Isa Arfen, an anagram of designer Serafina Sama’s name and a homage to her grandmother Isa, positions femininity front and centre. “Every woman has many different facets and through my clothes, I try to express a variety of them,” she said. “Strong, vulnerable, gentle, ironic, humorous, relaxed, eccentric, intelligent, and sexy.”
The Italian designer cites her upbringing as a constant source of inspiration. Known for its colourful Byzantine mosaics, mouthwatering Squacquerone cheese, and UNESCO World Heritage sites, Serafina’s hometown of Ravenna was an ideal incubator for her blooming creativity. The young, would-be designer painted a dreamy picture of her childhood, describing days filled with dancing, scaling her grandmother’s cherry tree, flipping through her mother’s copies of Italian Vogue, and drawing girls wearing their fantasy wardrobes. Her aunts, in particular, became a profound influence on her aesthetic sensibilities. Surrounded by a clan of strong women, each with their own distinct and personal sense of style, she cultivated an appreciation for the art of dressing.
“Their love for eccentric vintage pieces, folkloric costumes, ethnic textiles, and antique handbags was inspiring for me to witness,” Serafina said. “[It] seemed almost irreverent in a town where everyone tended to dress homogeneously.”
It’s certainly no surprise that a strong Italian influence runs through her collections—from beautiful fabrics sourced from the best Italian mills to a confident design aesthetic. “I am proud of my Italian heritage but I can laugh about it too,” Serafina said. “I am particularly fascinated by that period in Italian fashion between the late Eighties and early Nineties when maximalism and excess were giving way to minimalism and grunge. The intersection between these two opposites is very ‘me’ I think!”
Looking at her collections, it’s clear that this unique combination gives Isa Arfen its edge. Serafina’s clothes feel delightfully unpredictable with A-Line skirts in sculptural Jacquard, high-waisted trousers, and taffeta-ruffled party dresses exist side by side. Asked to define her ideal customer, she describes “a woman who feels comfortable in her own skin, has a sense of humour, dresses for herself, and is not afraid of having some fun with her clothes.” Designing with this independent woman in mind, it’s no wonder the brand’s cult following includes the likes of Alexa Chung, Margot Robbie, and Sienna Miller.
Isa Arfen’s clothes seem to say ‘You’re wearing me, I’m not wearing you’ despite their playful proportions. But who is behind the brand’s signature styling? Valentine Fillol-Cordier is not only Serafina’s close friend but also acts as Isa Arfen’s stylist and collaborator. Serafina, who began designing Isa Arfen in 2012, initially brought on Valentine in to style her AW13 lookbook. “I instantly loved working together because she immediately understood the aesthetic I was going for, but also gently pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” Serafina said. Soon too was Valentine consulting on developing the collections, presentation concepts, and runway soundtracks and set design. “She was the mastermind of the SS18 presentation....filming the models with a hand-held camera while wearing a huge Yoko Ono wig. [We projected the footage] live on two screens on set. Throughout all this, we of course also became very close friends, and every day spent working with Valentine feels more like a treat than a work day to me.”
Arguably, it’s this ‘work as play’ sensibility that gives Isa Arfen its nuance, setting it apart from emerging brands. “[Growing up], I loved to draw clothes. It was my favourite past time and a form of escapism, but it didn’t occur to me that this could one day become a job,” she said. Even a quick glance at her range affirms the power of harnessing this personal passion into a career. Serafina maintains an intimate connection to her clothes, fitting toiles to her own body. “It is very important for me to know that each piece feels good on and isn’t uncomfortable or too restrictive to wear,” she said. “If I try something on and start dancing it’s usually a good sign!”
By Lauren Sarazen for Semaine.
Photography by Bonny Peter.