, so they have to look good.”
A pin board decorated with the inspiration Sabina has gathered throughout her research period becomes the focal point of the collection and hangs above her desk, informing the designs as the collection takes shape. “Some of these photos are from the Wallace Collection, and others are from an artist called Ron Pippin,” explains Sabina, gesturing to her latest board of inspiration. “The painting of bird feet is from a brilliant exhibition I saw at the Horniman Museum by Mark Fairnington who had painted taxidermy in storage at the Natural History Museum. I’ve also collected old Victorian photos of Chinese opera because I think the costumes are amazing.” The rich narrative of Sabina’s scarves, and the research that goes into creating each one, is part of what makes her work so precious. “I think carefully about why each animal is there, what they are doing and what their personality is,” explains Sabina. “I create little books that accompany each scarf which contain all the designs and explain the story behind each collection.”
After each drawing is completed, further patience is required as the illustration is scanned into Photoshop and painstakingly cut out onscreen. “If you look carefully at a pencil line, you can see it’s not a precise edge, so I have to zoom in very far and cut really close to the edge all the way round to get a clean line,” she explains. The process takes a week per design, and once completed, means the white background can be deleted and blocks of colour can be placed behind the pencil lines. “I don’t think many people do it that way,” confesses Sabina. “But I really like the sketchy quality it produces – it retains the character of the drawings.” The completed files are then sent to the printing factory in Lake Como, Italy, who send back strikeoffs – a sample strip of each design. After adjusting and re-adjusting the colour palette until Sabina is happy, the final scarves are printed.
By pouring so much love and careful attention into her work, Sabina hopes to create something that will be treasured forever. “I want them to be heirloom fashion,” she explains. “I would love for my scarves to be kept and handed down through the generations like you would a piece of jewellery. I package them up in beautiful boxes so people can preserve them for years to come.” Fortunately, customers seem to think the same: “People collect them now, which is exciting,” says Sabina. “When a new collection is released, they buy one of everything. I was told that the other day, a group of American women bought one of each from Berettta and then popped round the corner to William & Son to buy the missing designs that Beretta didn’t have.”
Known for never being seen without a scarf (a staple of her wardrobe before she thought of making her own), Sabina knows what a versatile finishing touch a scarf can be – tied round the neck, looped through necklaces and even used as a belt. “People think you have to be brave to wear a scarf because they’re so big, but as soon as you wrap them round you, they reduce a lot. I love wearing them,” she says.
Meeting Sabina conjured up the same sense of magic I used to feel when I first observed the skill of an artist up close. Visiting her in a corner of her modest, shared North London studio, it’s hard to believe that such beautiful work has such humble origins. However, this feels like an appropriate heart of the Sabina Savage brand. In a world where fashion supply chains are increasingly complicated, and hardly any of us know who designed what we wear, Sabina Savage is refreshingly different. Everything can be traced back to Sabina herself, sat at a small wooden desk, sketching with a 2B pencil to the sounds of Radio 2. “If this wasn’t my job I would be doing it when I got home anyway – I love it,” she says.
Sabina's brand is an incredibly personal one – shaped by the tastes, talents and passions of an individual in the way fashion used to centuries ago, and it's hard not to fall in love with the results. If you’re looking to purchase something really special, that functions as a work of art as well as a piece of fashion, then a Sabina Savage scarf is a beautiful, timeless investment.