Fashion: People in fashion - The comfort zone

Sally Penn's sporty but elegant clothes have wowed New York, and London is next on the hitlist. Yet Penn has no formal design training, says Imogen Fox
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Eighteen months ago a very poor Sally Penn was working one day a week in a designer clothes shop in New York's Little Italy area. Like many sales assistants, she was faced with the dilemma of selling nice clothes at work, yet not having enough money to buy them for herself to wear to work. With a concave purse and a malnourished wardrobe, Penn's only saving grace was the fact that she had access to her flatmate's sewing machine. Desperate to have something new, Penn decided to make herself a skirt. She invited some friends over to help, and by three the next morning Penn had created an outfit. She wore this new skirt to work the next day and her boss was so impressed that she asked Penn to make some more to sell in the boutique. They sold well, attracting the interest of Steven Alan, a buyer and entrepreneur with his own showroom and shop in SoHo which showcases new designers. He asked whether Penn did any tops and suggested that she design a line. Now Sally Penn's New York-based label is sold in shops in America, Japan and, just recently, London.

The skirt that was to be the starting point of Sally Penn's career as a designer was very simple, so shoddily made that she "cringes to think of it" now, with a slit up either side, and the Spandex fabric the wrong way around, so that the shiny outside was on the inside. Although the quality of production has improved radically, Penn's designs aren't much changed. The garments are simple and functional, and given that Penn has an artistic but not a design background, she doesn't feel that she has to be shackled to preconceived ideas about what makes a garment sit well. The current collection includes skirts made from the softest microfleece which come to an abrupt end with a cut rather than with an official hem.

Sally Penn was born in Bournemouth 29 years ago. Penn's family lived in Leamington until she was four when her parents decided to move the family to New Zealand, where Penn's mother was born. From that time, Penn grew up in Auckland on the North Island, where she had ambitions to become an artist ("there were only about two fashion designers in New Zealand, so I didn't even think of that"). As she grew older, she began to find Auckland claustrophobic. "It's alright being creative in a place like that, but at 18 I felt that I could see my whole life ahead of me and I had to get out." Penn headed to Sydney, Australia to continue her painting career and to gain "a better perspective on life". By the time Penn was 25, she had a thorough art school education behind her, and was selling many of her paintings, but she didn't feel as though she could turn this success into a "business". In search of a new challenge, Penn bought a plane ticket to New York.

Two years working at an advertising agency there taught Penn about "how things run" but she found its accounts (which included "medical stuff") tedious and spent much of her time doodling. "Now, when I'm crazy busy I'm just really glad, because I was so frustrated not being creative." Frustration motivated Penn to act, and she left her secure but uninspiring job for a three-month unpaid internship at Interview magazine, helping with the styling and anything else that was required. There, Penn feels, her life really changed direction. "It opened me up to people on my creative wavelength, I was really broke, like I'd have maybe a bagel all day, but I was having the best time," she enthuses, in her confused Kiwi/downtown New York accent. This penury forced Penn into "any sideline which came up" - one of which was the one day a week in the clothes shop in Little Italy.

Penn's clothes, she insists, are inspired by the fabrics and practicality of the sports clothing she sees worn by "the kids in my neighbourhood on the Lower East Side, they're all really into very particular sports labels like The North Face." Penn uses lightweight, breathable fabrics and adds zippers and invisible pockets. "You know when you don't want to take a bag out and you think 'do I really have to take my denim jacket just for its pockets?' So I put in a little pocket for a lipstick, a credit card and keys." It doesn't therefore follow that Sally Penn's clothes are masculine. "I want to wear clothes that I can go to a photo shoot in, or a yoga class, or to run around town in, but just because I have to dress practically doesn't mean I want to look like a boy, I want to make clothes that are practical and elegant."

Realistic pricing is something else that Sally Penn feels strongly about. Her skirts start at around $110 when bought in the States (pounds 115 in London). "The price range is definitely reasonable. I personally don't spend a lot of money on clothes, I don't want my clothes to impede on people's lifestyles and stop them from doing other things. Clothes are basic, they shouldn't cost the earth, but on the other hand it's a lot of work... so I compromise."

Hard work and a diet of bagels are finally paying dividends for Sally Penn. In fact, sales in the label's second season doubled that of the first. Penn believes it's now time to concentrate more on the design side, which she still does from her own apartment in New York. She plans to stay in New York for the moment, but believes her clothes will travel well. "It would be nice to sell to New Zealand and Australia because I'm from there. Producing clothes is a much better way to communicate and reaches more people than painting. It's not so exclusive, which I like."

Sally Penn's designs are available from Browns Focus, 38-39 South Molton Street, London W1, tel: 0171 629 0666. Tops start from pounds 85, skirts from pounds 115

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