This past November, we found ourselves sitting around a light wooden table, chatting with Ella Davies as she sunnily imparted her sagacious wisdom upon us and drank tea from an intricately designed cup. Ella is the creator of the clothing brand SULKE, a company comprised of gorgeous hand-painted leather jackets that she creates all on her own. The secondhand and upcycled pieces are moving, not only visually stunning but symbolically potent, as they serve as a sort of outlet for Ella’s own rich internal life. They also stand as a rebellion against the contemporary fast-fashion standard, as her customers are, as she so wonderfully put it, are “not just wearing clothes, you’re wearing art”.
SULKE has gained significant traction in the past year or so, with Ella receiving more and more requests for custom work, and with pieces even being featured in the St Andrews DON’T WALK fashion show. Ella herself is radiant and quick, and kind enough to spend time allowing us to understand not only more about SULKE, but more about herself overall.
Jade: What is SULKE’s origin story?
[Laughs] Origin story, of course. There wasn’t one starting point, I guess. Theoretically, it started when I made the first jacket, which was a super simple black jacket that I bought just for myself, and that I wanted to paint on. And then I painted one more, but I spent a lot more time on it, and I did the whole skull thing, and that is when I first wrote SULKE on the jacket, I wrote it down the back. And then I guess it sort of officially started Instagram-wise and making the logo would have been in late 2018. It was all pulled together very quickly, thankfully, due to friends of mine.
It was a gathering momentum, it started off really small and then other creative people became interested in the concept and how they could contribute, and then it gathered and gathered and now we’re here where it’s not just about the jackets, it’s now about the concept, about getting loads of different creative people involved.
Alcira: How does the painting on jackets and design process work?
It changes for each jacket and changes if I’m doing custom or my own work. For custom work, it’s about finding the jacket first, and then people will often have an idea of what works in their head.
If I’m working under time pressure that’s the most stressful time because that’s when you get creator’s block. You’re like “I’ve got this jacket in front of me and I literally can’t picture anything even though I’ve had so many ideas in the past”. But generally in terms of creative and design process, a lot of it I just go for it. I like trusting my instincts with things that I think will look good. I have a whole bank of images on my phone, screenshots of work that I’ve liked from other designers, or people on Pinterest or Facebook or whatever it may be. A lot of street art. I’ll save images of lots of different little things, and ideas congregate in my head.
Jade: So, when it comes to buying the jackets, how does it go from point A to point Z?
For the stuff that I design from scratch, it’s things that I design, produce and so on and then sell. The custom jackets are a range. Some people will message me and tell me the stuff that they like from the Instagram page and ask for something like that. That’s kind of easy, because you can just go for a similar design and a similar jacket. But some people will message me and tell me that they like some sort of idea and ask me to just do something. That’s always nerve-wracking because I get scared of messing it up, I want the commission to be what the customer wants. It all varies. A girl came yesterday who was looking for a jacket. I usually have some that I’ve bought, so she came and looked at a couple of jackets and then she chose one. She wanted some writing on it, we worked out where it would fit, how big, and so on, and then the next thing was the font. I asked her to play around with some fonts at home and an hour later she sent me the one that she liked. So I stayed up, maybe a bit too late [laughs], started doing the stencil and now I just have to paint it and give it to her whenever it’s ready!
Jade: So the timeline can basically be very short or longer, it varies?
Yes, it’s massively determined by what I’ve got at the time. But it all depends on whether they have a set idea of what they want or if they want to develop something together, but more importantly it depends on whether I have a jacket that they like. More simple ones, like the bolt one that I just did, the design probably takes 4 to 6 hours to do the paintwork, but finding the right jacket took around 5 weeks. It also depends on the design. The ones that I’ve done with skulls on, for example, which I absolutely love doing, take a long time. I did one with 8 skulls and I wanted them all to be pretty much identical, obviously, they are not going to be because they are hand-painted, but that took a long time.
Alcira: Why leather jackets?
That’s a great question. I don’t really know, to be honest [laughter]. I think that the main thing with leather for me was a price point. I would always want a leather jacket and I would look at All Saints jackets, those kinds of things, and I would be like “that is AWESOME” but they’re all like £300 pounds, I was like “I can’t do this! No, this just can’t happen”.
So then I would go charity shopping and look for leather jackets that I liked. Most of the ones in charity shops would either be vintage like the jackets I use, or would be produced by fast-fashion retailers basically, and it was this idea of reusing what we already have.
We don’t need to produce any more leather. We have so much. I go into one shop and I can find 3 pieces.
Why would I even look at a £300 jacket when I can get one for 20 quid in a charity shop that tells so much more of a story?
And then from a practical point of view- I’ve painted on denim before (on a pair of jeans, on a jacket for a friend)- but leather is more of a blank canvas, much easier to paint on and much more interesting I think in terms of contrast, and you can make something really distinct and different with it.
Jade: Did you enter into this project with sustainability in mind, or is that an added benefit of doing what you love?
This project didn’t have a set plan when it started. I wasn’t like “I want to create a brand, I want this to be the ethos, I want this to be the brand image” it was kind of “I want to create some art I enjoy and then we’ll just go from there”.
Now, however, that aspect is absolutely fundamental to the whole thing.
The fact that all the jackets are secondhand is not just because they tell a story but because we cannot continue producing the amount we are producing at the moment. A lot of it is because of production costs, but these companies are just carbon copies of each other, and awful for the environment. Absolutely detrimental. Even though clothes were produced irresponsibly in the past it does not mean they have to be now. This is hopefully the turning point where we realise we don’t have to produce any more clothes.
While that might not have been integral at the start of SULKE, it definitely is something that is more concerning now in the jackets that I buy but also in what I want to reflect in painting on the jackets.
Alcira: How did the vibe that you show on the back of the jackets come about? Where is the inspiration coming from?
Everywhere, pretty much. A lot of it is very personal to me. It’s like the other side of my personality (without sounding too cliche). It’s much more emotional than I would be in my day to day life, that’s kind of where that’s all channelled. And then I draw inspiration from everything around me- stuff I see on the street! For instance, I saw a sign on the street that said ‘Wet Paint’ which I thought was awesome! And I was in an Art History lecture and there was a quote by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García that really stood out to me. And the jacket that we just shot has a quote from a film called ‘The Place Beyond The Pines’. The phrase is “if you ride like lightning you’ll crash like thunder”. There were aspects of that quote that resonated with me that I wanted to reflect on the jacket, in putting the quote itself on it, and in adding other designs. In that way, it’s quite personal.
I want people to feel like when they wear a piece of clothing that it’s not just come from a mass-produced chain where these are just one type of clothes and everyone will wear them because they’re cheap and they’re affordable and you can get them like this *snaps*. Whereas this is much more of a process of, you sending me your ideas, we talk about it for a week, two weeks. Finding the right jacket for the right person.
Jade: Can you tell us about your connection with art and your connection with fashion and how these worlds collided?
However cliche it sounds, it’s always been something I’ve been really interested in since I was much younger. It was more the art aspect of it (and the photography aspect of it) that I loved when I was younger. I was always considered the artsy one in my family. It was always “Ooh! Ella takes nice photographs! And she can draw!”, which I loved.
And then at school, I did Art GCSE which I LOVED and I was a massive perfectionist. Everything that I made had to be perfect. And then in the future, I took Photography, which I loved. I learned a lot about it because before that it was very much just me with my mum’s camera, or with my polaroid.
While I really liked Photography, it wasn’t really where my interest in the arts was. It was very much more in the actual act of painting aspect of it. I find it more rewarding and therapeutic. So art has always been something that has been very central to who I am.
Fashion, likewise, has always been a way of expressing myself.
When I was at school I had a sewing machine, I had a mannequin (which was one of the first things I bought with money when I got it) and I would make dresses and make t-shirts… that kind of thing.
I remember (I was really proud of this) we had some dark green velvet fabric, and I made a green velvet t-shirt and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. To be fair I might still think that that’s really cool [laughter], if it hadn’t been so poorly made!
I’m not necessarily hugely experimental in the way I dress. I do dress for comfort a lot of the time, but I’ve always liked having a statement piece. So I’m a shoe person or a coat person. And underneath it’ll just be jeans or black trousers and a jumper, but I like the idea of having a fun coat on top.
I guess that’s the idea behind SULKE. It’s a statement piece that you’ll have for a long period of time. It’s a little bit more of an investment piece because it combines the two. You’re not just wearing clothes, you’re wearing art.
It’s very personal to me, a lot of the custom works are very personal to who I create them for. It kind of combines the two and wraps a nice bow around it. And I love the idea that you can just be wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and then you throw on a jacket and your whole outfit is transformed. That’s wicked.
Eventually, Ella’s friend Erin walked in and joined the chat. Erin, equally as lovely and bright as Ella, told us how she found SULKE to be very impressive and has herself gotten involved. We also asked her, if she herself had a jacket.
No, I don’t! But Ella lets me wear the ones she hasn’t sold yet. We had quite a funny situation the other day. I was wearing one to a pop-up shop where her jackets were being sold, and a girl came up to us and said that she really liked the one was I wearing. Ella said, ‘it’s for sale!’ and just spun me around so she could see it, and the girl decided to buy it, so literally had to take it off my body and give it to her! I get really attached to them, and then they get bought, and I’m just like oh, no!
(Back to Ella alone)
Alcira: Out of curiosity, what did you do your art GCSE project on?
Wow, I did that a long time ago now. I did one which was titled journeys and then one which was titled texture, I believe. The journey’s final piece was one that I did based on identities. So it was a combo of exterior and interior, and it was a skull. That’s where the skull [for SULKE] came from.
Alcira: Is there any meaning that you personally attach to that skull that was in your project and in your first SULKE jacket? Or is it just a symbol, a figure that you like?
On a surface level it’s just imagery that I like, but the skull does have loads of connotations. It’s obviously very prevalent in Art History, which I’ve studied since I was sixteen, so it’s probably cumulative things that add up.
I enjoy drawing them, but a skull can be so many different things. I guess the most obvious one is pretty dark [laughter], but we’ll just brush over that!
You can paint them in loads of different ways as well, it’s very versatile. I had a meeting with someone, who very kindly agreed to meet with me to talk over designs and so on, over the summer, and we were discussing the brand, and she said that it had a very moody image. When she said, ‘well you wouldn’t go and paint pink flowers on a jacket’, I realized that no, I wouldn’t, that would not be something that I would like to do. So she had a point! Skulls do fit in well with the overall identity.
Alcira: I feel like there are two types of people, people who see themselves as individualistic, as themselves and then, separately the different groups of people they are friends with, but then there are also people who see themselves as part of a group with, of course, their own individual identity, but one which very strongly relates to the group they’re in. Which one of the two do you think you are?
God, I guess it’s quite a hard question to answer because I really have no idea of who I am! I think that what I very much value about the groups of friends that I have in St Andrews– every person is so different.
Here, I’ve met so many different people, they all have very unique individual identities. I mean, you can just see that with the way in which people dress here, taking it back to fashion: it’s not a town where people are afraid of dressing riskily.
I remember at school, we would wear suits in sixth form, and it would be weird if you wore dungarees or something like that to dinner, it would look as if you were trying really hard.
Here, everyone dresses how they want, everyone experiments. You see people in the library wearing all sorts of different things, doing stuff with their hair, their make up. You see different parts of people.
I think that’s the fun about individual designs, it shows that every one is different. Even if the design is the same, take the bolt one as an example, two people with different coats wouldn’t want to swap them, because they’re still unique.
Alcira: In terms of this process that you’ve had with SULKE, what do you wish you had known, or what do you think you have learned that you wish you had known?
Oh gosh, a lot. This whole process has been a major learning experience. Which is great! Because I have curated a space for myself where I can make mistakes, and learn from them and grow from them. Something that I was really grateful for and I wasn’t aware of was the supportive network in terms of starting something like this, because it’s quite nerve-wracking.
I think that anyone who is thinking of doing something similar, even on a tiny scale like this is, should definitely do it because what you gain from it is amazing. The network of people who support you is unreal. In terms of creatives, your friends, your friend’s friends! You can meet so many different people who come from everywhere, people who do loads of cool things you may not have heard of before.
I think everyone has that one thing that they’ve thought about doing, and haven’t really done.
That thing they’ve thought about and been like “that’d be cool, something could be done with this” but then put in the back of their mind. I guess that this is just that, but a year on. So I’d encourage people to just go for it.
That is something I am still battling with at the moment. If I get projects that I’m pushing myself towards, I’m suddenly like “Oh shit, what am I doing? I can’t do that” but then I’m actually like, you know what? You’ve got to commit to this now, and you actually want to commit to this now but there’s just some kind of blockade that’s telling you “hm maybe not, you study at university, why are you trying to achieve these kinds of things?”
I guess it’s sort of on a bigger scale – I’m not going to apply this term to myself – imposter syndrome. It’s a very minute scale of that. Where you kind of feel like you shouldn’t be necessarily doing things.
Something that really resonated with me and which helps me deal with these kind of thoughts was some advice given to me a couple of years ago by someone I interned with. It was that you always want to be the least smart person in the room, because then you can absorb the knowledge of all the others.
In any position I am in, I have to think about what I can learn from the people around me. Everyone around you has something to contribute, and that’s something you should always keep in your mind.
Jade: I wanted to ask, do you have any plans of change, or are you sticking with the concept of jackets entirely? Have you considered branching onto other clothing pieces at all?
For sure. At the moment it is obviously just jackets. I did buy, a couple of months ago, some other pieces, a pair of trousers and a pair of shorts.
The good thing about jackets though, is that, the pieces being handpainted, you have to be careful with them, so you can’t really put them in the wash or anything like that, and that works well with jackets.
Jackets are just easier to look after. But things like handbags or shoes, a lot of people do it, they paint on them, which is awesome, and definitely something that, if this were to grow and become a thing out of St Andrews, I would look into. But, for the time being, I’m very happy just working with my jackets!
Jade: In terms of expansion or moving forward, how is SULKE thinking of moving forward?
At the moment, it’s kind of in my mind, because of the fact that I’m in a very busy time of my life. But, SULKE is something I want to keep doing, to grow and develop.
Just these past couple of months, I feel a lot more confident in myself and the brand, and that inspires me and pushes me to take it all to the next step. I think, for now, it’s about neatening up the things that people don’t see. Having a set number of jackets that I do custom and a set number of jackets that I release at staggered points throughout the year.
I’m so happy with how things have been going, but I’m trying to get the jackets out to more places in the UK, more places in the world.
In terms of growing as a team, the financial benefit from this is not massive. I spend 6-8 hours working on one jacket, the paints are expensive, but I want to make it all affordable. It’s not something I do for money, I do it because I love it. I wouldn’t do it otherwise, because it takes a long time to pull this stuff together [laughs].
In terms of getting other people involved, it would have to be on the basis that they gain from it what they put in. But I love the smaller things. Working with photographers, working with models, working with you guys!
In terms of working with other artists, that is definitely something I would love to do. I’m looking to do that in the future.
I’m also working on the raising-awareness-element of it in terms of sustainability. For instance, I have a section on my website called “for the commute” which is a curated page of a ton of different articles about sustainability in fashion and more.
I would love in the future to have, under the umbrella of Sulke, have a collection of 10 jackets each done by one artist or something. That is something I definitely see on the horizon.
In doing this interview, we were moved not only by listening to Ella’s advice on life and perspective regarding her personal success, but by seeing how her company is a hopeful and environmentally-aware spot upon an industry that has largely contributed to the degradation of the earth. SULKE, and Davies herself, are thoughtful and empowered forces entering an ever-changing sphere of fashion, and asking a seemingly stagnant system of production and consumption to adjust itself, not only with the intention of helping the earth, but with the hope to foster artistic appreciation and individuality in what we wear. It shows us that the production of quality, artistic, and fashionable clothing is not mutually exclusive to environmental responsibility. Take it from Ella herself:
You can take clothes you already have, or find clothes, and just take a pair of scissors, cut them up! Put them back together and you can have something completely new. You can even just style something differently, get it taken in at the tailor. All of that stuff can create a whole new look from one piece. I guess it all stems from the idea that we don’t need to produce more. We can use what we already have.
A big thank you to the photographer on the shoot: Ania Juszczyk. View more of her amazing work via her instagram @aniajuszczyk_
Models on the shoot: Mathieu Carpentier, Desiree Finlayson, Elise Morrison.