By Julia Frank, Vogue Australia

The designers are moving forward after 15 years.

In 1999, Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton set up a stall at London’s Portobello Road Market selling denim. That stall developed into an Australian-based global fashion empire, turning Sass & Bide into a household name and exporting Clarke and Middleton’s singular aesthetic to the world.

The momentum has never waned and in 2011, Myer purchased a 65% share of the business for $42.25 million. Now, after 15 years, Clarke and Middleton, who have been best friends since meeting at school in 1992, have decided to leave the company they founded. Sass & Bide will continue as a brand in the hands of Myer, albeit without its namesake designers.

In a statement to Vogue, Myer has said: “Heidi and Sarah-Jane’s departure from Sass & Bide has been in planning for some time as they have been transitioning out of the business. Myer wishes Heidi and Sarah-Jane well, they go with our great good wishes, and we expect they will be associated with Sass & Bide for a long time.”

Sass & Bide have now appointed Anthony Cuthbertson as design director, who has most recently consulted for Victoria Beckham and Mulberry and previously worked for David Lawrence, Ralph Lauren, MaxMara and Joseph, while Bonnie O’Hare will serve as art director.

On the eve of the announcement, Clarke and Middleton sat down exclusively with Vogue to discuss their departure and what they will conquer next.

Why have you decided to depart the company?
Heidi: Sarah-Jane and I, many years ago, when we first decided to launch Sass & Bide, our dream was to build an international brand and to at some stage sell the business and explore other creative projects. At the time we put a ten year time frame on that…
Sarah-Jane: And it’s been 15 years…
H: It’s not far off the original plan. We never dreamed of handing it down to daughters or other generations.

Why is now the right time?
H: We wanted to leave the business in really strong health and leave the brand while it was flourishing. We’ve had an amazing run especially in the last five to seven years. There’s a great team in there that we believe can take the business forward. We’ve just appointed an amazing CEO who has great international experience and really understands quality brands and luxury.  It was an instinctive decision that we both felt and we’ve always based our larger decisions in the business on intuition.

So it was a joint decision?
H: Yes, very much.
SJ: We came together, we’re leaving together. We just felt that was the perfect cycle.
H: We could never imagine being in the business without the other one.

What are you both going on to do?
I’m moving to Paris for a period of time, I’m not sure exactly how long, but we’re relocating and I really want to explore other creative projects while I’m over there. I want to work on a project, in the first year, which I’d like to disclose more about later but it’s a personal creative project and I would envisage doing an exhibition after the first year in Paris. I’ve always loved other creative mediums.  I was an illustrator and art director before I started in fashion so it’s something that mixes my other passions and strengths. Another of the driving forces to make change in my life was to create more time to work in child protection, which I feel fiercely about. I have been an ambassador for Barnardos for many years and have recently been appointed as a Bravehearts ambassador. So along with new and evolved creative projects, I plan to continue my work in the area of children’s welfare on a greater scale.
SJ: For me, I’m just excited to be walking into the unknown and I’m enjoying this freedom. I feel quite calm about the future so it’s quite open to the universe right now.
H: It has been relentless really and you know what fashion is like, there is never a down time. There hasn’t been one moment in 15 years to stop and breathe. It’s been amazingly intense but I guess there’s that realisation that we want to have that little bit of calm and peace in order to do other things. It’s not until you stop and really give your mind and your body some space that those things sort of surface.

How do you feel about no longer working together?
We believe that we’ll always come together on different projects and we’ve already been talking about several things that we would like to do together.
SJ: But I’m excited just to have the pure essence of friendship back, because for a moment there it was just overrun by sales figures and finances.
H: Because we’d always get together and talk about work so for us it’s nice to just focus on the friendship, family and life.

How are you both feeling now?
H: Extremely good! I’ve been describing it as feeling like a hot air balloon; it just elevates each day and as we extract ourselves from the business and say goodbye there’s this great sense of freedom and space and light.
SJ: Yeah, I think it’s just having the responsibility taken off your shoulders and slowing down a little.
H: You become accustomed to it and it actually makes this feeling even sweeter because it’s almost euphoric really. We’ve had a wonderful time in the business, an incredible journey but maybe it’s because we’re both Sagittarians, free spirits.
SJ: We’re not afraid of change. I think we’re going to embrace it.

Clarke (right) and Middleton photographed in front of their inspiration wall.

How do you think you will feel seeing your name belong to someone else, walking past the stores and knowing someone else is in charge of design?
SJ: Well it’s going to be very interesting isn’t it?! If it goes from strength to strength, it’s going to be so exciting!
H: We believe that the existing team and Chris, our CEO, really have the strengths and the ability to take it into an even stronger realm. It will naturally evolve into a slightly different creature. It obviously won’t have our signature touch, but it will have another great aesthetic.

Will you still wear Sass & Bide?
I hope so! We absolutely still envisage wearing Sass & Bide.

There are some designers that return to their labels, Jil Sander being one of them. Do you think that will ever be a possibility?
Well, never say never…
SJ: We just want to enjoy this moment.

What legacy would you like to leave the company with?
SJ: I think making sure the company is run ethically and being involved in charities, like the Ethical Fashion Initiative.
H: From the early days, and it grew as we grew, we really felt strongly about being ethical. You realise that you can really make noise about certain things that matter and you can really lead by example.

Obviously, you hope that that continues no matter who is running the business.
Yes, we did express our thoughts there. Part of the DNA of Sass & Bide is the heart and spirit.

Sarah-Jane Clarke is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.

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