In early 2017, Sarah Ansah, then a fashion student at Central Saint Martins, was mixing chemicals in the bedroom of her small London flat. She poured her concoctions over pairs of pink block-heeled shoes from the fast-fashion retailer Primark. She wanted to transform the shoes into something sculptural, otherworldly, and shiny. Some of the solutions expanded in odd ways, or swelled and deflated; some had the texture of lava. “My flat absolutely stank,” she says. “That’s what happens when I get left on my own.”
Ansah, now 30, used the shoes to accessorize her intricate, textural knits—metallic threads woven into rich patterns, enhanced with glass beads—for the college’s end-of-year fashion show. She was keen for something that suggested the “girly” aspects of her aesthetic (she was long a fan of Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing’s unsubtly spangled looks), but also signaled her “geeky side.” Ansah eventually settled on a chemical that, when applied to the shoes, kept on expanding, bulging into strange, bubbling forms. It was a mixture of what she calls “liquid sponge,” a recipe of silicone, rubber, and various activators she had left over from earlier experiments. “I think it might have gone a bit rotten,” she says of the mixture.
The resulting metallic, eye-catching shoes in gold and silver seemingly melted and ballooned around the foot, resembling something between an over-risen cupcake and a Jeff Koons sculpture. After the presentation, Ansah, who won an LVMH Grand Prix Scholarship in 2015, took second place in the L’Oréal Professionnel Young Talent Award. The deluge of calls from stylists gave Ansah pause. Unnerved by the thought of a conventional career as a fashion designer, she packed up the shoes and headed to Newcastle, her hometown in North East England, and rented a studio, wondering what other work, and what alternative pathways, the shoes might inspire.
Ansah’s influences have never been typical. While other students pulled from the college library images of John Galliano’s old Dior collections and Alexander McQueen’s early work, she presented tutors with images from the U.K. version of the car-transformation television show Pimp My Ride, hosted by the British DJ Tim Westwood. One mood board featured a sculpture by the Jewish-Russian artist Antoine Pevsner, its hard curves appearing to undulate like a Cubist belly dancer, alongside a close-up of a small white snail emerging from its shell, its skin wavy, moist, and sticky. “Very, very cute snail,” she’d written. Her other influences included feathery sea slugs and flatworms.
Ansah’s taste can tend toward the trippy. She likes the heady worlds of Hype Williams’s music videos and Gaspar Noé’s film Enter the Void. Before making the shoes, one particular reference stuck in her mind: the shape-shifting metal effect of the T-1000 character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When she was young, her brother, eight years her senior, played the movie with his friends while he was meant to be looking after her. “It terrified me,” she says. But she couldn’t shake the memory of that bubbling, flowing metal.
Since the age of 20, Ansah has spent stints working in a strip club, sometimes waitressing, sometimes dancing. Initially, her goal was to raise money for a foundational course in preparation for her degree, and to explore what she calls the “underground” of society. She started in Newcastle, and continued periodically through university in London. The job’s definition of femininity was a world away from the “very arty, very middle class” sensibilities of her Central Saint Martins peers. At the club, Ansah met women who enjoyed the performance of their sexuality, the act of being watched. “These women just loved looking sexy. I’ve seen so many pairs of tits, so much fanny, that it just doesn’t bother me anymore,” she says, laughing. Stripping showed Ansah a different type of body than the one usually objectified in fashion, and a different type of femininity, too. As a stripper, looking hot—pure, unironic hotness, something fashion can be snooty about—was celebrated.
Although Ansah has a “love-hate” relationship with the experience, it infiltrated her design sensibility and aesthetic in a manner too nuanced to define. “These are difficult ideas,” she says of the complexities of choice, objectification, and female freedom that permeate her work today. “It’s not necessarily something I’m going to be able to spell out in a sketchbook or find in a library.”
Recently, she’s realized that aspects of her work can swing toward the “pornographic,” and that its overtly feminine elements benefit from the Terminator treatment: “If I mix it up with sci-fi,” Ansah says, “it really, really works.” Since graduation, she’s taken classes in body casting, Victorian costume, and the history of dress. She references textured artworks by Bram Bogart and Jason Martin and, as always, orders weird chemicals from the internet and mixes them up, like an amateur scientist. She’s now pondering a future in film costume, special effects, and academic writing, in addition to commercial fashion. Ansah shows me a bodice she’s been working on that looks as if the tumor-like forms on the shoes had attacked a torso. Bubbles swell out from the hip, exaggerating the curves of the female form in an almost cartoonish manner. Some spill out from the breast and drip over a cup of the bodice. It’s seductive and scary, just as Ansah likes it.
Ansah shows me a bodice she’s been working on that looks as if the tumor-like forms on the shoes had attacked a torso. Bubbles swell out from the hip, exaggerating the curves of the female form in an almost cartoonish manner. Some spill out from the breast and drip over a cup of the bodice. It’s seductive and scary, just as Ansah likes it.
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.