Fashion and creativity have been a part of Sef Farrugia’s life for as long as she can remember. “My mother was a seamstress and my uncle is a tailor – he’s almost 70 years old now, and still working. I also had family members who were involved in timber work,” the designer reflects, as we chat about how it all began in her newly-opened studio-shop in historic Rabat.
We stand around her heaving work table, just beyond Sef’s immaculately curated shop showcasing her latest accessories and homeware collections. Here, hand-drawn illustrations, half-developed print designs and other inspiring imagery adorn the walls, giving an insight into the Maltese designer’s creative mind.
Rewind a few years, and a 17-year-old Sef moved to London following a stint at MCAST Institute of Arts and Design in Malta, where she went on to study at the University of the Arts – London College of Fashion before graduating and completing her BA at Ravensbourne University in Fashion and Textiles in 2011.
“There’s so much you can do and explore, that finding what you want to focus on can sometimes become the dilemma,” Sef explains as she recalls choosing her line during her studies. “You think you’re going to do one thing and end up focusing on another. I’m a very tactile person, even when it comes to my own wardrobe,” she continues, adding that while the seed was always there, sometimes, it takes someone to point it out for you to figure out what you’re meant to do. “My teachers pointed out that from my portfolio, it seemed that I was a textiles person, and it went from there – textiles became my focus.”
That same year, Sef was labelled ‘One To Watch’ by a panel of industry experts at the Gala Show for her graduate collection, recognised, among other things, for her inspired knitwear and hand-drawn prints – elements she continues to explore in her collections and, more recently, her accessories and ready-to-wear garments.
Earlier this year, Sef opened her first shop in Rabat, mainly focusing on accessories including scarves, bow ties, eye masks filled with dried lavender seeds, pocket squares, and an exclusive cushion collection. The designer also works on bespoke clothing orders from here, and once she has a little more help in the studio, plans on turning her attention back to producing seasonal fashion collections. “There’s a lot of creativity in the accessories as I design all of the prints, but there’s a lot more we can do. Seasonal collections are where I can get really creative,” she says.
Sef also mentions wanting to get back into knitwear, which was one of her specialities during her studies. “I’d really like to get back into it,” she says, explaining that although knit can be very unpredictable, it’s the imperfections that set a hand-made product apart from a mass-produced one. “Even with my prints, it’s mainly hand-drawn, and I don’t like to over polish and over edit the artwork, otherwise it becomes flat. You need to find a balance,” she affirms.
I direct her attention to the illustrations and mood boards attached to the walls, and ask about her creative process. The affable designer laughs. “I’m interested in learning about anything and everything, so I usually pick up on something and develop it – it could be a phase I’d be going through or something I’ve been interested in forever. The starting point is never the end point.”
When developing an idea, Sef Farrugia begins with researching and sketching, trying things on the mannequin and taking it from there. “I also do a lot of illustration,” she explains, adding that it was actually her first calling before taking up fashion design. “Fashion illustration helps me envision who I’m designing for or what it’s about. The prints are also illustration in a way,” she continues.
And with inspiration to be found everywhere, it begs the question: are Sef’s designs inspired by our surroundings, here in Malta?
The answer however, is not as straight-forward. “Many people assume that my print designs are directly inspired by things like Maltese tiles, but while they may relate to them in that they’re Mediterranean in feel, I actually dislike the idea of it being so direct,” she maintains, adding that in a way, you cannot help but be inspired by your surroundings. “It’s definitely always there. If you grow up somewhere, you become submerged in it, especially when it comes to an island like Malta, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m just not keen on it being so literal.”
And while she has yet to produce another full collection following her celebrated Casa Azul collection in 2013, Sef believes that in Malta, fashion isn’t what she calls a “a living industry”, rather a sector made up of individuals doing their own thing. “For us to have a proper industry, we’d have to have companies for manufacturing, printing, knitting… we don’t have any of that. Most local designers do it all themselves. And though there are still many seamstresses in practice, the majority work from home and rely on word of mouth to get work, so it’s difficult to find them!” she asserts, adding that when it comes to made-to-measure garments, the wedding industry is the only market that has flourished and continues to flourish in Malta.
Turning her attention beyond our shores, I ask, are there any designers that Sef looks up to? “I’d definitely say Azzedine Alaïa for knitwear in particular – his aesthetic is something I can relate to perhaps because he’s also from the southern Mediterranean. There are also many others, including Yves Saint Laurent. I’ve always been drawn to designers from the North African region which feature a European influence in their work. Culturally I feel that I can relate more,” she maintains.
As Sef busies herself with private orders and the daily running of her studio-shop, the designer also reveals that work on her new collection has been underway for some time, and she hopes that it will be ready for fashionistas to scoop up later in 2019. “It has been in the works for a while, and the research that goes into the pieces is one of the things that I have difficulty with when it comes to knowing when to stop,” she smiles. “I’m also working on setting up a proper structure for the studio space, as well as working on launching our e-commerce website.”
“Finally, I’d also like to introduce ready-to-wear items in the shop, but with the manufacturing involved, there’s only so much we can do,” she continues, explaining that she currently only has one intern to help, but is looking to expand the team. And once she frees herself up, the sky’s the limit for the talented designer, who admits, “there’s a massive amount of work that goes into each collection, which starts from designing the fabric to producing the pieces. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into it, and I’m not happy to compromise on any of it.” Judging by her track record so far, it’ll certainly be worth the wait.
This article originally appeared in iGaming Capital