Style Q&A: Wardrobe of Curiosities

Sarah Jackson walks the tightrope of work/life balance with the skill of a true artist.



Styling by Sandy Joe Karpetz; hair and makeup by Danielle Desrochers of Mousy Browns

photography by Adam Goudreau and Dwayne Martineau

floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is the main focal point in Sarah Jackson’s historic downtown loft — an intensely feminine space where the designer and illustrator sleeps, dances, entertains and operates her two-person design firm, the Office of Sarah.

Barefoot and dressed in a little black dress, the 32-year-old co-organizer of CreativeMornings Edmonton and co-director of programming for the Advertising Club of Edmonton (ACE) ignores a barrage of email alerts and incoming texts reminding her of the day’s work yet to be done. Instead, she chooses to savour a mid-morning coffee and warm patch of sunshine creeping across the pale mint settee where she sits.

But you’d be mistaken to interpret Jackson’s ability to relax and enjoy life’s pleasures as laziness. In fact, despite her petite (albeit muscular) five-foot-three dancer’s build, the self-described hedonist and feminist lives a very large life, intentionally seeking out experiences that blur the lines between the personal and professional.

After graduating from the Design Studies program at Grant MacEwan College (now MacEwan University), Jackson landed her first professional job illustrating greeting cards for a major retailer. Jackson left the position after two years and took courses in Holistic Health while working as a graphic designer for the MacEwan students’ association.

After about a year, the travel bug bit Jackson. Recognizing she wanted to both travel and work at the same time, Jackson dove head first into full-time freelance work and never looked back. In 2005, she published the first of her beloved collection of JAM children’s stories, sweet illustrated musings about the secret lives of peanut butter and jam (available at Shop AGA).

And, in 2012, after almost a decade of collaborating with some of the city’s top creatives, Jackson launched the Office of Sarah, a boutique firm responsible for rebranding the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market and working with clients like Kick Point and Athabasca University.

She regularly performs as a soloist with Capital City Burlesque via her sultry alter-ego, Violette Coquette, and will compete at the World Latin Dance Cup this year in December in Miami as a member of the SalsaVitus Dance Team. 

You live a very busy life, with many roles, many shoes. If you could condense your business model down to just four words, what would it be?

Curiosity. Discovery. Inspiration. Delight.

Your design studio, the Office of Sarah, is a small but ambitious firm. How do you choose the kinds of projects you want to be a part of?

When I am doing design work, what interests me is the story. Everything that we design, we design it for human beings, so it always comes back to me, to human stories. And so I need to understand my client’s story and I need to understand their company story before I can try to share that. One of the reasons why I am a good designer is because I am insatiably curious about people. I love finding people’s stories and I like scavenging through the material to find the gem.

Is there a particular type of client with whom you like to work?

My dream client is someone who reflects the things that I value back to me. So someone who is creating something that they feel is really important — something that they are personally passionate about. Because I think I can’t spread passion if no passion exists. Your audience knows when you are lying to them. You have to tell real stories, honest stories. I’m a graphic designer, not a magician. I can’t make something authentic if it’s not. So in relation to that, I need to find clients who are authentic and have authentic stories to tell. 

You seem to be able to glide from one project to the next with such ease.  What’s your secret?

It’s like this line from a Walt Whitman poem that I love “I am large, I contain multitudes.” That’s how I feel. I have lots of different parts of my personality that make me who I am. I love burlesque and all the glitter and being on stage in that sphere. And I love design, and I love salsa — in part because it is so cheesy and it makes me laugh.

Being able to be “someone else” for a day on stage or putting on that skin — a cheesy spray tan, for example — helps me to explore dimensions of my personality and then take those experiences into the rest of my life. All of this helps me to be a better designer. And it all ties back to this insatiable curiosity for life that I possess. I want to know all the things that I am. I want to discover the stories beneath the layers.

So much of your personal life crosses over into your professional life. You work from home; you are an entertainer and an active blogger. Do you ever worry that you are exposing too much of your private self in the public realm?

I think that I am lucky, in one sense, that the design industry and advertising are always about finding a new way to solve a problem, a way that is unique and fresh. So being safe in my work is not actually a good thing professionally. It creates a lot of boring work. When people act out of fear, generally the result of that is something subdued and boring.

Good work is about exploring those fringes and going as far as you possibly can. I try to do that throughout my life — personal and professional. Exploring lots of different things just gives me a better perspective or wells to draw from for my work. If I could have 10 more experiences like burlesque, I would do them in a heartbeat, because it makes me a better designer. In design, everything is connected.

You mentioned that you do a lot of creative work at three in the morning, when nobody is up to bother you. Does it ever feel like work ends?

As a designer, every time I am observing culture or living my life, that is applicable to my work as a designer. So, in a sense, I am always working. But, like anyone who does something they love, it’s like you’re always working and you’re never working.

How does your work as a designer influence the types of clothes that you choose?

I like clothing I can move in, clothing that works for me and not the other way around. The clothing should help me through my day. I’m not there to showcase the clothing; the clothing is there to showcase me. So when I am thinking about what to wear in the morning when I wake up, often one of my main criteria in the back of my mind is; “Can I dance in this?” And, if I can’t, that item of clothing doesn’t last very long in my wardrobe.

You seem to have an affinity for handmade objects. Does this apply to your love affair with shoes? 

It’s like anything. I like buying things that have quality and craftsmanship. Those are things that I am always willing to pay for because I see the value in that. It’s true with high heels also. A high heel doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. I ride my bicycle in my heels because they fit right. If the heel is built with craftsmanship — a high-quality high heel is comfortable. I can wear that, and I do, for hours. I dance in high heels.

There are lots of bold colours in your wardrobe. Lots of vintage jackets and tailored dresses. What inspires your choices?

I don’t want to look like a girl. I want to be a woman. Sometimes in the business world, it’s almost like you have to apologize for being feminine, so being and dressing in a feminine way is not something that I need tostry and advertising are always about finding a new way to solve a problem, a way that is unique and fresh. So being safe in my work is not actually a good thing professionally. It creates a lot of boring work. When people act out of fear, generally the result of that is something subdued and boring.

Good work is about exploring those fringes and going as far as you possibly can. I try to do that throughout my life — personal and professional. Exploring lots of different things just gives me a better perspective or wells to draw from for my work. If I could have 10 more experiences like burlesque, I would do them in a heartbeat, because it makes me a better designer. In design, everything is connected.

There is a vintage-quality to your style. Have you ever fantasized about living in a different era when every day fashion was more of a production?

No. I’m so glad to be a woman right now. I don’t know if, 50 years ago, I could do what I am doing right now. I run my own business, I have so much freedom and opportunity. I remember reading somewhere that women couldn’t even buy property without the signature of a husband or a father 50 years ago. So I wouldn’t be able to own my space. I feel like it’s a good time to be a woman.

What’s your favourite go-to accessory?

A friend of mine told me that people listen to you more closely when you wear red lipstick so I started applying it in my life. I figured, what better accessory than one that helps you strategically towards your goals?

Some people might look at your lifestyle and think you are very lucky. Does this resonate with you?

I think there is some luck. It’s a combination of hard work and luck. But, also if you don’t know what you want, you are never going to find it and, even if you do find it, you are not going to know it if you haven’t searched inside yourself to identify clearly what you desire.

I think what helped me is that I really sat down and thought about what I want, what is important to me, what does success look like, what does a good life look like? And I’ve been really purposeful about that. I do think that when you put something out in the world, you become more aware of those things around you. I’ve consciously pursued the things that are important to me.

Do you have a motto that you live by?

One of my design crushes is this New York designer Tina Roth Eisenberg and she has this rule that I have kind of embraced for myself, which is that complainers or haters get zero per cent of her time. So if you are complaining about something, you need to be doing something about it and, if you are not, I don’t care.


Favourites

Chill spot Cavern

Lipstick Rouge Dior in Ara Red 999

Wardrobe staple navy blue Hanii Y blazer from Coup {Garment Boutique}

Shoe label Miz Mooz and Jorge Bischoff, both available at Wener Shoes

Pop-up shop Chaos and the Dark by Jessica Kennedy

Vintage find 1940s violet crepe button-up dress from Swish Vintage

Salon Blunt Salon

Drink A bijou from Woodwork

Dance floor The Bower

Burlesque accessories Glitter and a smile

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