Having spent 18 years of her working life in the fantasy world of fashion as Lee Alexander McQueen’s right-hand woman and business brains, where she was responsible for opening 35 shops, followed by stints as VP at Thom Browne and as Mary Katrantzou’s CEO, Trino Verkade has a way of looking at the world with unwavering common sense, which comes from growing up in a no-nonsense working-class family in Liverpool. As McQueen’s first proper employee, she learned on the job how to do everything from negotiating contracts to organising fashion shows.
Since 2017, she has been the brains, vision and engine behind the Sarabande Foundation, which was started by McQueen in 2007 as a way to support struggling creatives who need a leg up into the industry. More than 170 artists and designers have benefited from generous scholarships and heavily subsidised studio space since Verkade moved the foundation into a permanent home at a Victorian stables in Haggerston, East London, in 2015.
Verkade runs Sarabande with the same drive and dedication she applied to previous roles at luxury fashion brands. She is sharper than a Louboutin stiletto, bouncing numbers around her brain with such mental alacrity it makes you feel dizzy. And she is pretty much always right, as any of her small team of six full-time staff will tell you. She is an astute business leader who understands merchandise, retail, product ranges, budgets, logistics and costings inside out. Verkade has a complete understanding and respect for creative thinking, especially when it pushes creativity into spaces that are brave, unexpected, challenging or downright unfathomable. The Sarabande Manifesto is published annually with a roster of supporters and sponsors that would make any glossy fashion magazine proud. It’s Verkade’s relationships and deep connections in the industry that bring funding into the foundation, as well as a world-class roster of speakers who deliver a series of inspirational and practical talks designed to offer support, advice and networking opportunities to the foundation’s residents and alumni.
Two months ago, the foundation opened its doors at a second space in a laterally converted Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse in Tottenham, North London, making space for a total of 34 artists to thrive and grow this extraordinary creative community.
top and shoes by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, skirt by MOLLY GODDARD
Tamsin Blanchard: How did the Sarabande Foundation start?
Trino Verkade: When Lee was alive, he would help people out financially. In 2006, he set up our own foundation. I was a trustee. It was called Sarabande because that was [the name of his] most recent show [for SS07].
When Lee passed, he left the majority of his estate to Sarabande. Because I’d been with him from the very beginning [starting in 1994], I knew we had to give scholarships, as that had been discussed early in Lee’s career. It was a very clear decision. They are picked by third-party judges, bringing new ideas into the foundation and using other people’s expertise.
And then it was about finding this building. The idea was to do the TED talks of the creative industry as well as the studios. Haggerston was where the younger designers were settling; the artists’ community lived close and it just felt right. We bid for it in 2012, but didn’t move in until the beginning of 2015.
Who was the first artist to move in?
Craig Green in October 2015. The paint was still wet and he was desperate for space. He was everything you could want to support in one person, somebody who was creating just because he had to. Craig wasn’t doing it for money, for fame; he needed a mind space to create. He epitomised what London was all about.
How did you find him?
He found us. He knew Sarabande was opening but I don’t think he knew what it was. I don’t think he even knew who McQueen was, because he really was just a creator who was drawn towards just creating in this personal bubble. And not about being ‘a designer like Alexander McQueen’.
How did it help him? Because you understand emerging talent and that roller coaster they go on.
It always takes time, which is something I often tell the designers here: don’t rush. It takes time because you develop and decide what you’re going to do. Craig had a lot of attention when he came. I think we helped him to learn to say no, unless it was the right thing. Saying yes to everybody, you make wrong decisions, it takes your mind off what you’re trying to do. He was able to separate and completely focus on the product, which he is equally obsessed with. Craig is still a great friend of the foundation even though he’s grown onwards. But that time here helped him, his business grew a lot when he was here. He’s still here every season for his selling campaign, when he uses our main space.
jacket by THOM BROWNE
How long do artists stay?
We offer a one-year residency, with a bit longer for some of the fashion designers because you want to make sure that when they move on they are in the financial situation where they can take on a studio. We’re limited with space so we can’t keep people forever. But that’s where Tottenham comes in.
Yes, you’ve just opened a great new space there?
We have. Sarabande High Road has much bigger studios, which allows us to have more artists-in-residence. They can start off in Haggerston working with the team, with a strong support system, and as they grow and need more space, they’ll be able to move to a much bigger studio while continuing to receive all the benefits of the foundation, both in mentoring and in the community. We can carry on giving opportunities to new creatives. Because you’re always torn. Do I support more people? Or fewer people for longer? A very tough decision.
The studio spaces are £1 per square foot each month, with spaces ranging from 50sq ft to 350sq ft. This is obviously attractive to young creatives but you have to limit the time the artists can stay to give more people the opportunity that they need.
We have hundreds of applicants and only a limited number of studios. And it’s not that, after one year, there’s a magic bullet and you’re suddenly turning over a great deal of money and can go and pay market rent in London, because you can’t.
When you’re looking at the applications, you’re looking for a cohort?
Always. And covering everything from traditional craft and performance to very contemporary visual art. There are lots of artists who look at different elements of social inequality or are a great reflection of where the world is today. You could have a digital filmmaker like Zongbo Jiang, who is making incredible films about our environment and its impact on animals, but presenting it visually through a gaming lens. He could be sitting next door to Kuniko Maeda, a paper artist using a beautiful traditional craft. Or photographer Kasia Wozniak, who took my portrait for this story and who experiments with long exposures to play with our notions of time.
People always say we need to bottle the feeling of walking through the studios. Sometimes you see an artist doing something unique and think: why didn’t anybody else think about that? That’s the secret sauce, that feeling of optimism and discovery. We want to show there is a breadth of creativity and beautiful ideas out there. They might be ahead of their time but they deserve to be seen.
Does there have to be financial need to get support?
For the scholarships, yes. But studios, we don’t ask anything about your situation. The studios are set at such a low price, so everybody can afford them and there is no barrier to entry. Everyone faces challenges in their creative practice. We’re just there to support. Thirty-seven countries are represented in this space: it’s a slice of the creative environment globally, regardless of country, background and age.
From that original legacy and the building, did you ever feel daunted by what you were setting up?
I didn’t know about the art world, the galleries or the system.
But the art world is a business. The artists need to know how to navigate their industry and I’ve learned about how it’s changing. Some of our artists are really knowledgeable, such as Michaela Yearwood-Dan. She’s really good at helping others. When Michaela started at Sarabande, she knew exactly her ability. She was also really clear with where she wanted to see her work and how she wanted it to be representative of what she does as an artist.
The art world is changing now, which is healthy because art can feel elitist and we’re very much at the front of challenging that. We have House of Bandits, our retail space. When we sell art, we do so in the same way we sell fashion: you can see the price alongside the artist’s name. In a gallery you need to ask.
dress by STEPHEN DOHERTY x COS
House of Bandits started during lockdown at the Thomas Burberry Café in Piccadilly Circus. How has it developed?
It was loosely based on the idea of [avant-garde boutique] House of Beauty and Culture. You can buy artists early in their career. It is all equal.
When you started the foundation, did you think it would spawn so many artists and support so many people? How many scholarships have you given?
Probably 30 or 40, maybe a bit more. We’ve added a lot of small scholarships on top of the full ones, which go to four students each year at Slade and Central Saint Martins, and cover living costs as well as fees.
The foundation is here to give opportunities to those who financially couldn’t go without support. But it’s also to allow somebody to think differently. If you’re at college in your final year and you’ve got an ambitious idea, and a small amount of money can make it happen, we can help. We give lots of awards, around 50 a year. We can help make sure you haven’t spent four years studying and then not delivered what you really want to do.
You have a unique programme of talks in your Inspiration Series in Haggerston, hosting everyone from Grayson Perry to Gilbert & George, as well as practical talks by industry experts. Now you’ve started weekly peer-to-peer crits at High Road which anyone can register for?
It’s all part of our programme to inspire and open up access to the creative world. The point is to be in a room with other creatives, who meet each other and often end up collaborating. Our strength is pulling people together. The reputation the artists have given the foundation has contributed to its success. But I’d never worked in a charity before. So I could only work one way. We are proactive in funding, as is necessary for charities. And we have a 501C charity in America as well. We have to hit important charitable objectives.
Is it hard to find funding? You host dinners, events and performances, and now have studios which are sponsored by brands at High Road.
It’s hard to fund. It is relentless. We’re always increasing our support. This last year has been tough, so we reduced the price of our talks by a third so people could afford it. It does mean that we need to find more funding, But that’s the right thing to do.
Taken from 10+ Issue 6 – VISIONARY, WOMEN, REVOLUTION – out now. Order your copy here.
jacket and shoes by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, dress by STEPHEN DOHERTY x COS
TRINO VERKADE: CREATIVE CUSTODIAN
Photographer KASIA WOZNIAK
Intro and interview by TAMSIN BLANCHARD
Talent TRINO VERKADE
Hair HIROSHI MATSUSHITA using Oribe Hair Care
Make-up DASHA TAIVAS using Trinny London
Fashion assistants GEORGIA EDWARDS, SONYA MAZURYK and MIRRIN HEGHARTY
Location SARABANDE FOUNDATION, LONDON
Jewellery throughout by SCHIAPARELLI