While sitting in the cozy East London studio of supercool womenswear brand Aries and chatting to its founder and designer, Sofia Prantera, you realize that she’s the kind of woman that you want to be. After finishing her design studies at Central St. Martins in the ’90s, the native Roman jobbed at London skate institution Slam City, hanging out with all the cool boys, some of which would later became her partners when starting streetwear brand Holmes and afterwards Silas. In 2007 she decided to sell Silas, take care of her kids and do consultancy before reuniting with her friends, legendary graphic artists Fergus Purcell and Luca Benini of Slam Jam for their latest venture, Aries. Established in 2009, the denim-based womenswear brand took off only a few years later and recently celebrated its first official showcase during London Fashion Week. We speak to Prantera on puttin women in non-stretch denim and freaking out producers.
Why did you start your label making non-stretch women’s denims at a time when superstretch “jeggings” were booming?
The first product we did was our "norm" jean, a pair of high-waisted, fairly narrow, 14 oz. non-stretch jeans. I don’t think anyone was doing those jeans at the time. I remember going to the factory in Italy and they were like: Are you sure? Because no one does stuff with no stretch in it. But we specifically didn't want stretch. I think maybe it was because I had stopped working in 2007-08 and had very young children, but for me the whole skinny jean period never really registered. I just never associated a jean with stretch. For me a stretch jean has a place, but it’s not a jean, it’s a legging. It’s just a different garment.
Is this a time where basically every denim type has its place?
I think there’s nothing that's unfashionable. Obviously there are certain micro fashions like a slightly higher waist, but I think there are a whole lot of younger, cooler girls that are wearing really low-waisted, slightly bootcut jeans, too. Anything goes. Personally, I don’t like stretch fabrics so I would probably never go into that territory myself but I think there is a place for all those things.
How has the consumer reaction towards rigid denim changed?
When we did our first film a few years ago, one of the girls in it was really young and she was like: Oh my god, these are so uncomfortable, I've never worn anything like this. And I realized there was a whole generation of kids who had never really seen a pair of non-stretch jeans or maybe associated them with their parents. That was when I decided that we should make a point out of the fact that we are probably the only company for women using non-stretch denim. And over the last few years, the market for non-stretch jeans has obviously developed; people are prepared to wear them.
I think the people who find us are actually quite aware of what's going on in fashion. A lot of girls that would buy our jeans were buying vintage jeans before–I don’t know what’s with the rest of the world, but in London, that’s the jean that the younger girls are wearing, vintage high- or mid-waisted jeans. So in that way there wasn’t any resistance.
Actually one of my jean manufacturers told me that there isn’t a market for men’s non-stretch jeans right now. There are obviously denim and designer brands offering it who have always done it, but in terms of what’s popular on the high street, young boys wear stretch denim these days. The high street does produce non-stretch for women, but not for men.
What do you think is behind this? Why to people turn towards the real product again?
I think people had forgotten what jeans were. Jeans are like trousers that you can wear all the time, that look better with age, get more comfortable and sometimes the dirtier they get, the better they look–it was a whole sort of forgotten part of denim and I think people are rediscovering that denim is actually a really amazing fabric that can be worn in very different ways and it doesn't need stretch in it.
Who would be your favorite type of customer?
I just love the way anyone wears it. My clothes never really dress you so maybe it’s a question of taking them and making them into your own thing. I have seen amazing girls wearing my jeans with high heels and they look incredible or wearing them like a young boy and that looks cute too. We do a unisex cut, the Lilli jean, which is inspired by a really old vintage pair from the ‘50s that I used to wear. That’s my favorite just because it’s so versatile–if you wear it two sizes big, it sort of works as a skater girl and if you can fit in a really tight pair, they actually look quite hot because they are very hourglass. I even have male friends wearing it although we don’t market it for men. I don’t know if i have a favorite, i just like how people are interpreting them in different ways.
Aries SS17 film by Ben Sansbury & Fergus Purcell
What kind of things do you look at for inspiration?
I collect books, so I have got a lot of old books and magazines to look at; for this collection we specifically looked a lot at mid-’90s stuff. But also inspiration comes from making things in the studio. We are still very small and tend to do a lot of the pattern work, swatch dyeing and protogypin in-house, even on denim. You start with an image that you might want but then during the process that you go through the garments sort of take on a life on their won and go somewhere else. I am not sure if I would even describe us as a denim brand, but a lot of denim brands have this “it's about this Marlboro guy” image in their mind. For us it’s not about a certain look, it’s about the process of how to make these garments look as good as you can with what you are doing, rather than a “if you buy into this, you are going to look this way” attitude.
I think my design process is so linked to how the garments are produced that it’s really hard to work for big brands because there it's completely separate and you are giving the job to someone else. I think the subtleties of what you do get lost when you don’t control it all.
Is it difficult to transfer a creative design process onto a standardized garment?
Our denim factory hates us (laughs). So normally we do samples here in the studio and then we go to our denim factory in Italy and they'll say: “You're mad. We’re never gonna do that for you or it’ll cost you a fortune.”
But that’s what’s interesting to me–we can actually teach them certain things. Our denim factory might be a really big factory and we do really small quantities but they are happy to work with us because they find it interesting learning or talking together on how to achieve certain things.
All our factories have been really amazing and helpful and at the moment they are still supporting us although when you make 100 pairs of jeans rather than 10,000 pairs, it’s a big hassle. But we found a lot of support; I think people have seen that we are trying to do things different.
How important is skate as an inspiration to you these days?
I went to St. Martins and studied design but then my first job was at Slam City so that was what formed me in a way. I am not someone who sits down and watches skate videos–although my husband is a skater too, so I do get to watch quite a few of them. (laughs) However graphic-wise, skate has been a massive inspiration and the graphic people that I worked with from Ferg [Fergus Purcell] to my friend Ben Sansbury etc., they all come from that world. My graphic development was through that period of casualwear with brands like Chipie, Chevignon, Diesel and all that where graphics were heavily important. I still think that the best graphics are produced in skatewear; there is no fashion that could even compare to that. For me it was always about combining graphics with my passion for fashion and the women’s side of it, even at my degree show. So when we started Aries I really wanted to have a strong graphics side of it which Ferg provided at the time. It was all about how the logo is and how the labels are and that comes from skatewear and working in menswear rather than womenswear.
Where would you like to take the brand one day?
Difficult! It’s really, really nice to be a small brand because it gives you real flexibility. If we are selling next week but I really want a mini skirt in the collection, then I just make something and deal with it myself. As soon as you grow you can’t really do those. But we need to grow a little bit to become more interesting for manufacturers and get better deals.
I think the world has changed in a way where there's more place for smaller brands, people are really looking at smaller and maybe more ethically run, independent companies. The thing is, when you grow, there are a lot of constraints. It’s gonna be a question of seeing how many compromises you can make and where we want to go, slowly.