She Comes In Colours

Words Sarah-Lee Palmer-Hogan

Sara Berman’s namesake label was launched in 1998 when Liberty stocked her graduate collection. Five years later The Guardian named her as the fashion designer in their 50 Women to Watch list, while both she and her designs regularly received best-dressed plaudits from journalists.

Child Bride, 2015

Joseph, 2016

Sara Berman’s namesake label was launched in 1998 when Liberty stocked her graduate collection. Five years later The Guardian named her as the fashion designer in their 50 Women to Watch list, while both she and her designs regularly received best-dressed plaudits from journalists.

Then, in 2012, Sara moved away from fashion to focus on painting. Her portraits have a sense of familiarity to them; they remind you of someone you want to know. They, like Sara, are fascinating, and you instantly want more. She is currently studying a master’s in fine art at Slade, which is where we meet to talk about her work and thoughts about the fashion world, before heading to a coffee shop for hot chocolates with Baileys.

You were shortlisted for the 2015 BP portrait prize. Do you consider yourself a portrait painter now?

I do feel I’m a portrait painter, I just think the word portrait has morphed now. We live in a totally different world to the world that portraiture came out of. Everything is online. It’s all instant and portrait can be anything now, it could be a paintbrush… I was actually thinking that maybe as one brush painted the whole painting of Joseph, it should go with the painting, maybe it should be stuck on the back. I don’t know if the BP Portrait Prize would accept that as they want the painting to be about the sitter… The sitter is primary; the artist is secondary. Whereas for me the sitter is merely a catalyst.

At the halfway point of your MFA, are you more confident about your painting?

Yes, but I think I was already… I didn’t ever struggle with my ability to paint, I struggled with my ability to see if I was painting well or not, and I’ve now learnt to look for certain things. When I painted Child Bride, I had a tutorial straight afterwards and the tutor loved it, the thing that she found interesting was that the shapes are all so weird but you know what it is doing. That was something that made me think about the forms within my work and become a bit more definite about delineating something like a bag and making that a primary shape, rather than making it look like something was hanging off her shoulder and her being the primary. Just an idea of shifting things slightly and understanding where I am happy with the paintwork or where I am not. These are things that I love. It’s the easy mark that really does it for me, or the difference in a much scratchier line.

It’s those things that kind of interest me whilst keeping the subject quite simple and playing with composition. With Joseph, I like the fact that he’s off and the boldest colour is at the bottom. I’ve given it a blue, which I know is complementary but to you will look right-ish. Those are the games I am learning to play.

Do other people’s opinions of your work define their success, or is it just you who is judging?

Well, I think I like them for different reasons and sometimes they might not be successful in one area but I learnt a lot, or it was really important to me for sentimental reasons, and I think that is as successful a painting as one that looks as you wanted it to look when it’s finished. You don’t know what a painting is going to look like when you start it; you don’t know what it’s going to be like at the end. >>

Anodyne Girl, 2015.

<< Your relationship will change with it over the course of making it. When it’s finished, you’ll look at it and go, “Okay, what is there to like here, what do I feel.” It’s personal.

How do you decide who to paint?

When I know them, I really struggle with that knowledge. A lot of my paintings are found images or they come from magazines. The fact that I don’t know them leaves them totally open to interpretation and the paintings that I have done of people I know are painted differently, without the freedom that I enjoy and the marks I enjoy making.

Do you miss working with clothes and fashion?

I think I’d be bored designing; you get looped into this seasonal thing that seems really archaic and irrelevant to me now. It’s too fast and it’s too slow at the same time. When I consider how I make work now, the idea is happening and I’m making it, and it’s evolving and it’s changing, and it’s constantly an engaging process through the making of that work. The freedom and the speed, and my choice – I don’t have to make X amount of pieces each season. Although maybe that will change, as hopefully I’ll get a gallery and they will require it and that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with the commercial side of the art world. I’ve been reading lots about it recently and a lot of artists talk about this complicity with the market being wrong but I feel it’s a bit of a red herring as a concern. I think, make the work you want to make and there will be a market and people will want to buy it, then at some point, it may become popular or valuable, but that’s not really your concern.

Do you design clothes still?

I work in Japan as a consultant and design a collection twice a year but it’s a very different process. I don’t have any of the problems, I don’t have the responsibility of having to run a business and I’ve been designing for so long that it comes very naturally to me. But I find it very difficult to shift my brain from one thing to the other, I cannot do the two things at the same time. I stop making work and then I design the collection, and then when I’ve finished I start making work again. I can’t have a day job and a night job, it just doesn’t happen. I’m thinking about things in a different way and I can’t make my brain switch. But I do find that it’s good to take the break; I get very involved in my work. You eat it, you sleep it, you dream it, and sometimes you can miss a trick as you’re so involved in it. You haven’t stepped back and thought. So, actually, it’s quite good to be forced away for a period of time and then come back and be like “Okay, this is how I need to address it.”

Does your design feed back into your work?

No, it’s very commercial and totally separate because when I look at clothes for my work, for the paintings and the sculptures, I’m considering clothing as a skill. I don’t look at fashion per se. Fashion is so embedded within me. All the signifiers are known to me in a way that they might not be to someone who wasn’t involved in fashion for so long. I can tell so much about someone just by the cut of their jeans, the collar that they wear. But they’re not fashion things, they’re more like societal codes.

I stopped looking at fashion, so when I do the collections I do have to look at fashion again, although I learn less and less. I think fashion has changed so much from my time. It’s so quick, it’s so instant… It’s like fashion talks down to us, as it will say, “It’s 70s style.” It’s almost like styling, fashion has become what styling was rather than about clothes. And I’m interested in clothes as skin and the signifier of self. I like it when I see a character on the street that has put themselves together with originality. Those are the people I want to snap. The things that are interesting are the people who have something to say that is about them. I love the quirk, the detail, the tiny detail, the brown brogue. With Jane, I had to go searching for a man with the right shoes on, to ask him to sit down and cross his legs.

Really!? Did you walk around looking at the floor?

Yes, it took a couple of days, and then I found someone and asked, “Would you mind sitting down so I can take a photo of your brogues?” But that brogue tells you everything you need to know about that guy. I didn’t need to paint him. The detail, like the cuff coming into the picture, tells you everything. Whether the encounter is sexual, whether it’s powerful, whether it’s playful, and all those things are not about fashion, they’re about social signifiers. And the people who wear their clothes and don’t let their clothes wear them are much more interesting to look at. If you want to look at a fashion pastiche, that’s very easy to find – I could just stand on the high street and find them all. And that’s not bad but it’s just not something that interests me.

Talking about shoes, there are lots of red shoes in your work – why is that?

I’ve collected so many of them and they are all unworn, that’s what’s so interesting, I didn’t buy them because they were unworn. I bought them from charity shops on the assumption that they were second hand and I wanted to work in other women’s shoes. Then I noticed that they hadn’t actually been worn before so this whole idea of walking in other people’s shoes was null and void. How interesting that these people had all bought these shoes with a strong symbolic value and then not worn them.

They’re very much a statement… It’s a fairytale thing. I love fairytales. Child Bride is very much based on fairytales and I’ve got more and more into those. 

I recently read a lot about psychoanalysis then started reading about the fairytales, and for me they’re very connected.  They’re almost the analysis of the time; they tell you so much about a time and place, these oral tales that keep getting passed on, and why they’re being passed on, what cautionary note is behind them. What archetype is being depicted and why.

The place that women take in fairytales really interests me… Women have a very important role in fairytales, possibly because they are the ones telling the stories and passing them on.

You post a lot of your work on instagram; how do people respond to your work online?

I created a piece for the Gucci Instagram campaign and I think that was probably through my use of Instagram. A lot of people in my position, making the work I’m making, wouldn’t be as engaged with Instagram as I have been, but I’ve tried not to be egotistical and make it like an online sketch book. A lot of the things that I post, I paint over, but I’ve been very brave that I’m putting my work out there. I want people to come on this journey with me, and that’s been really fantastic because people are really up for it instead of being derisive about my background in fashion. There are women who have been very successful, now have fabulous art collections and are excited to buy their art from the woman who clothed them for many years.


It’s a weird little story in itself. I made very emotional clothing, I make very emotional work. Women say, I loved that dress, it was so important to me, I’m so excited to see you are making a different kind of work… I suppose that at a time when it’s not so easy for clothes to be worn in the same way because we live in such a disposable fashion culture that clothes mean different things now. The painting on their wall will have more of a resonance for longer than a piece of clothing they can buy now. That’s why when people ask, “Why are your prices what your prices are?” I say, “If you would rather buy the handbag, go and buy the handbag.” A good handbag isn’t cheap and if you’d rather buy that, I totally understand. No piece of work should cost less than a great handbag.

Girl Resting, 2015.