Maverick Life

Chronicles of Chic: Behind the dark, carved doors of Suzaan Heyns’s world

By Emilie Gambade 22 March 2013

Suzaan Heyns is perhaps not exactly a designer, she’s more of a magician. The lack of resources and skills in the country doesn’t seem to affect her as she builds convincing collections that speak of texture, construction, volume and innovation. EMILIE GAMBADE meets her, surrounded by black feathers, dark tulle, French lace and skulls, in a Northcliff studio.

The studio is located in a block of dark bricks, off Beyers Naude Drive; there is a modest and unfussy entrance to the building, a black board on the wall, with only white letters to indicate the atelier of Suzaan Heyns. Her workspace is at the end of a hallway, a small and opaque glass door that opens onto what could be the closet of a dark Ali Baba. The contrast between the bulkiness and stoniness of the building and the lightness of the fabrics, feathers and mood boards populating the studio is an appropriate metaphor for Heyns’s collections: while the outer shell of her garments seems strict, minimalist, sometimes obscure, the detailing is impeccable, elaborate and dramatic.

Her atelier is a fantasy world; but this is not unusual chez Heyns. The set of her autumn/winter 2013 collection for the recent Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Joburg (MBFWJ), her ranges, and her Melrose Arch store are an invitation to her unique world of architectural creatures. She follows her intuition and creates spaces and designs born of a complex alchemy between mysterious austerity and soft femininity.

Photo: Suzaan Heyns A/W 2013 Collection, Backstage, Suzaan Heyns Photo.

Inside the studio, seamstresses, fashion design interns, her studio manager and her business partner, Moira Jensen, share the space with black feathers on black tulle crawling up a mannequin, a skull sleeping under a glass dome, layers of leather and romantic fabrics torn and stitched into more provocative textures. There is a modish brouhaha inside the place, only disrupted by a video of Heyns’s latest collection playing on the big screen. The room is bursting with energy; Heyns and her team have just finished 26 silhouettes for MBFWJ, about 60 pieces in total, and are already busy with the first bridal collection for the Motions Sheer Glamour Show at the upcoming SA Fashion Week (11 – 15 April 2013).

Photo: Suzaan Heyns A/W 2013 Collection, Backstage, Suzaan Heyns Photo.

The next collection will be “influenced by old Hollywood romance, stagecraft, theatre and the screen sirens of yesteryear, the desperate love story of Orpheus and Eurydice.” Heyns is definitely bringing some romance into her collection, but don’t be fooled: If there might be a Valentino touch in the gowns she designs for her bridal range, it will be with a soupçon of vintage; a ghost of a bride who can’t let go of her wedding dress, the glam of her past stitched to her like a second skin. It will be splendid, like the faded memories of one’s glorious past, those pale sepia photographs of stars eternally smiling into the camera.

Photo: Suzaan Heyns A/W 2013 Collection, Simon Deiner/ SDR Photo

There is always a strong duality in the world of Heyns, a constant fight between avant-garde and heritage, sharpness and gentleness, structure and sheer textures. Heyns laughs when told she seems to have a strong “dark” side. “Things people find scary, I find beautiful.” She goes to abattoirs, assembles shark teeth in attractive and intriguing necklaces, but in the end, it seems that her very own dichotomy is the key to her success. The contrasts appeal to a wider clientele and her ranges charm equally 16-year-old girls and older women looking for perfect lines and good designs.

At MBFWJ, Heyns presented a collection that was, once again, powerful and architectural. Set in the imaginary alleys of Stone Town, Zanzibar, her models walked on stage, severe, timeless fossils of a stylish era encrusted in incredible textures. The collection was entitled “The doors of perception”, hence the rounded cases of Indian-style doors marking the catwalk. “I was [inspired] by the architecture, the shapes of the doors; if you look through them, there’s another courtyard, and another courtyard, and another one. It’s a built up. I liked this mystery. It was like a treasure hunt.”

Photo: Suzaan Heyns A/W 2013 Collection, Simon Deiner/ SDR Photo

Stone Town’s carvings and style is evident in her range; from the doorknockers and lockers on the coats, capes and dresses, also transformed in heavy yet extremely desirable necklaces, to the cork imported from Spain for her bags and garments. Turning fabrics into wooden-like epaulettes and dickeys, the collection is a poetic and wearable reverence to the old town of Zanzibar.

But there is also mystery, hidden secrets and enigmas. The bicolour rounded edges, drapery cinched by doorknockers looking like ox-rings, an air of catch-me-if-you-can floating over the models’ shoulders, hair wrapped around the face like a modern version of a chador, it seems that Heyns’s women are protecting their lives and bodies behind elaborate layers. “The hair symbolises the way women are covered in Stone Town, it accentuates the idea of someone’s enigma. The make-up (represents) the sunset and the sunrise, as seen in Zanzibar. It graduated as the girls walked on stage; it rose on the first girl and closed on a sunset.”