Sarah Ellison-Prat, Fashion Stylist / Owner of FunkaNOVA
2.13.16 Woodstock, NY
"I took a lot of flak for my looks. From 8th grade on it was pretty non-stop harassment but I always had friends that defended me. The hardest part was probably when my super cool, very liberal mother started to freak out at the height of my goth period. She would try to limit the height of my ratted ball of hair and tried to curb my Aqua Net hair spray consumption. She also made me take my nose piercing out. I was really pissed because I had endured piercing it myself with a safety pin. All that suffering for nothing!"
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
KO: I was so thrilled to discover you have a passion for the Afghan Kuchi dresses which I wore as a teenager — preferably worn with a turban. (Laughter) You carry an amazing selection in addition to kimonos and ‘70s inspired pieces in your shop Funkanova. What is it about the tribal theme that draws you?
SEP: I love the contrast of the textured, earthy, tribal and craftsman pieces with flashy disco metallic. The best Afghan pieces — they tend to look a little dirty — are then mixed with something modern. It’s the hippie in me mixing with the disco and then loving the elegance and history of Japan. It’s the refined way the Japanese do tie-dye, turning the Woodstock tie-dye cliché on its head, it’s the glam rock styling of kimonos and also the ease with which the same kimono can be tossed over an Electric Feathers dress for a super loose, easy look. I love mixing it all up. The term I came up with to describe the aesthetic at Funkanova is ‘Granola in Space’.
KO: What is this music, what album are you playing at the moment?
SEP: Mammane Sani, “Et Son Orgue". It’s 1970s organ / synthesizer music from Niger. We just acquired this album after having his other album “Taarit” on repeat for the last year.
KO: Can you describe your eclectic fashion esthetic and how it developed?
SEP: From the age of 10 or 11, with my best friend Fabi, in Sacramento where I grew up, we got seriously into music subcultures and the fashion that went along with them. Reading I-D and The Face, obsessing on Nina Hagen and Siouxsie and watching A LOT of music videos, it was around the birth of MTV.
We started shopping in thrift stores. You had to create your look from what you could cobble together. The New Wave and Punk stuff was first and then by the age of 12 I was a pretty serious goth; ratted up black hair, white pancake makeup and red eyeliner. Then came the gothy-indie-rock period which somehow merged with hippie revival Indian gauze dresses mixed with black leather cowboy boots and dyed black hair, growing out, and still too much makeup…. which then merged into a psychedelic ‘70s retro period of platform shoes, fun fur and lots of colors.
During the birth of Grunge, from ’88 to ’90, I was going to see bands like Pussy Galore, L7, Fugazi and Nirvana, wearing hot pink hair and lamé and sequins with my Doc Martens… getting it all torn up in the mosh pit. (Laughter) Then I ended up finding the Acid House / Rave scene in San Francisco in ’91 and for a few years I looked like a walking acid toy and actually served that purpose for a number of people. (Laughter)
When I arrived in New York in ’94, it was kind of a shock, so serious, and suddenly my pink hair felt out of place. Within 2 weeks I stripped the pink out and dyed it silver. I felt I had to build my identity all over again. The new element that New York brought to the mix was the high fashion. I started scraping and saving to get my hands on Gaultier, Westwood, Xuly Bet — Margiela’s Tabi boots became a trademark that would last to this day. It was not easy, considering I had a $5 an hour job!
KO: As a teenager, were your classmates freaked out by your outfits?
SEP: I took a lot of flak for my looks. From 8th grade on it was pretty non-stop harassment but I always had friends that defended me. The hardest part was probably when my super cool, very liberal mother started to freak out at the height of my goth period. She would try to limit the height of my ratted ball of hair and tried to curb my Aqua Net hair spray consumption. She also made me take my nose piercing out. I was really pissed because I had endured piercing it myself with a safety pin. All that suffering for nothing! (Laughter)
KO: The fashion biz is a crowded place, how did you get inside?
SEP: I did years and years of assisting… forever! A friend connected me with Lori Goldstein which led me to getting bookings with other top editors like Edward Enninful, Brana Wolf and finally, Karl Templer, with whom I spent more than 4 years running the whole show. It was such hard work but so inspirational working with so many of my idols like David Sims, Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Sorrenti, Fabien Baron…
KO: As a freelance stylist, how complicated is it today having to satisfy magazine advertisers in a fashion editorial? How does that relationship impact the choices you make when creating your vision?
SEP: It’s the part I dislike the most. I remember when I was just a fan of fashion magazines and I would so often see an editorial and say to myself, “How can they do a story about X (new trend/idea) without having any clothes from Y (designer whose collection most embodied the trend/idea)?” Now, I know why. And the thing is that, as fashion gets more and more corporate, we are given less and less room to make choices based on what we really like.
KO: What has been your biggest learning experience in the fashion biz?
SEP: I learned so much about professionalism and creative problem solving — that I’m really good at ‘getting shit done’. (Laughter) Creativity and vision are things you either have or you don’t but if you haven’t got the accompanying professional skills people will quickly tire of working with you.
I also learned about editing to tell a story, to make a point. It’s very easy to get caught up in pretty fashion but unless there is a reason for it, it’s just more ‘stuff’.
I would say that this precision is something I carried into Funkanova in the sense that I have been very strict about every item in the store serving a very particular aesthetic that I had in mind, for this store, in this place: Woodstock. It’s my dream of what I want people to wear here.
KO: How do you handle photographers whom refuse to shoot an outfit? After all the work & effort you put in, would you like to punch them?
SEP: I don’t think I’ve ever had a flat out refusal with a photographer. I almost wonder if that would be easier, then I could fight more fiercely. Instead, it can be more of a picking away, asking for tweaks that are “better for the picture”, when, for me, they are completely removing the power and meaning of the look. This is harder because you look unreasonable for not wanting to change something seemingly small, and once you give anything up — it’s a slippery slope.
KO: Is being a freelance stylist a lonely profession?
SEP: It certainly can be. The prep is pretty intense and not everyone understands just what we go through to pull it all together. It’s important to have a great assistant, one who not only can manage all the work and comprehend your aesthetic, but also someone whom you genuinely enjoy being around and whom you can trust with knowing so much about your personal life, because, ultimately, they will know just about everything.
KO: How different an experience is it dressing people on-set versus in your vintage shop?
SEP: It’s another planet. There is always an intensity on set — excitement under pressure. We have the freedom of looks not needing to work on a practical level as long as they’re fabulous — even if the clothes don’t fit or if one could never walk in them.
In the shop, we are real people who need to be able to live our lives in the clothes that we wear. Now, I want it to be an exciting life in which we can enjoy a dramatic look and slay our everyday audience, but the practicalities have to work.
KO: What led you to leave NYC and what was your initial state of mind once the moving trucks departed?
SEP: Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. We came to Woodstock with the plan for it to be a weekend retreat. We fell in love and found ourselves never wanting to go home. My husband and I, both being freelancers (he as a DJ and music producer), are able to do a lot from here. After 22 years in NYC I had no idea how permanently wound-up my nerves were and how I had come to define my life by a very narrow view of what success is. Getting away from the intensity of the city has been the greatest gift.
KO: What have you discovered about yourself through opening your shop?
SEP: Probably my favorite discovery has been how much I enjoy a great piece going to a great home. Since I assembled a store full of things that I love dearly, that I searched deeply to find and that I will probably never find again, I was afraid that I would constantly struggle with wanting to keep things, regretting letting them go and feeling jealous of the new owner. Instead, I get a rush of happiness when I see something look great on someone and it goes home with them. With my editorial work, it’s hard to ever know who sees it.
KO: Back to music. You have always been deeply into music…
SEP: Almost all of my “family” of friends connects back to music and clubs. I feel much more at home on the dance floor in a House club than I ever have at a fashion party.
In fact, we have a group of people who go out and enjoy dancing together and I realized that I had known them for years but had no idea what many of them did for a living. And it was not because the relationship was superficial; it was because we didn’t feel we needed to prove anything or didn’t feel the need to size each other up based on our professional achievements. Anyone who has ever lived in New York will know how unheard-of that is. It’s always the first thing anyone talks about
KO: Describe Funkanova’s customer in a nutshell.
SEP: They don’t fit in a nutshell but they give me the loveliest sense that they are My Kind of People.
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