Sarah Hambly: Designer, Teacher, TikTok Phenom

Sana Kothari

Sarah Hambly is a TikTok phenomenon. She blew up in 2020 for her remaking of red-carpet dresses and fantasy-inspired designs, but this amazing designer has been sewing since 2016. She recently released her first highly anticipated line — the Kingdom Collection — and is now gearing up to release her second this fall. We were extremely excited to talk all things fashion, fantasy and feminism with Sarah last week. 

Sarah Hambly

So diving right in with some basics, what are your top 5 fantasy or Regency-era fandoms, movies or shows right now?

The Witcher is number one; I love the whole universe. The Grishaverse — Shadow and Bone, Six of Crows — love that. Lord of the Rings obviously; who doesn't love Lord of the Rings? I’m also really into Bridgerton; I really love the whole world that they’ve set up. And Game of Thrones, because the new series is coming out and that’s exciting.

What are your favorite fashion trends, both historic and/or current?

I love the corsets of history and the structure in them. I love how that’s translated into modern times as well, like the Versace show in March was so good. In terms of modern trends, I really like Iris Van Herpen’s natural organic type stuff. I’ve been really into the whole 3D printed fluid clothing look.

Have any of these influenced your creations? What is your biggest source of inspiration for your designs right now?

A lot of the things that inspire me come from fantasy and film. I don't get to watch as much TV as I used to but what I do watch is a very curated list of fantasy and Pride and Prejudice-esque shows. All of that inspires and drives my designs. Everything evolves from something that came before it — I was inspired by ideas from the past and tried to combine them with the future, and that’s how I get some of these designs.

So out of all of your pieces, what has your favorite piece been and why?

I mean, all of my pieces are my favorite! But if I had to pick one it would have to be the Capricorn dress. It was the first time I worked with scale mail and dragon scales. I think that I just nailed it on that look and I haven't been able to recreate the fine balance of fabric and metal like I did on that one since. That one’s my favorite by far. 

That piece is one of my favorites too! What’s your process for creating pieces? Do you sketch things first or pick materials first?

Most of the time I sketch something out; sometimes it’ll be thought out and well colored, and sometimes it’ll just be on a cocktail napkin. Then I’ll look at what I already have in fabrics since I try not to buy excess fabrics if I can help it. If I have to buy some pieces here and there, I’ll add on to my stock to realize the vision.

Your pieces always give “fairy princess that could also destroy you” — how do you combine femininity and strength so effortlessly?

It’s a lot of guesswork and trial and error for me. I know I like the softness and femininity of the fairy looks, but I also really love armor and metal and material balancing. It’s a fine line. Sometimes I’ll have pieces, like the Witcher corset look I just did, which has a very strong masculine silhouette but is made with a very delicate tulle mesh. I think it's a combination of silhouette, material, and your average trial and error over time.

Spring prom dress by Official Hambly

You have always been vocal about size inclusivity and you offer sizes up to 5X, which is amazing. What are your thoughts on the current standard of fashion industry sizing, do you see that changing anytime soon?

I recently came across an article that mentioned way back in the 20s we had Sears catalogs in the US, and people bought all their products from them. Those catalogs had a section you could put your sizing in. I remember seeing that section and it had sizes that were significantly more inclusive than what we have today — we’re talking like 7X or 8X to very very petite. They just did it by inches. I think that with fast fashion and with big box brands we’ve kind of gone backwards; everything is shrinking. Your sizes XS to XL are considered a good range, but those sizes are getting smaller and smaller. Even in plus size, your 3X used to be an inch size but over time that number has gotten smaller. I feel like it is up to us smaller brands to bring back this idea of larger inclusivity in our size range. I’ve seen a lot of small brands like those of the Matoshi Sisters where their pieces are all made to order; either you fit into their range of sizes or you put in your measurements, but the pricing doesn't change. I think that as we try to get more sustainable and try to not consume as much fashion, we should move towards this idea of custom-made. Of course, there’s a lot more nuance to that in terms of employee wages and quality but in terms of fashion, I think we need to be as inclusive as our budgets allow us to be. For me, every penny that I make goes into this brand. I was told I shouldn’t have such a wide size range, but I thought that cut out too many people. It was a lot of extra dollars but it doesn’t weigh on my conscience.

Sketch by Sarah

If you do custom sizing, is there any particular reason why you don’t do completely custom orders?

For the most part, I only make custom pieces for long-time friends and local people. It is a long and expensive process, and a lot of people who are asking for customs don’t have the leeway for it. It’s also not a simple process. A lot of the time I’ve made the materials myself, dyed textiles myself, etc. Sometimes you may see something of mine and want exactly that but I can't remake it because it was a one-of-a-kind piece. I don’t want someone to feel like their dreams have been crushed if their piece isn’t exactly what they expected, or to be so ecstatic about something and then realize that financially it would be easier to buy something premade. It is tough; there are some times when I get really great messages from people saying something like “I’m having a wedding in the woods full of elven elements.” I would love to do that for them but it may not work with budgets or timelines, you know?

That makes so much sense but can sometimes be hard to explain to your average consumer. At that, what are your general thoughts on the opposite; fast fashion?

I have so many thoughts on fast fashion. It would be really easy for me to say that fast fashion is terrible because it’s bad for our environment. Still, it would also be irresponsible of me to say that when there are people that cannot afford the luxury of sustainable clothing. I think there’s a fine line between knowing that you can buy certain fast fashion items but we don't need to overconsume those items. There’s a fine line between fashion and sustainability too now since you may have companies like H&M with sustainable collections, but how sustainable is it when the clothes are made from plastic, you know?

Greenwashing, yes! But coming back to Official Hambly, your new collection is absolutely beautiful — what inspired it and what do you want others to feel when they see or wear it?

The Kingdom collection was inspired by fantasy. It was my very first produced collection. I really wanted to make it special. All the embroideries, patterns, color picking, and material choice were done by me. It’s all castles and swords and horses. It's really about feeling like you’re in a whole new realm. It’s about making someone walking down the street in LA wearing this corset with really intricate metallic embroidery feel like they’re the main character. I want people to feel really special when they’re in these clothes, like they’re really a part of something. Everyone who has watched any of my videos has really helped make it happen — they have supported me forever, and they can finally see it. I mean, I didn’t have the funding, the connections, or the family background to do this on my own — my mom’s an accountant and my dad’s not around. It’s special that every person that watched a video gets to feel like a part of this collection. The collection that is coming out this fall is just like a jump-off from the first collection; expanding it into more formal gowns and more custom embroidered pieces. 

I know when I first saw your pieces on TikTok I was immediately hooked! What is your favorite part of your creative process? Is it the online community, the fantasy and culture, the designing, the photography — or maybe something else?

I think my favorite part is putting it all together and letting everyone see a piece for the first time, from start to finish. I know that I started with like multiple-part series, but at the end of the day, I like it all being in a single video with music or a voice-over and just engaging with people that way. A lot of the time community reactions surprise me - I think it looks a certain way, but someone else may have a completely different fantasy of how they would’ve worn it. I think that’s so unique and special; I like what the community does with the garment after it’s done. They don’t even have to own it, but the fantasy that they have of it — I like that.

Cowprint denim bodysuit corset by Offical Hambly

It’s very full circle — the fantasy around the piece you created! So besides this new collection, what's next for Sarah and Official Hambly?

Just growing and expanding the dream! I really would like to do more full-length Youtube work — helping people sew and craft, or learn about their fabric choices and things like that. I really want to expand that reach of helping and teaching others to find that creative part of themselves and to express it how they want. I love my clothing brand and I would obviously love to have a whole wedding collection down the road, but for the here and now I want to help people with the basics, from learning how to sew buttons on, to designing their own stuff on Cricut, to even making their own clothing. 

We can’t wait to learn more! So finally, a question we ask all artil interviewees — what does feminism mean to you? And in addition, considering your industry, what does body positivity mean to you?

Feminism is hard to define for me. It's constantly changing. Obviously, the empowerment of women and people who identify as women is important to me, but there is a very large overtone of white feminism that overrules everything there too. It's hard to say I am a feminist but don’t subscribe to this white idea of feminism. We have to understand that what a white person in America feels represents feminism is vastly different from what represents feminism for other women in other countries. It's really hard to wrap a broad term around that. It’s the same thing with body positivity — I think Drew Afulo said it best when she said she’s “body neutral”. The body positivity movement has been taken over by the white feminist idea that “you can be positive about your body no matter what you look like”... but then they exclude people who don't look like them. I personally think it’s okay to not feel okay in your body every day — I think that using the word “positivity” is throwing you into the false idea that you have to love your body all the time.

Sana Kothari

"Social and news media has historically been dictated by western cis-male perspectives — I think we’re the generation to see that change. I want to see Muslim women directing the narrative on hijabs in public places, to hear from the disabled community about how to ensure their equality. The moment we choose to respect and represent unique outlooks no matter how divergent they may seem, that’s when we achieve real inclusivity."
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