'Art birthed out of obsession': an interview with Sam Macer
Margot Worsley
Margot Worsley • Jul 16

'Art birthed out of obsession': an interview with Sam Macer

by Margot Worsley

Sam Macer is a London-based independent fashion designer. He draws on ideas of obsession, religion, and martyrdom to create ephemeral pieces, such as 'Self Immolation,' the final project for his Central St Martins foundation year.

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Sam Macer and 'The Optical Grid

Margot: Hi, there, Sam. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. You are a new name in the art and fashion world, and I'd love to know what it was that drew you to pursue this area from the start.

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Sam: So fashion is a relatively new thing for me. I only really got into it the past couple of years. Before then, like 10 years, it was just solidly fine art: painting, drawing, and that kind of birthed itself out of obsession. It always was based on really intricate designs; I would just become obsessed with tiny, minute details. It was about three years ago that there was a big fashion turning point when I discovered Iris van Herpen, who is the absolute queen.

And that's the first time I saw that bridge between fashion and art that I didn't see before. Before, fashion to me was something super unattainable; it was a highbrow thing. It was difficult to get into. I didn't even know how to sew. I was like, "How would I ever get into that?" And then when I saw her work, it was more movable art than wearable fashion. That's when I realised that I could also make that switch, and that's when this stuff all started rolling.

Margot: Amazing. Well, my next question was whether there are any specific artists that inspired you in joining this world. I'm guessing Iris van Herpen was the biggest one but were there any others?

Sam: As I said, I was more into fine art for a really long time, so the real artists of the early 20th century were huge. People like Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, and Josef Albers were all super informative to how I was making my art. And the important thing about it wasn't how their work looked, but more so their process. That's what was important to me, and that's where I learned most of how they worked, and the methodical element to it. That was really important to me.

Margot: That's so interesting because that almost goes against what a lot of art and progress is nowadays. A lot of what we do in general, in any industry, is all about the end product rather than the progress to get there, and it's really cool that the bridge you created between art and fashion was all about the progress and subverting the way that we set goals nowadays. I think it's really interesting that you've found your passion in that.

Sam: Exactly. And as my work develops as well, I'm becoming more and more intrigued with the process, because I just think it's so important to see how something is made. There are a few brands now that are really showing their process. Like Schiaparelli on their Instagram now show how they've made their dress from a sketch to the twirl, to the production in the factory, and to me, that is so much more important than only seeing a final piece.

Margot: And do you think that's one of the things making fashion more attainable for people like you?

Sam: Yeah, definitely, because obviously when you see a beautiful dress, it makes you ask, "How would I ever make that?" When it is broken down, then that becomes more feasible to someone like a young designer.

Margot: Definitely. And actually, we're going to talk a little bit later about how social media is affecting young artist experiences, so it'll be really cool to touch on that. So, recently you created a piece called "Self Immolation," and it attracted a lot of attention. Could you just tell us a little bit about it, talk about your inspiration, and what exactly it is? There'll be pictures attached in the article, but it'll be great if you could paint a picture with your words as well.

Sam: Yeah. So, this was for my final project for the Foundation at Central Saint Martins, which is completely open-ended. They don't give you any guidance at all. You just need to have a really sustained, well-researched project. And the research was a huge element; the first two months were just complete research. I knew I wanted to look at religion and, have a critical interpretation of religion. So I was looking at themes that were pretty hefty, that I didn't really feel were translated that well into fashion.

I then started looking at crucifixion, having studied all of the renaissance paintings of the crucifixions, and the pietas and all that kind of stuff. And I didn't want to only look at Christianity, so I explored other forms of crucifixion, or more specifically martyrdom within other religions, like Buddhism. And that's when I found the act of self-immolation which I wasn't aware of, which was when monks would set themselves on fire for a political act or social reason...anything like that.

It's such a visceral act to set yourself on fire and die, and that really captivated me. And there was one image of a monk sitting in the middle of the street peacefully meditating but in huge flames. That just blew my mind. That was a huge turning point in my research. So, I wanted to weld those two forms of martyrdom—the crucifixion and self-immolation—to create a fusion of the two, and that's where this piece came from.

Margot: Amazing. It's even more beautiful when you hear all of the research, and as you see the process behind it. You received quite a lot of attention on social media following this. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that experience was like? Although on the whole it's been absolutely incredible in launching your career, were there some aspects of it that you may not have been expecting?

Sam: Yeah, definitely. That was really strange. I didn't realize people would be so offended by a dress. And I guess it's just that trolling element that is just prevalent across the entirety of social media. But I never thought that I would be receiving it for my work. Normally you hear about it from people about themselves. Especially as a creative, we're very protective of our work; it’s like our baby. So if someone offends it, that's deep.

Margot: It's like a personal attack.

Sam: Exactly. So I found it really strange in the beginning. And I wasn't ready for it, and it made me really anxious. Then, I guess, I came to the conclusion that if I’m putting my work out there for public consumption, then I have no control over it.

Margot: Yeah. It is strange. It's interesting that people were, kind of, so personally offended, even by the model herself who was being told that she wasn't doing a good job when she was standing there being set on fire.

Sam: On fire, yes, exactly. It was just my friend Poppy. She's not a trained model or anything.

Margot: That must have been a really weird experience.

Sam: Yeah. It was so interesting to see everyone's takes on the piece. A lot of people took a very misogynistic stance on it. Some people were referencing the witches, which was actually really interesting because a lot of people were saying, "This reminds me of this. This reminds me of that," and there were loads of different things I had never thought of before. This one person messaged me from Brazil, and he said it's a really common thing in their favelas. Apparently, it's really common there to do it. They kind of wrap themselves in steel wool, the same material I used, set themselves on fire, and then run around. On that side, it's been really interesting to learn more about the material and that kind of stuff.

Margot: Especially as you're being contacted by so many different people. So, do you think nowadays that social media is an essential tool for a young artist to grow their career? Do you think it is now something that you cannot bypass?

Sam: I think it's literally become impossible not to. I don't know anyone that has become successful without social media as part of their trajectory. It's literally impossible, because it's the only way you can see your work. You can send your work to people, but the likelihood is it will be in an inbox full of 600 other people trying to show their work.

The viral element of your work has become really important. Obviously, there's an argument to suggest that maybe the viral element is slightly ruining it because now people are creating stuff more tailored towards social media, but that was definitely something that I was aware of when I was making my final piece. I knew I wanted to have at least the potential for that viral element to it.

Margot: Absolutely. And because things that go viral tend to be things, if you pardon the pun, quite inflammatory. Did that inform your process at all, or were you just focusing on creating a piece, and then the fact that it was shared was kind of a happy accident? Or, were you thinking in the back of your mind, what will make...you know, Elle magazine share this on their story?

Sam: I think I'd be lying if I said I wasn't aware of it at all. It didn't inform my design process or anything. But I think when I had this idea in my head as a final outcome, it was definitely a part of it, because, as we were saying, it has just become so important to get your work out there. As a result, it worked, and I have received work opportunities out of it, which is amazing.

Margot: Incredible. It’s interesting because, on the one hand, you're saying that it's really important for young artists in their trajectory and things like that, but how have you seen the impact of social media affect brands and individuals who were established long before it was created?. Like how the Met Gala's invite list has changed to now include influencers, or how you were saying that certain designers show their process on social media as kind of an equalizer. With that in mind, how have you seen it affect different brands?

Sam: I think it's created a more level playing field. It’s brought the fashion industry down to a more grounded level. 20 years ago, when McQueen and Galliano were absolutely thriving in the industry, it was so unattainable. They were so fantastical, and it just seemed impossible for anyone to be creating work on that level or be involved in their working process. And I think social media has made it more obvious, more transparent, and I think that's been so important to give people at least an idea that they are able to get into it.

Margot: Yes. The fact that anyone could see your message, and you can let anyone on Earth know, which is absolutely wonderful.

Sam: That’s the thing with Instagram DMs. It's also taking away that formality. With an email, it's very formal. Also, the likelihood of it getting lost in an inbox is very high; whereas a DM is a quick message, and you can initiate a conversation instantly, which is so important.

Margot: Would you say overall that it's equalized the playing field for both young artists starting their careers and established brands who are looking to expand things that have already been created?

Sam: Yeah. I don't think it's all the way there. I think, within the fashion industry, there's always gonna be that element of elitism because that's inherent in it, and obviously it's not accessible to everyone because it's very expensive. So I don't think it's gonna be completely on a level playing field, but I definitely feel like it's making it much easier.

Margot: So would you say that the effect of social media on art should be seen as one that's favorable overall, or do you think that some things like, for example, exhibitions now being created, whether or not they'll be shared on social media might be something that's a little bit less favorable?

Sam: Yeah. I can see that that would be a problem because I know people now...if you look at exhibitions, they have just become so Instagrammable, and it's now almost become more important than their exhibition; you can now tell that they're trying to get that Instagrammability. A lot of things happening now are doing that. It's a good thing and a bad thing because you're getting the exposure, but it's slightly taking away from the true purpose of the art.

Margot: Definitely. I completely get that. Do you think that social media is ever going to change the way in which art is viewed, and do you think you're ever going to change your use of social media? In other words, will you carry on reaching out to people and posting the same way, or are you going to step back now that you've got that initial exposure and become a little bit more mysterious?

Sam: No. I definitely like the transparency of it. I think I'm definitely gonna carry on with how I'm doing it because I love that, and also I love speaking to people—people reaching out to me and reaching out to people. I mean, I do it literally every day. I send my work to probably, 100 people every day. It gets ignored by 99 of them, but it works sometimes, and that's all that matters.

Margot: As Lady Gaga said, you need one person to...

Sam: Exactly. I also like showing my process and the way I work, and I think it's interesting for people to see, because it's always more interesting. It's like when you go into an exhibition and you see a painting on the wall. If you have a tiny little slip on the side explaining it briefly, it makes it a much more interesting painting to look at because you can understand it more. And I think that's the same premise with exposing more on Instagram. You allow people to understand your process more, and as a result, they are more invested in your work.

Margot: Finally, what's next? What can we expect from you, Sam?

Sam: More fire, lots of fire. That's what's coming. I thought the Fire project would be my final university project and then it would end, but obviously it's gained a lot of interest. So yeah, there are some exciting projects coming.

Margot: Well, we can't wait to see them, and thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.

Sam: Thank you so much.

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Margot Worsley
Margot Worsley

Margot is a lusophile + hispanophile + bibliophile.

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