PHOTOS BY VAN SARKI.
It’s hard to imagine that knitwear designer Valentine Amartey was ever uncomfortable with his sexuality. The British-born, New York-based designer’s couture concoctions of rope, yarn, and even human hair have been worn by the likes of Shakira and Lady Gaga. He teaches a rope bondage course in Williamsburg and performed with fetish-inspired troupe P-Cult. Even his presence possesses a quiet sensuality that is at once disarming and alluring. But Amartey insists that initially his designs were a vehicle to explore an aspect of himself he had not yet conquered.
After two decades of the perils and pitfalls of life in New York (including the theft of an entire collection), Amartey is as powerful as the famous females who covet his designs. Having honed his skills in couture caliber knitwear, the designer is fostering a new generation of talent as a knitwear professor at Parsons. With plans to develop a ready-to-wear line entitled “Exotic Paraphernalia” this fall, it seems Amartey’s star will continue to rise. Amartey attributes his success to luck, but we’d credit his ability to celebrate the female form and amplify his clients’ sexuality, coupled with an obsession with his craft. Recently, Amartey collaborated with photographer Van Sarki for the above series of images, exclusively for Interview. We caught up with Amartey to discuss superheroes, sexuality, and teaching rope bondage to hipsters.
ALLYSON SHIFFMAN: Who taught you how to make clothes?
VALENTINE AMARTEY: I’m pretty much self-taught, so it’s funny that I ended up a professor at Parsons teaching people how to design. Everything I’ve done has kind of come around as a fortunate accident. I started off making costumes for this performance group called P-Cult. It was kind of very fetish-inspired—fire-eaters and acrobats and all that kind of stuff… with horrible costumes. They’d be wearing garbage bags, and I was like, “I’m not getting on stage with you guys looking like that.” So they were like, “Well, if you can do better…” So I did. Those were the first garments I made, and actually a few of them ended up being bought by Shakira. Then I met a professor at Parsons who was a friend of a friend and she had a job that she needed help with, and for some unknown reason she picked me. I didn’t have any experience, and she pretty much taught me everything I know about garment construction.
SHIFFMAN: Did you play dress-up as a kid?
AMARTEY: I did. I used to pretend I was Wonder Woman. [laughs]
SHIFFMAN: [laughs] That’s amazing.
AMARTEY: I wasn’t fooling anybody. But superheroes were a big thing for me. This whole thing about being more than human was fascinating and that’s kind of how I came about making costumes. I wanted people to look more than they were.
SHIFFMAN: What is your superhuman quality?
AMARTEY: Probably tenacity. I’ve been in New York for 20 years now and I’ve seen it all, been up and down. Stamina, power, strength. Those would be some of my traits.
SHIFFMAN: There’s a sense of sexuality that seeps into your designs. Have you always been comfortable with expressing that side of yourself?
AMARTEY: Probably not, and I think that’s where it comes from. I’m a late bloomer. I’ve always been fascinated by oversexualized women and the power that comes from that. I was not really secure in that area of my life so I think that my sexuality comes out in the clothing and then I put them on other people. I let other people be sexual for me. [laughs]
SHIFFMAN: What have been some standout projects you’ve worked on?
AMARTEY: We’ve done stuff for Lady Gaga, through Calvin Klein Collection. We made an outfit for her for the Save The Rainforest Foundation. It was knit head to toe, all in one. That was pretty wild.
SHIFFMAN: You’ve sold designs at Patricia Field as well, correct?
AMARTEY: Actually, a bunch of my stuff got stolen from her store. The second round of clothing I made, I put the whole bunch there. She was very appreciative and very nurturing. Then the store manager told me the whole lot got stolen. It took a while to get my money, but that was kind of cool, that somebody wanted to steal my pieces.
SHIFFMAN: [laughs] That’s a very positive way of looking at things.
AMARTEY: She’s got some amazing stuff in there, so I was a little miffed at first; but if someone is going to steal from me, they can steal from me at Patricia Field’s.
SHIFFMAN: Are you still performing?
AMARTEY: Not anymore. The last time I performed was about three years ago. I did a live silent movie… with rope bondage [laughs].
SHIFFMAN: Well, that’s not something you see every day.
AMARTEY: No. With me as the Charlie Chaplin-esque character. It was sort of a look at death through the five stages of grief. It was a play in five acts and I did it two or three times in any available window space in New York City. I’ll probably go back to it, it’s in my blood. I’m a show-off by nature.
SHIFFMAN: What else do you busy yourself with?
AMARTEY: I teach a rope bondage class at Shag in Williamsburg. It’s a once-a-month class at a sex boutique, so I’m introducing all the hipsters to rope bondage. It was a little bit slow at first.
SHIFFMAN: Hipsters will take to anything.
AMARTEY: They will, if pushed. You can lead them to water. That book came out, Fifty Shades of Grey, and then it just exploded. My classes are packed—I have all these hipsters roping each other up. I want to push the boundaries with that and make costumes out of rope.
SHIFFMAN: If you weren’t a designer, what do you think you’d be doing professionally?
AMARTEY: Probably psychology. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s minds.
SHIFFMAN: That’s interesting, because I find clothing to be such an extension of what someone is thinking or feeling on any given day.
AMARTEY: Exactly. You put whatever on that you feel. That’s what I do when I’m asked to make something for someone; first I want to know who they are, what they’re about, what they do, how they move and then everything comes from there.
SHIFFMAN: So your clothes are very tailored to the individual.
AMARTEY: Yes, that’s the jump-off, but I’m actually working on my first collection of knitwear. My skills as a knitwear designer are pretty much through the roof, so it’s time now to do something that’s a little more professional. I’m thinking about doing a small boutique show this September. I’m going to call it “Exotic Paraphernalia” and it’s going to be all knitwear: gowns, dresses, pants, all-in-ones. Just putting everything that I’ve learned into each piece. I want to push the boundaries of my craft.
FOR MORE ON VALENTINE AMARTEY, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.