Inside Sarabande: Lee McQueen’s leading legacy

Sarabande CEO and London member Trino Verkade opens the doors to the charitable foundation funded by the personal estate of the late fashion designer Lee ‘Alexander’ McQueen, created to support the next wave of artists

By Rosalind Jana    Images courtesy of Sarabande Foundation   Wednesday 8 July, 2020    Long read

LONDON – Behind a door on a quiet street in Haggerston, London, you’ll find a staircase. It leads up past a glinting, metallic bar to a large, light gallery space. Beyond it, an office, and beneath that a warren of studios. Some contain ceramic octopus tentacles and racks of ghostly black and white garments. Others host elaborate paintings, engraving tools, sewing machines and science experiments. There’s also delicate, futuristic jewellery, shoes that look more like sculptures, and carefully arranged mood boards teeming with imagery and colourful explosions of fabrics. Right now, the spaces are quieter than usual – many rooms remain closed, awaiting the return of their inhabitants – although laughter and music drift through several open doors. This is the Sarabande Foundation
An illustrate monochrome artwork of a man.

Berke Yazicioglu

Courtesy of Sarabande Foundation

An expressionist painting in an African style.

Shannon Bono

Courtesy of Sarabande Foundation

Launching its first scholarship programme in 2012, and opening the foundation’s current base in a set of renovated stables next to Regent’s Canal in 2015, it’s an unusual – and much-needed – space. Aiming to continue the legacy of late designer Lee ‘Alexander’ McQueen, Sarabande provides opportunity and financial support to future generations of artists. And it’s become both a creative haven and serious source of help to those welcomed through its doors. ‘We always make sure that there are makers of all different types here,’ says London member, Trino Verkade, the exuberant, red-haired founding trustee and CEO of the foundation. ‘Jewellery, millinery, fashion, sculpture, performers and always painters. People who would normally fall between the cracks or are very multidisciplinary… craftsmanship in a really contemporary way.’ 

The ethos here is a simple one: to provide artists with all the tools, resources and guidance they need to flourish, and a community around them in which to develop dialogues, soak up ideas, and learn from one another. ‘I started the business with Lee. I was the first employee,’ explains Verkade. ‘I think he was absolutely recognised as being an artist, not just a fashion designer. That was very much what we’ve tried to replicate at Sarabande. My background is [in these] very early stages of working with him, seeing how Lee and the brand worked across many other disciplines with other creatives. It didn’t matter to him if they were a famous name or a young name. It just mattered how they executed their vision, and those are the kind of values we stick to.’
sarabande video still

‘The ethos here is a simple one: to provide artists with all the tools, resources and guidance they need to flourish, and a community around them in which to develop dialogues, soak up ideas, and learn from one another’

Similar to McQueen’s collaborations with the likes of jeweller Shaun Leane and milliner Philip Treacy, creative exchange is encouraged and shifting artistic practice welcomed. ‘Like Craig Green, for example, who started out in sculpture and went into fashion. That’s a very natural approach to creativity that we really like,’ says Verkade. Green, one of Sarabande’s many success stories, grew his menswear business over the course of his stay at the foundation. He took it from a single studio to a team of seven. It then became a booming brand that earned him both Emerging Menswear Designer and British Menswear Designer of the Year at the superlative British Fashion Awards. 

To date, Sarabande has supported 85 different creatives through a mixture of scholarships – it now provides funding for various BA and MA arts and design programmes throughout the country. It also offers heavily subsidised studio spaces, a tailored programme of creative mentorship, projects, and practical advice on everything from contracts and suppliers to long-term business plans. By the end of the year, the number supported should rise to 100. However, things are currently happening a little differently here. Usually, all the studio spaces are bustling, with artists coming in and out, and a busy calendar of events and opportunities. Now, as a consequence of the pandemic, it’s not quite business as usual.
An artist working on a sewing machine in their colourful studio.
Joshua Beaty in his studio (Courtesy of Sarabande Foundation)
‘When they’re all in, you walk through and the atmosphere can be… quite exhausting,’ says Verkade. ‘They’re so interesting and diverse. When you leave, your head is just exploding with ideas.’ I’m here to have a socially distanced tour of the space, and see how Sarabande has risen to the challenges of the past few months. When it became clear that many of the year’s plans had to be scrapped in the wake of lockdown, the foundation pivoted quickly. Replacing physical events with a full calendar of online talks, panels and workshops, its Sarabande Sessions have proved hugely popular. With everything from guidance on writing press releases to self-portrait workshops, they’ve offered both a window into the foundation’s array of artists, and a pragmatic approach to what can be achieved during unprecedented times. Additionally, Sarabande has developed a virtual tour of the building, allowing the creatively curious (or unashamedly nosy) direct insight into the studios and those currently working within them. 

Various artists, however, do remain in residence. Sarabande suspended all studio rent when the pandemic hit. And, although some of its creatives are currently elsewhere, others are still here – with plenty of new and intriguing works now in progress. Among the many studios, I witness stop motion animator Isabel Garrett’s painstakingly built miniature sets and wonderfully surreal puppets. I also see designer and illustrator Berke Yazicioglu’s lavish tapestries based on Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and jeweller and engraver Castro Smith’s busy workshop full of bespoke orders. Then there’s artist and designer Joshua Beaty’s studio, which feels like a vibrant, room-wide sculpture composed of a dizzying number of parts and sculptures. ‘Did you notice the penises? Now that I’ve said the word you’d be hard-pushed not to see one,’ quips Verkade, while we survey the room. There’s also artist, curator and writer Shannon Bono’s beautiful paintings exploring Black feminism and biochemistry. 
A gold and black artwork.

Berke Yazicioglu

Courtesy of Sarabande Foundation

A ring on a grey background.

Castro Smith

Courtesy of Sarabande Foundation

‘Sarabande continues to offer something exceptional: a rigorous support network, and a space in which its artists can still focus, grow and push themselves’

In each room, Verkade is a fountain of stories and explanations, telling me how she put Berke Yazicioglu in touch with a 300-year-old, family-run textiles company who could provide high-quality weaving for his tapestries. Or, how Castro Smith is currently working through the night to fulfill orders, because so many people have bought his one-of-a-kind jewellery designs in lockdown. She proudly discusses Joshua Beaty’s upcoming shows and collaborations, and the people in film she’s connected Isabel Garrett with. Verkade also talks about the way Shannon Bono’s work, with its emphasis on anatomy and cultural identity, speaks to our current moment – especially given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities and other ethnic minority groups. 

In each room, and according to each practice, it’s clear that Sarabande cares deeply about how to best assist its very singular set of artists. This includes regularly checking in with those still outside of London or abroad, and lending photographic equipment to alumni. And, in light of present obstacles, the foundation also invited one of its current scholars, who had nowhere to make his final year BA collection at Central Saint Martins, to use the building as he needed. 

This is really the significance of the space. London is a prohibitively expensive city that exacerbates huge class and wealth barriers to the arts. Although the current uncertainty has hit every industry, it has provided an especially difficult set of circumstances to many creative freelancers. But Sarabande continues to offer something exceptional: a rigorous support network, and a space in which its artists can still focus, grow and push themselves. ‘They’re still doing what they’re doing,’ says Verkade proudly. ‘It’s all about exciting ideas. That’s what you need right now.’ 


Images and video courtesy of Sarabande Foundation
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