Theory Project’s debut designer and Document’s creative and fashion director reflect on a decade of collaboration, and the future of their industry
For Lucas Ossendrijver, fashion shouldn’t be all that complicated: “When there’s a good atmosphere, when there’s trust, when there’s understanding”—in the absence of the mythical omniscient creative director—truly innovative design may play out. Put simply, “Fashion is teamwork.” So, following close to a decade and a half at the helm of Lanvin menswear, the Dutch designer went to Theory: philosophically, a match made in heaven.
The New York label isn’t tied to the catwalk, privileging, always, utility over spectacle. Theory amassed its cult following by way of pared-back essentials: clothes with clean silhouettes in neutral tones—certifiably, the building blocks to one of the city’s most prominent uniforms. Ossendrijver debuted Theory Project, an interior label of capsule collections, intent on elevation via collaboration with fashion’s best-ofs. Spring 2023 looked to the ground Theory stood on: “What I see on the street,” the designer says, “those kinds of things make my mind go to work.”
The same might be said of Sarah Richardson—London-based stylist and Document’s creative and fashion director—in the sense that, for both parties, observation and instinct are tantamount to the coming-together of a look: “True creativity [emerges] from a certain amount of freedom,” she says to Ossendrijver—“where you’re allowed to communicate openly, unafraid of making mistakes, listening to other people’s viewpoints.” Richardson likens the designer’s vision to something panoramic: “holistic, 360 degrees,” where ethoses never flinch from the runway to the campaign to the storefront to the sidewalk.
Following a decade of collaboration, the pair came together outside of the fitting room, and in the name of new beginnings—talking humanism, fantasy, luxury, the intimidating nature of the drawing board, and why those entrenched in their shared industry find it so hard to leave.
“You need to let go. Otherwise, you exclude all the surprises you might have in the end. For me, designing is about letting go of your fears and anxieties.”
Sarah Richardson: I see you as a scientist and an engineer in your approach to design. When you work with vintage, your deconstruction process is almost like an autopsy of the garment: You examine every detail and stitch, sometimes to the point of taking everything apart from the very skeleton of the garment. Something complicated in its original version is modernized [down to] its purest form—what makes the piece wearable and functional.
Lucas Ossendrijver: It’s picking things apart, and trying to reassemble and collage them together. I never draw. I love working with existing clothes, cutting them up and changing them and seeing what happens. When something comes back from the atelier, you have to start thinking [about] what’s wrong and how to improve. You’re always problem-solving. That takes a lot of time—people maybe don’t realize, that’s the biggest part of the job. Doing a show is the end result.
Sarah: Sometimes I’ve come in and there’ve been vintage pieces—I’m going to be very blunt—and it’s easy for me to go, That’s a really ugly ’80s dress with a really nasty pattern. I’m not sure about it. But you see beyond that. You have an incredible taste level with fabrics, and [you know] how to make the silhouettes precise. All those pieces that look like they don’t work at the beginning of our first fitting day come together—in terms of fabrications, fit, color palette—[in a way] that is super sophisticated.
Lucas: I never work with a standard color palette, so the tonalities are always slightly different. I work by intuition; that’s the only thing I really trust. And in the end, when I see all the clothes on the rack, and you come in and we try to make looks—the whole thing comes alive. It’s richer and more sophisticated when it’s not a total look, when it’s not exactly the same.
I had to learn that this is my way of working, and in the end, it will be okay. Well, during the process, you might not actually know if it’s all good. But you need to let go. Otherwise, you exclude all the surprises you might have in the end. For me, designing is about letting go of your fears and anxieties, and all the doubts and questions you might have. It’s the hardest thing to do, to not be caught up in your vision.
“For me, it’s important that the things we do are functional, especially if you work for a brand that doesn’t do runway shows, where it’s about spectacle. For me, the biggest compliment is seeing it on the street.”
Sarah: It goes back to what you were saying: You design from real garments, rather than a drawing. If designers work from drawings, it’s fantasy.
Even though you’re very creative, you come from a place of being humanist, enjoying the fact that your garments are worn by people once they’re off the catwalk or out of a campaign. As a designer, that must be the biggest compliment.
Lucas: Absolutely. Seeing somebody wear something that I designed—even if it was years ago—it’s like, Oh, wow, somebody bought this and is enjoying it and it’s functional. For me, it’s important that the things we do are functional, especially if you work for a brand that doesn’t do runway shows, where it’s about spectacle. For me, the biggest compliment is seeing it on the street, worn.
I think I’ve always fantasized about sportswear, activewear, because it sort of implies that you’re agile, that you can move, that you’re dynamic. I don’t really do sports, but for me, that idea is super inspiring—even before I tried to go into those techniques, getting the boundaries to blur a little bit between formal and sportswear. For me, it is a fantasy; it’s not my life. But I like that space, when it’s kind of in-between, when there’s doubt, when you can read it in different ways.
Sarah: The way you treat fabrics brings something unexpected to them; you mix a classical fabric with a technical fabric, and all of a sudden, it has new life.
Lucas: When you go searching for new techniques, that’s where there are new possibilities. I’m not so interested in the most made-to-measure, the most beautiful, or the most couture. I’m more interested in [technical] developments. What I see on the street: It’s the way people dress, throwing on, like, a functional parka that’s super light. It protects you from the rain, and at the same time, you don’t get sweaty or hot. Those kinds of things make my mind go to work.
“That’s also what I love about fashion: You start over every six months. It’s challenging, but it’s addictive. You’re always reinventing.”
Sarah: You might do a parka made of a temperate, technical fabric, but then inside it has a silk lining. It’s that kind of thing that brings luxury to your designs.
Lucas: I’m interested in where newness comes in—what you can do with it and how you can use it to make garments less constructed. Take out the linings so that it’s more functional, and easier to make, and more interesting to look at. What does it bring to the person who’s wearing it?
I always start with fabric. And then I look at vintage pieces, shapes, details. It’s sometimes really hard when you have a fabric that doesn’t want to do what you want it to do. Do you fight it, or do you go with it?
Sarah: It gives people an opportunity—if [a garment] is expensive by normal circumstances—[to buy something] that’s actually worth their money. You create what I call transformer garments.
Lucas: Lately, I’m into things that are more flexible, in the ways you can transform them. A detachable lining, or [something] you can wear inside out. You can wear it in multiple ways, so you get more value for your money.
Sarah: Within that scope, there are so many ways that you can wear those pieces to create new characters, as a consumer or as a stylist. It’s a creative feast.
Lucas: When I work on pieces, I try to make a lot of detail to discover. For me, it’s [about] being open to what you see in front of you, and not [getting] stuck with one idea.
The most anxiety I get is when I have a blank sheet of paper. It’s really ongoing; it never actually never stops. Sometimes, you don’t have enough time to finish a piece, and maybe [you’ll push it to] next season. The ball is always rolling. That’s also what I love about fashion: You start over every six months. It’s challenging, but it’s addictive. You’re always reinventing.
Sarah: It is addictive. I think that’s why people who are in it never leave. Every day, every season, is a new opportunity to create.