Mighty Aphrodite: Northampton designer fashions unique clothes

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite is seen alongside one of her “in-progress pieces in her Northampton home. The design features a belt, which is signature of her work. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Aphrodite’s handmade designs are built from a wide variety of fabrics and other clothes she gets from multiple sources, all of which is stored at her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite handles fabric for a future piece. She likes to improvise with her designs, placing different fabrics and pieces of clothing together to see what strikes her. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite demonstrates how she might use material for one of her signature belts, which can also double as a skirt. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite dresses a mannequin in her Northampton home. She hopes to open a stote and design shop in the city next year.  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite holds up a piece in progress in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite dresses a mannequin with one of her in-progress pieces in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite keeps a wealth of fabric and older clothes — including some from her days growing up in The Netherlands — in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aphrodite likes to design unconventional women’s accessories, such as using this decorative fabric as a very wide belt. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Threads of many colors are among the materials in Aphrodite’s home design studio. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite dresses a mannequin with one of her in-progress pieces. Below, a piece by Aphrodite, featuring one of her signature belts. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A piece by fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite, featuring one of her signature belts, is seen in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aphrodite dresses a mannequin with one of her in-progress pieces in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite dresses a mannequin with one of her in-progress pieces in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fashion designer Sarah Aphrodite works with in-progress piece in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aphrodite says this design consists of three different pieces: a top, a separate sleeve and a “long piece of fabric” that’s the beginning of a belt. Photo by Brianna Capozzi

  • Aphrodite says these embroidered designs, including interchangeable leg and arm pieces, are crafted from an antique costume she found in Mexico.

  • Three designs by Aphrodite: a cat bag that can be worn as a necklace or belt, two skirt-belts layered on top of each other, and a skirt-belt made from an older scarf and blouse. Photo by Brianna Capozzi

  • Aphrodite says she made this piece, currently showing in Paris, from a tiger print velvet jersey; it started as leggings, then became a skirt-belt, then leggings again. Photo by Brianna Capozzi

  • One of Aphrodite’s signature T-shirts — this one made from a New York Knicks shirt — with a cut-out heart shape.

Published: 4/19/2018 3:57:41 PM

Paradise City. A hippie town. A place with an artsy vibe. Part of the Happy Valley.

There are various nicknames and offhand references for Northampton and the part of western Massachusetts it’s part of. But none of them has much to do with fashion.

Yet the city is home to an unusual designer whose handmade clothes for women are attracting increasing attention: articles and photo shoots in Vogue and other fashion magazines, invitations to show her work in France, calls from stylists and models who have seen her designs on her Instagram account.

Sarah Aphrodite-Stolwijk (her full name: she goes by Sarah Aphrodite as a designer), who came to Northampton via The Netherlands and New York City, has a decidedly individualistic approach to clothes. Her signature designs, such as T-shirts with cut-out heart shapes, colorful leggings, and “skirt-belts” that include a flared, single pants leg, blend elements of street wear and more exotic dynamics inspired by clothes and fabrics from countries such as India and Mexico.

Vogue magazine, in a 2016 interview with Aphrodite, described the appeal of her designs like this: “At a time when there is so much fashion, so much stuff ... desperately straining to be different and new, a designer who quietly goes about her business challenging us in terms of what we wear, how we consume, why things have to be the way they’ve always been, is a rare find.”

Indeed, Aphrodite, 39, is happy to work outside the fashion mainstream, designing, making, and selling (via the internet) her clothes from her home in Northampton, where she lives with her husband, Vikram Budhraja, and their five-year-old son, Nikka. The city’s artsy, progressive vibe is a good fit for her and her family, she says, even if it’s not the fashion mecca of New York.

“When I first came here and walked around, down on Main Street, it reminded me of Nelson, in British Columbia,” Aphrodite said during a recent interview at her home. Then she laughed and added, “It was the same — a hippie town!”

Going by the name “Aphrodite,” by the way, is not some affectation on her part: It’s her middle name, the one her parents gave her because they conceived her in Greece (she was born in The Netherlands in 1979).

In fact, Greece figures very prominently in her story, because it was there, when she was traveling at age 21, that the notion of becoming a fashion designer first came to her.

“It just clicked with me,” she says. “I was on a boat, on my way to Crete, and I was thinking of this top that I might want to wear, and this switch went off and I thought ‘Oh my God, I could study this, I could do this.’ ”

Today, her business is still evolving, both in terms of designs and logistics. Next year, she plans to open a retail store and design shop on Pleasant Street, on a part of the road, near Holyoke Street, that has been getting a major facelift in the last year. And she continues to experiment with putting different types of clothing alongside one another to create something new.

“My first collection … was all over the place,” Aphrodite says. “It has been my challenge to figure out how all this fits together, and it’s still part of what I do, but it’s getting more and more clear.”

In part for environmental concerns, she turns to a lot of used clothes and fabrics to make her designs. But as longtime vegan, she also wants to move away from using fabrics connected to the animal world — wool and silk, for instance — which is a challenge: Finding something that can duplicate the flow and feel of silk “is really hard,” she says.

But she also sees her designs as quite personal, an extension of herself — something she’d want to wear herself — so she believes it’s important the clothing embody her beliefs, as well as the general ethos of her adopted home. “I want to do this from Northampton,” she says.

Finding her niche

For Aphrodite, doing it from Northampton means working out of a modest-sized room in her house that has a table and two chairs, a rack of clothing she’s made, a mannequin, and walls covered with handwritten notes and penciled drawings of clothing — references she keeps on design ideas and other details that occur to her as she works.

Down the hall is another room with multiple shelves and an old chest of drawers filled with all manner of fabrics, from all manner of places: India, Mexico, New York, the Salvation Army Thrift Store, even some from her days in The Netherlands.

Aphrodite has experimented with her designs over the years, trying out different things, like blouses, but today she concentrates on basic wear, such as T-shirts and jeans, and accessories, like her belt-skirts with single legs, or handbags, or a dress-like garment with shoulder straps and a mostly open top; it’s designed to be worn over other clothes, she notes.

She sees her designs as a mix of “high fashion and street wear” that contain one of five possible elements, ranging from what she calls 24K (“grassroots ’80s New York, almost tomboyish”), Blackcat (“dressy, clean, dark colors”), and Vegas (“a bit tacky, like leopard prints and leotards”). Her main interest is in pairing her accessories with other clothing in unconventional ways.

Designing conventional dresses, skirts and other clothes doesn’t really appeal to her because she rarely wears certain things herself. “You’ll see me in the hottest weather in jeans,” she says with a laugh. “Not a dress or shorts — I just don’t feel good in them.”

It’s the accessories and T-shirts that have put her on the bigger fashion map. Just over a year ago, for instance, Harper’s Bazaar ran a big photo spread with models wearing some of the new clothes of the season, including one of her T-shirts, one with a large heart-shape cut out from the chest. That issue “went global,” she says, and she got a big spike in orders for T-shirts.

These days, she often gets calls from stylists who want to use her designs for photo shoots for magazines or fashion shows, and sometimes she’ll be asked to create a specific design for a particular model to wear. She appreciates the attention not just for commercial reasons but because she feels it’s a recognition of the artistic elements she tries to bring to her work.

“Fashion is often not taken seriously,” says Aphrodite, a tall woman with brownish-blond hair and a quick smile. “It’s seen as superficial, but it can be much more that that.”

She was involved with the arts herself as a dancer when she was growing up. She says, though, that she never thought she could do that professionally, so after graduating from high school in 1997, she spent the next few years traveling — to the United States, Turkey, Israel, and other locations — and working at a variety of jobs.

After her epiphany in Greece about designing clothes, though, she headed back to The Netherlands and enrolled first in a fine arts university program, then transferred to the fashion department of the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design. During that time, she also spent a semester in New York in an internship with the artist/designer Susan Cianciolo, a woman she had previously read about.

Though Europe has its big fashion centers, like Paris and Milan, New York appealed to her both because she felt the language would be easier to navigate — like all Dutch students, Aphrodite had mandatory classes in English that began in elementary school and ran through high school — and because the New York fashion world “seemed more open, like it would be a little more accepting of me, even if a lot of it is very commercial.”

Aphrodite, who today speaks fluent English, also met her future husband in New York; she moved back there after getting her degree in 2005 and spent the next several years in the city, working first for Cianciolo in various capacities — “I learned so much from Susan,” she says — and also as a teacher at the Parsons School of Design.

She also got married: Budhraja, who is a gastroenterologist, now works at Baystate Health in Springfield.

In addition, Aphrodite began designing her first clothing line, though she took a hiatus for a couple years when her son was born and the family lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Budhraja did a residency. They considered relocating to New York afterward, but then Budhraja got an interview at Baystate; the couple took a look at Northampton during that time and moved here in late 2014.

As much as she likes living in the Valley, where she and her family especially enjoy bicycling, she sometimes feels a little isolated from the fashion scene and her friends and former colleagues in New York. “I used to get feedback from my workers and students, and I do miss this a lot,” she says.

That said, she gets down to New York every couple of months to look at materials, show some of her work, meet with others in the business or help oversee photo shoots for her designs. “It’s not like it’s that far away.”

She also wouldn’t mind seeing a little more fashion flair around this region; she likes to dress up a bit sometimes, like if she’s going out to dinner with her husband, “though I wear something that’s not too crazy and won’t get a lot of attention.”

In fact, Aphrodite’s had doubts from time to time about opening a store in town, wondering if there’s enough of a local market for her designs. “The other day I was really down about it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait, who’s going to come to my store?’ ”

But in the next breath, she notes that it has gotten harder to run her business on her own — keeping up with orders, designing clothes and making them, figuring out how many numbers of a particular item she needs to make to have adequate stock. Having a store with employees who can handle many of those issues, giving her time to work on more designs, seems like the obvious answer, she says.

 She also thinks of her clothing as having an overall “positive” vibe — and she quickly pivots to the same thinking about her future store. “I think eventually the people who like it will find it,” she says.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Sarah Aphrodite’s website is sarahaphrodite.com






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