Known for hard-edged accessories with a sexy Steampunk vibe, San Francisco label Ashes & Empires has lately expanded from its beginnings adorning the ankles of local ladies in vintage-inspired spats to offer similarly dark, yet ultra-femme women’s apparel. Given its designers’ attraction to all things noir and retro, the Ashes & Empires debut apparel collection ($200-$500) from designers Akemi Okamoto and Maria Curran is, not surprisingly, full of black and turn-of-the-century details. But paired with the right pieces, the dark-hued offerings could easily enhance the urban wardrobes of those far from ready (or willing) to embrace their inner macabre-loving, neo-Edwardian.
Read on for our recent interview with Okamoto and Curran and more photos from the collection. For those still in love with Ashes & Empires’ original raison d’etre, you’ll find current spats styles available in the label’s etsy shop and also on Smashing Darling.
What’s a typical day for you like?
Typical working day?! Depends on who you ask – Akemi or Maria? Currently, Maria works full-time and Akemi works part-time in addition to working on Ashes and Empires. No sleep or days off for us! We both work together on the line during the weekend, but during the week, Maria is often working on developing patterns, creating first muslin samples and sometimes doing bookkeeping/accounting. Akemi during the week is also working on pattern development, creating first muslin samples, going back and forth to our sewing contractor, ordering. We still have our Etsy store with our wonderful spats. This is something we are still obsessed with and love, so we are often filling orders and sewing as well during the day. It really does vary from day to day. For example, Akemi just spent all day editing photos and creating a layout for the new look book yesterday.
How is your own personal style reflected in your designs?
We both share a similar aesthetic, for the most part, however, we do diverge on a few things. Maria likes structure and drama, Akemi adds the feminine, girlie element. The collection we just finished has a strong “femme fatale” via an Art Nouveau theme. In particular we were inspired by Alphonse Mucha. He represents the “lighter” side of Art Nouveau to us, and we were inspired to use a lot of draping and color from his work. Aubrey Beardsley inspired the “darker” side for us thematically and in some of our silhouettes. Generally speaking, Ashes and Empires likes to draw inspiration from darker themes. We both are attracted to the macabre, art deco, retro futurism, german expressionism, film noir, surrealism…things like this.
What initially inspired you to begin creating spats and shoe accessories?
We became fixated on the idea of spats years ago….We thought they had potential to be fun and versatile: the perfect accessory for any outfit. We wanted to update a traditional costume piece into something modern.
Are your accessories influenced by certain eras in history and, if so, which ones?
Of course! With the spats, we were inspired by the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the fabrics and all the small details you find in clothing of that period. We really tried to create a modern version of this, not just reproduce.
Lately you’ve progressed from spats to apparel. Tell us about your first clothing collection.
In addition to having the Art Nouveau inspiration, the collection could be described as modern, edgy and dark with soft elements. We like combining contradictory elements and themes into our designs. For this collection we’ve used black, deep purples and magenta in our colorstory. Our fabrics are printed silk charmeuse, leather and silk chiffon, to name a few. We’ve created an amazing tailored hooded jacket with leather accents, a convertible tailored vest as well as a romantic asymmetrical silk chiffon tunic with cowl neck. There is much attention to detail and emphasis on craftsmanship in our garments. These are pieces that can carry you through season after season (especially in SF) and still look fresh and modern.
When you’re not designing and working, where would we find you hanging out in San Francisco?
Akemi: I like to hang out in my NOPA neighborhood most weekends. My favorite neighborhood bar is Mini Bar on Divisadero, and in the Upper Haight, Deluxe. My husband and I are addicted to Little Star Pizza on Divisadero, as well. We eat there about twice a month. Sometimes we go out to shows at Slims and Parkside.
Maria: I’m really into cycling and motorcycles, so I’m usually pedalling around the City or riding my Ducati on the backroads of northern Marin….and eating and sipping cocktails at Baretta in the Mission any chance I get!
Do you enjoy being designers in San Francisco? How has living here affected, enhanced or influenced your work?
Yes! We appreciate all the support of indie design here, the resources, shopping events and promotion of SF indie designers to the wider community. A lot of boutiques make it a priority to carry local designers, too. Since we’ve branched out into clothing, we’ve found that other designers along the same path are very supportive and we are able to have conversations with them about challenges, resources and exchange tips.
Photography courtesy of Ashes & Empires