Bali kid Samanfah Wilson passed on law school to find her way as a costume designer now pulling weight in London. she spoke to Tony Stanton about life as a mermaid.
HI Samanfah. First off, let’s clear up that spelling of your name so the whole world doesn’t think we’ve made a dreadful typo lol … it’s pretty original.
I suppose original is what I was aiming for! From a young age, I never really understood why people are all unique but get called the same thing. One Steven is a completely different person to another Steven – so I never really understood why they would have the same name! Aside from that, we also live very much in a world where online identities are a large part of our visibility – try typing “Samantha Wilson” into Google and watch the days pass as you try and find the one you are looking for! By changing the last few letters there was only one of me… I wasn’t ready for a full on internet name transformation like so many who have been rebirthed as “Moonstone Twinklepuff” or whatever, so I just changed it to sound the way people pronounce it here in London.
Where were you born, and how did you grow up?
Because of my father’s job working with hotels, I had a rather scattered upbringing with a lot of moving. At a young age, I hated moving and the idea of change and leaving friends behind. However as I got older, it became so natural to me I developed a sort of restless leg syndrome that drove me to constantly seek change and new environments, and still does. I definitely had a very privileged upbringing that allowed me to see a lot of the world at a very young age. I was born in Adelaide and then proceeded to grow up in India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Bali, where I spent the majority of my teenage years. At the age of 14 I realised if I didn’t move away, there was a good chance I would spend too much time on the beaches of Sanur pretending to be a mermaid instead of actually getting school work done. So I applied for boarding school back in Adelaide, where I was born. Boarding school turned out to be a pretty restrictive environment for a Bali kid, there was no leaving the grounds without permission, no motorbikes, no beaches and not a lot of freedom. I went from being treated like an adult at the age of 15 to being treated quite like a child who needed constant minding, which didn’t suit me too well. I remember the itchy long tartan skirts I had to wear and the uniformity that was forced upon us, which really drove me a bit mad and resulted in me dying my hair bright pink. It goes without saying that I was suspended until my hair returned to a “natural colour”, no matter how hard I protested that I was trying to raise awareness for breast cancer. I think that imposed uniformity and controlling environment is what really made me look for escape in art, painting, making clothes… and secretly keeping two mice called Penny and Ishmael in my cupboard who would accompany me to class and keep me entertained when the lesson just wasn’t cutting it.
And then college or uni? What did you study?
Although it doesn’t sound like it, I actually took my education extremely seriously, got top grades when I graduated and planned on becoming a lawyer, accountant or entrepreneur. At the age of 16 I had fallen madly in love with London so the second I graduated the first thing I did was hop on a plane to the UK to get on with some university applications.
I got accepted to a handful of fantastic schools in London and the UK to study law, business and finance and upon going to their open days and hearing their pitches on all the fabulous money hungry companies I could work for, I got cold feet and had a bit of a breakdown – I realised I was about to sign away four years of my life to a course that I wasn’t passionate about.
I sat in that lecture hall and listened to him talk about what graduates of this University could accomplish in the business world, but all I could focus on was the back of everyone’s head! I know it sounds strange but I was getting more and more depressed about the fact that everyone in the room looked absolutely identical from behind.
All the girls with a blonde or brown bun or ponytail, boys with clean cut hair and business suits – again I had found myself in an environment where individuality was not expressed or celebrated in any way. I had to get out of that lecture hall, and found myself turning away every single offer, much to the panic of my dear parents!
At that point I started asking myself where my passions lay, and the one thing I kept coming back to was fashion and design. It was what I did when I was meant to be doing homework in my Australian boarding school room, it was what occupied my mind whenever I was meant to be doing something else productive, and it was simply what made me happiest. Growing up in Bali had always enabled me to make my own clothes from a young age, rather than mindlessly purchasing them from stores.
I could really make things that were a bit too colourful, sparkly and weird to be in shops. So that was that, and I finally convinced my parents to let me apply to fashion school under the condition that I go to Central Saint Martins, a fashion school that had taught the likes of Alexander McQueen and many other greats in the industry. The deal was that if I did not get in, I was to go back and accept those business school offers without argument. So, having never really done art or design before, I hurriedly put together a portfolio in a few weeks to submit.
I really believed I would get in because my heart was so invested in it at this point – but unfortunately that email in my inbox told me I did not get a placement. The feedback I had gotten more or less told me that my designs were not sellable – they were a bit too bizarre I suppose for the world of fashion. I was beyond distraught with the thought that I would be enslaved in business school for the next four years.
At that point one of my best friends in London asked me why I didn’t look into being a costume designer. It would allow me to design without the restriction of being marketable to the mass population and would put me in an industry that was about making art rather than money. I did some last-minute applications and was lucky enough to be invited to interviews at a couple of the best costume schools in the country.
The first was at London College of Fashion, and the second was Wimbledon College of Art. When I walked into that interview at Wimbledon with a bag of ramshackle costumes I had furiously stitched together, a lovely older man sat behind a desk, and when I went to shake his hand he proclaimed: “Oh no darling, in theatre we don’t shake hands, we hug!” and I immediately knew where I was meant to be.
He looked through my portfolio and this bizarre collection of feather capes and crowns I had made for my interview and put me straight onto the course where I spent the next three years. I graduated about a year ago with a BA in Costume design for theatre and screen and have been busy ever since making all sorts of ridiculous creations.
What is Jackalopeland?
Well, a Jackalope is a mythical animal in North American folklore, a rabbit with antlers that has a fond taste for whiskey! Apparently these unicorn rabbits can mimic the voices of humans and only breed during lightning flashes.
Jackalopeland is an imaginary world in my head filled with these little rainbow antler-bearing bunnies, a place full of magic, colour, sparkles and imagination. It became the name of my clothing brand because it reminds me that whatever I design should fit into this dreamworld, instead of the world we seem to live in that has a common uniform of black, grey and beige.
It keeps me off of the straight and narrow with my designs. Under the name Jackalopeland I make mermaid tails, unicorn headpieces, wings, crowns and colourfully adorned pieces that belong to this dreamworld.
Who’s wearing your custom made pieces?
It’s really fantastic, I get to make pieces for so many different people and productions ranging from models, singers, actors, performers, dancers and professional mythical creatures to people who just want a bit more magic in their wardrobe and lives.
I find that sometimes doing one on one commission pieces for people can be more rewarding than those big jobs with the big names, just because at the end of the process you get to see someone take home a piece that really brings them out of their shell and empowers them at the same time.
Have any of your designs appeared on film? We guess that would be a yes!
Yes! I was actually lucky enough to start designing for and working on films and music videos when I was in college at Wimbledon. A few directors approached me and I got to start making costume pieces for screen quite early in the game. In my second year of college I actually got accepted to go and intern on a film in the middle of nowhere in China, for a Jackie Chan movie called Dragons Blade starring John Cusack and Adrian Brody.
Although I was interning, the head designer really took interest in my work and ended up getting me to help with the final designs for some of the main characters, which was one of the first monumental points where I felt confident I could pull my weight in the world of costume design. Alongside working as a designer and maker on productions, I rent out my collection of costumes and handmade pieces to other stylists.
My designs and costume pieces have really been rented and flown all over the world, from sending my unicorn horns to Romania for Doritos advertisements to people picking up mermaid tails for underwater shoots. You never really know what is coming next.
We’re also guessing you’re no stranger to the festival circuit … where have you been this year?
Oh gosh, well this year has been especially ridiculous with the festival circuit. I actually fell in love with a Canadian six years ago and made him marry me the day he met me in London. We had a ramshackle wedding ceremony that day with a wizard minister on the canal in Camden, and then launched ourselves into the water where I proceeded to swim amongst the rubbish in my puffy wedding dress. This year we bought a motorhome and took it to eight festivals in Canada and America.
I have actually spent the last six months living on the road with him, making costume pieces on the go and frolicking about in my mermaid tails at all sorts of festivals and bizarre landscapes! From small intimate festivals in the Canadian forests to huge festivals like Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, this year has really made me feel like I spend more time on festival grounds more than anywhere else.
From where do you get your inspiration for your designs?
Inspiration comes from all over really. I think a lot of my aesthetic and inspiration comes from my upbringing in Asia. My love for bright colours and ornate decoration definitely has roots in India and Bali where I spent a few years growing up.
When I want to gather ideas and inspiration for the bigger picture of what I want to create, I often look to animals and fantasy artwork. Artwork and paintings are another huge inspiration to me, with incredible fantasy artists such as Hannah Yata, Camilla D’Errico and Mai Ja being some of my favourites. Even travelling around America and spending so much time in nature has really infused me with fresh inspiration.
Is anything off limits in costume design?
I really don’t think much is off limits in the world of costume design. I mean, right now I am in the process of designing a pink fluffy vagina costume for a stage performer – if genital costumes are not off limits, I can’t imagine what would be.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I have a bit of a backlog of commissions to get working on now that I am back in the UK. I have two crowns, a mermaid tail, fairy wings and two unicorn horns to make before the month is up with more and more things coming in each week. I am also designing and making costumes for a Studio 54 New Year’s Eve party at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Dubai, which has been extremely fun to research and immerse myself in.
You worked at the MTV EMA’s last year and Beiber was on the ticket … Spill the beans please…
Last year’s work doing costumes for the European Music Awards was one of the most intense and exhilarating jobs I have had the pleasure of working on. I was working with a fabulous costume team on that job, and we had just over two weeks to put together costumes for many of the dancers and performers that took to the stage. There were definitely a lot of big names that we got to work with – Pharrel, Bieber, Rudimental, Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Duran Duran and more so there was a lot of pressure to make sure everything was absolutely perfect. Justin Bieber definitely dominated that show, winning most of the awards, but as far as beans to spill, your guess is as good as mine – my head was too busy buried under piles of fabric and buttons in the costume room to pay too much attention to the celebrities.
What’s next for Samanfah?
I am in the process of designing my own line of costumes, clothing and headpieces for Jackalopeland. Living on the road for the past six months made me realise how developing an online business is the best way to work while travelling and exploring the world. I started building an online store for all of my creations on my website www.samanfahwilson.com which I am relaunching in January with a new micro-line of magical creations.
At the moment I am waist deep in designs I have developed over the past few years, trying to narrow down all of my ideas to a select range of costumes and headpieces that will hopefully bring some colour and sparkle to people all over the world. Alongside being a professional mermaid and unicorn, I have also decided to become a multi-coloured psychedelic lamb, which I will hopefully transform into next summer with a new rainbow light-up sheep costume, so stay tuned!
That would be something we’d like to see. Many thanks Samanfah!