For her debut collection, designer Sue Stemp has rounded up quite an eclectic mix of inspirations. First, there was early 20th-century English couturiere Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, sister of novelist Elinor Glyn, author of the 1927 novella “It” — which, yes, launched that idea. Add to that early New Wave album cover art, as well as Eighties TV hit “Miami Vice.”
“I find the way I design is totally intuitive,” says Stemp, 34, whose creations center around playful prints. “I’m inspired by cool girls in the street and by my friends.” The latter group includes Kate Moss, whom Stemp met 15 years ago through a mutual friend, hairdresser James Brown. In addition to a chartreuse silk chiffon dress she designed for Moss’ 30th-birthday lunch, Stemp also created a black suit with a vest for her.
The New York-based designer, born in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, a small sailing town about two hours from London, discovered a passion for fashion through her first love: music. “I’ve always wanted to design, but watching ‘Top of the Pops’ as a teenager really inspired me to make my own clothes to go out in,” she says, counting Elsa Schiaparelli and designer Zandra Rhodes as other influences.
After graduating from the University of East London in 1991 with a degree in fashion design and marketing, she began working at Ghost, developing prints, embroideries and other techniques for the firm. “The fabrics I created there have influenced me to this day,” Stemp says. She moved to Manhattan in 1995 and began working for Daryl K, later joining Tocca, where she designed textiles and apparel. Next, she became design director of the contemporary line Language, and most recently did consulting work for Alexander McQueen, researching his Native American- and Hitchcock-inspired collections. “With as much as I learned at all these places, I still very much wanted my own collection,” Stemp says. That was particularly true by 2004, when she began creating made-to-order pieces for Moss, as well as American artist Elliot Puckette and model Rose Ferguson, for whom Stemp designed a wedding dress.
Her first collection for spring, which includes about 25 looks and wholesales from $90 to $340, consists mostly of dresses, with a few planned tailored pieces and coats in soft, washed leather. The Sue Stemp girl, she says, is “young, modern and effervescent. She is someone who loves to dress up, go out and get down, but who equally possesses a cool, relaxed, slouchy sexiness. And there will always be that bit of English rock ‘n’ roll thrown in.”
Prints are an important part of that mix, and Stemp has developed two. The High Voltage, a collaboration with textile designer Ben Copperwheat, was used for a cocktail dress. “The process was really organic,” Stemp notes. “First, we discussed graphics and color, and then we just laid the silk down on my dining room table and began to layer hand-painting and hand-silk-screening together.”
Stemp, however, says that the fabric for production probably won’t be done by hand. “It wouldn’t allow me to keep the piece within the price point I want,” she explains, going on to say that she does hope to add some handwork to the end pieces. The second print, Electric Moire, was based on a Victorian-style vintage shirt Stemp found in Paris. “I changed the color and the scale of the pattern,” she says. Featured in two color combinations — red and ivory or gray and yellow — the new print, produced by New York-based Angel Textiles on a heavy washed silk ground, was made into a belted shirtdress. “It’s quite a simple dress that falls off the shoulders,” Stemp explains. “It’s cool and easy at the same time.” Perfect for “It” girls of the 21st century.