Superwoman Sarah - Sarah Bagner Interview // Supermarket Sarah Feature

Originally published 12th June, 2016

While independent retailers housing unique labels are, without fail, my first port-of-call whilst seeking out an eclectic wardrobe staple, some of the most treasured pieces I've sourced in recent years have been procured at the bustling hive of international flea markets. From the multi-hued flower crowns purchased for a song at London's Portobello Market several years ago (before fashion trend enthusiasts had become weary of their unfaltering prevalence at every summer festival) to a burgundy leather satchel haggled down to half-price at a Florentine stall, gazing upon these prized possessions instantly casts my mind back to the multi-sensory marketplaces they once resided in. Far removed from the impersonal consumer experience that chain-store giants (while useful for rapid-fire, disposable shopping needs) can often embody, the friendly banter and engagement surrounding market stalls is none too dissimilar from the amiable chatter and warmth found in multiple independent boutiques. Nevertheless, without the luxury of time on one's side, making the trip to your local car-boot sale or weekend flea-market can seem a cumbersome prospect compared to the velocity of online shopping: a retro vintage dress or costume earrings can be snapped up for three times their market-value but, crucially, at a fraction of the time required to physically hunt them down. With the majority of digital big-brand retailers offering duplicate "conveyer-belt" shopping experiences, is it an impossible feat to re-create the eclecticism of a real-life marketplace and launch it into the e-commerce stratosphere?

Dynamic interiors stylist and vintage purveyor Sarah Bagner has been spearheading the concept of interactive, online market-shopping since well before high-end designers began transforming their virtual platforms. Drawing from a creative background rich in marketing and advertising, Bagner devised Supermarket Sarah in 2009 with the premise of conjuring up unique “display walls” that would give digital purchases a meaningful narrative. Her innate attention-to-detail coupled with her dual enthusiasm for vintage fashion and interior design (which had previously manifested in Bagner’s Portobello Market stall) quickly piqued the interest of industry veterans and creative newcomers alike. Supermarket Sarah’s inaugural wall showcased Bagner’s eccentric artistry (and penchant for the colour red) to striking effect. A vintage polka-dot frock featured alongside an antique-gold teapot, the latter resting on a mahogany-hued mountainload of leather-bound books, while several inches away lay a cherry-red mushroom designed by Phoebe Eason and a Coca-Cola bottle in the same eye-popping hue. Remarkably, the entire display was concocted in Bagner’s personal sitting room, which struck a chord with her website’s admirers – soon after its online debut, Supermarket Sarah fans began attempting to create their own display walls at home, revamping their bedrooms and living spaces with her unique style of pairing old and new items harmoniously.

 As the site’s following rapidly grew, so too did the creatives who collaborated with Bagner on crafting their own Supermarket Sarah walls. This ultimately spurred on an eponymous book launch in 2012, spotlighting these Wonder Walls (as they were cleverly dubbed) and the creative talents that had brought them to fruition. The online space had become a coveted platform for emerging brands to spotlight their pieces – a refreshing alternative to the stark white backgrounds of conventional e-commerce – and Bagner soon found herself in high demand with industry powerhouses to create window displays, in-house installations and styling on advertising campaigns.

While the scale at which Bagner weaves her spellbinding aesthetic may have skyrocketed in recent years, her fundamentals when styling any creative project remain fully intact: a high-curated output and storytelling approach are at the core of every acclaimed display she has conjured up, whether she is adding her finishing touch to a residential project or producing eye-catching shopfronts for the likes of Selfridges, Monki and John Lewis. With such a volume of Bagner’s creative commissions taking place outside of Supermarket Sarah’s parameters – a recent project saw her style the director’s office of London’s Garden Museum – it made complete sense to launch a separate portfolio through supermarketsarahstyling.com, a quick perusal of which will reiterate that she is no one-trick pony when it comes to display design. As Supermarket Sarah launched its most recent Wonder Wall with Animalesque earlier this week, I spoke with Bagner regarding her innovative visual narratives, the status quo of contemporary e-commerce and her inherent ties to Swedish flea-markets:

When you were first struck with the concept of Supermarket Sarah? Was it an idea that evolved over time, or was it quite a “eureka” moment?

Well, it kind of evolved – I was doing styling as well as Portobello Market and initially, I really wanted to bring that feeling of “market-shopping” online. At that time – and I think now, still, to be honest – online shopping can feel very dry and clinical, with clothes on white backgrounds. Even on Ebay, you’ll see a badly-photographed teapot on someone’s bed and you don’t really want it! I’ve always loved market shopping, and when you see someone’s stall you see them and all of their objects in context. Having come from a styling and advertising background it came as second-nature to me, but I realised that online, that concept wasn’t really happening. 

I guess it was the stylist in me that really wanted to bring to life an image with all the objects in line with a person, a place, and tell a story with the objects. The walls would become visual feasts of colour and then suddenly, that teapot becomes a bit more interesting. You realise that it was sourced from the owner’s trip to China and then you suddenly think, “oh, Iactually want that teapot!”. Shopping should be that way; it should be fun, and when you go market-shopping you get that lovely feeling. You don’t need anything, but it’s nice to have that luxury of consuming beautiful objects. That’s how the idea of Supermarket Sarah started.

The website’s unique interactive set-up would be unusual to come across on retail websites both seven years ago, when you began Supermarket Sarah, and in 2016.  What would your perspective be on the status of online shopping? 

I think now, certainly, online shopping has gotten so much better – with Instagram it’s exciting, I love browsing and having a conversation with brands, having more of a rapport in that way. I’ve always been interested in the people behind the shops as well and although my book Wonder Walls is an interiors book, it’s more about people and how people display themselves on walls. That aspect is much more personal as well, and I think that’s the element that brands can never really get to. What’s nice about the Supermarket Sarah platform is that, while I started it off, each person’s wall is very unique. I tend to work more as a stylist now with brands and create interior spaces and retail spaces, but I equally think it’s lovely that people do these walls in their bedrooms and use their chosen wall as a canvas. 

For me, Supermarket Sarah is a mixture in a way of an art installation, a retail space and a network/PR platform. A lot of the younger brands such as Patternity and Camille Walala I’m really proud of – they’ve done so well since they first did their wall – and I think there’s been nothing out there to showcase people who are actually artists in a way. They’re making products but still, they’re very much art-based ideas. That’s something I haven’t really seen in online shops.

The “click-to-buy” initiative is something that Supermarket Sarah has truly pioneered – you see variations of it on social media such as Instagram but it’s never quite tapping an image and heading straight to your online shopping cart.  They have that “link in bio” aspect now where people can shop items there but it’s not nearly as streamlined: you were very much ahead of the curve!

I think it’s the curation element of the website as well, because I’ve worked with bigger brands like John Lewis and Monki but at the same time it’s still me curating those walls. I think that’s the thing with shopping – of course there are a million things out there to buy but if you don’t have time, you don’t want to trawl the market.. there’s a trader in Portobello Market that I always go to, because I know her and know that she’s spent time curating her collection. That’s why I go to her. Curating items is quite an artistic endeavour as well.  

When it comes to your personal creative process of crafting these displays – be it for Supermarket Sarah or any exterior creative projects and collaborations – do you follow a similar curated approach with each project?

I would like to think that I do have a particular style and approach that I carry through – but it’s always different with each person. With each collaboration you find a sort of conversation on how to work – and because it’s always different, it’s always fun! No wall is ever the same. I really enjoy that process of brainstorming that first idea.

Is there a memory that stands out in your career – either through Supermarket Sarah or outside of that – which you consider your most memorable moment thus far?

There are so many, really. Last year with John Lewis and Monki, that took on a different swing of things because I wasn’t using my own products. That’s been an evolving tale, how my career has become more about styling. When I was shooting that Monki wall in Stockholm, I remember thinking about how before that, [brand representatives] had come into London and I had presented them with some ideas. I had been in Sri Lanka that Christmas and decided I wanted to do a banana stall, and there could be a little dog – then I thought, what if they think that this is all just madness?! But it turned out amazingly, in the shoot we did have a dog and we did have a banana stall and I thought, “this is quite cool!”. It made me think, “maybe I’m not mad, maybe this is all working”.

I never usually think that far ahead with logistics, but things do fall into place on shoots. They were wonderful to work with. They made that vision come to life and I’m always really lucky in that I constantly have these mad ideas and then I work with really practical people who put those ideas into perspective. I’ve also been lucky to work with great photographers and practical makers.

I’ve worked in agencies as well, which has made me believe that you almost need to be on the outside of things to be able to be quite creative. Otherwise, when you’re coming up with ideas that are quite silly, it’s hard when you’re in a pressured environment and are thinking about sale figures. It’s actually quite nice being the person who comes in and says, “shall we do a banana stall?!”

That’s such a breath of fresh air! That kind of atmosphere really isn’t conducive to creating innovative and out-there ideas – it’s the perfect kind of collaboration, I think.

Yes it’s fun! I think I’m always trying to push the boundaries of the classic interior style. I’ve always been about colour and fun, and taking away the elitism of art. I actually think it should be commercial also, instead of something incredibly luxurious. I do try to work more simplistically, but at the same time there can be humour added as well. I actually love black and white interiors, I’m quite a closet-case minimalist! But I think I can’t fit into those boundaries. 

What are your favourite old haunts for vintage market-shopping and hidden-gem hunting?

My passion for vintage properly started off when I went to Brighton University – the market there was great. It’s actually now moved from Brighton Station to the Marina but I think it’s still quite good, I haven’t been for ages actually. I love that market – it’s always really lovely and it’s by the sea, so it makes for a lovely day out. 

My parents are Swedish and my aunties are big hoarders in the south of Sweden, so they are massive flea-market fiends – that’s where my love of vintage comes from!  They started piling me off with their stuff. The markets in Sweden are really civilised, they start at five in the afternoon and they serve tea and cakes. You can find some fantastic things there.

That’s quite a change from the hordes of flea-market goers queuing to start shopping at the crack of dawn, something that I’ve definitely encountered in other countries.

There’s not that five in the morning thing, no! In England you have these car boot sales and you have to get there really early, whereas in Sweden they’re often held in people’s homes. They’re really cheap as well, possibly because people are less aware of what they’re selling – but yes, it’s always interesting what you can find at these places.

My auntie has a really great eye, she knows everything about sources and materials. I would credit her as where it all started for me; she became my vintage mentor. She’s a collector of quite ugly 60s/70s things – I think her children never really appreciated them but I did like them! I quite enjoy that bit of ugliness in design. I feel that if things are too “on-trend”, it can be a bit tacky almost.. a little too matchy-matchy. 

I think vintage is always going to be a bit of a niche market. I think brands have caught on to vintage-inspired pieces. Often, when I was in Portobello Market, you’d get buyers coming and loaning items so they could look at them and copy them, and then bring them back..! I suppose fashion designers have always looked to the past for inspiration.

I think the Supermarket Sarah walls are essentially branding [for creatives] – often, makers haven’t worked in advertising or don’t quite realise that one should be telling a story. With vintage it does help because you have that story and you can evoke that image of an era, but also tell a story with objects. One item could be a vintage piece, used as a starting point, and then you could have some high-street shoes and various bits and bobs with it. Those don’t necessarily have to be vintage vintage, but I think with anything that comes from somewhere, you should start to build that brand story. So I think that’s where it’s coming from. My auntie is an amazing seeker and she really knows what she’s looking for. I’ve done a few vintage fairs and I’d always be the outcast because I didn’t know about vintage history, they were just things that I liked – whether they were 80s or 90s. I’m not the kind to say, “ooh this is from the 20s and it costs this much” – I actually sold a fur jacket once for about 20 quid and my friend said, “do you realise that could have gone for 200 pounds?”! I’m more about finding things that I like, that’s the important thing really.

It’s also fun to mix it up – I’ve done some vintage fairs and you see at the “vintage lot” that literally look like they’ve stepped straight out of the 1940s! That’s just mimicking a style, you’re not really making it your own and I think it’s important to modernise your outfit and make it original – mixing it up with high street or your own things so that it becomes yours. I do find that look a little bit odd when you choose an era and entirely copy it.

When I was in Italy recently, I was thinking about the idea of souvenirs. I’ve always been quite interested in them, it’s quite a bizarre thing to bring home and I often wonder what it is, what is the concept behind a souvenir. In a way, I don’t really like buying them but I have, for example, a kimono that I bought in Tokyo which I love and wear a lot because it reminds me of that time I bought it there in a flea market. But I don’t like strange, useless objects. When you buy things like furniture or things that are useful that you wear or that you actually use, then that’s the story of a souvenir. In a way, maybe flea-market shopping has that element to it as well; that souvenir element.

What can we expect to see next from you; both from Supermarket Sarah and additional creative/styling projects?

Well, I’m working much more as a stylist with interior projects. I’ve just finished up an interior office, actually, for the Garden museum. With my online portfolio, Supermarket Sarah Styling, I just felt that I wanted to do another site where I could showcase the work that I do. Some people got a little bit confused with supermarketsarah.com thinking that I did all the walls! This website focuses more on the work that I’m doing with brands. As Supermarket Sarah and as a stylist, I’m looking forward to working with more interiors, whether that’s more residential or in-store, as well as advertising – all still bringing that storytelling element and that fun spark. I think that’s a thread that goes through all of my work.

Sarah Bagner’s creative portfolio can be viewed in its entirety on supermarketsarahstyling.com – clicking “here” will transport you to Supermarket Sarah, where you can peruse Bagner’s colourful bazaar and its creative brands to your heart’s content, while following on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook will ensure you’re kept fully up to speed with its eclectic Wonder Wall arrivals and creative project announcements. 

Amelia xx