The meticulous artisanal designs of pattern-maker and tailor Max Thomas Sanderson have taken him from the rural outskirts of Hobart to an atelier in Paris. By Lucianne Tonti.
The journey of tailor Max Thomas Sanderson
Max Thomas Sanderson’s atelier is on the outskirts of Paris, just beyond the ring that separates the arrondissements and the banlieues. In this small bright space with parquet floors, the softly spoken tailor is describing how his father built the family home himself, using cedar boards. Every few years he would carefully strip and varnish the wood, to preserve its rich colour. “Even though if you drove past, it wouldn’t look remarkable necessarily at all,” Sanderson says. “It’s an effort that’s gone to because of a personal joy that comes from it.”
Sanderson grew up in semi-rural Cremorne, about 20 kilometres east of Hobart. His parents, who were both teachers, cherished manual processes. They kept chickens, a vegetable garden and fruit trees. His mother and grandmother taught him to sew.
In his atelier, Sanderson designs, cuts and sews his made-to-order garments by hand. The only marker on his garments is a contrast stitch that zigzags evenly along each seam. This signature uses a technique he developed over years working as a pattern-maker, tailor and finally as a professor at Parsons Paris, a branch of the New York university The New School. The stitch is done by hand using muscle memory, in a silk thread from Germany with a specific weight. People often expect it to be simply for aesthetics, but he says, it is “genuinely the thing that holds the garment together”.
His latest edition is a tight offering of 18 pieces in black and white. Two pairs of trousers, three jackets, one skirt and one coat are all made from black Australian wool woven in Japan. Three different styles of shirt and a pair of boxer shorts are made from the white cotton poplin he sources in Naples. They are accompanied by a light jersey T-shirt and singlet and a range of silk bandanas from France. Each piece draws on the lines and silhouettes of heritage menswear but is constructed using new techniques that make them distinctly modern and genderless.
Sanderson eschews the term “collection” for its connotation that the clothes might one day be out of fashion. He prefers to see them as enduring companions that will never go out of style. In this way, and because some of the pieces can take as long as two weeks to make, Sanderson is building something increasingly rare in an industry dominated by mass-market luxury and ultra-fast fashion. He is building a designer label founded on painstaking expertise and timeless artistry.
The wool Sanderson uses for his tailoring can be traced to three farms in Australia and has the density and lightness that is particular to high-quality suiting. It gives body to a pair of single pleat front trousers with a neat waistband and a straight leg that buckles softly against the shoe. The signature stitch runs along the outer and inner seams of the leg, in a curve around the fly, along the edges of the front and back pockets, and on the darts that connect to the back of the waistband.
In every sense, these are perfect black pants. The mid-rise is balanced with the width of the leg, creating length from the waist all the way to the floor without adding volume. True to Sanderson’s love of natural materials, they are lined in silk, the fit and inner fabric ensuring ease of movement and comfort for the wearer.
They are designed to be worn with any of the three jackets in the range. When matched with the shortest, single-breasted jacket, the outfit is close to a classic suit. The jacket fits neatly along the shoulders, has a straight sleeve and a single button that closes in the middle of the chest. The signature stitch runs along every edge and outlines the peaked lapel and collar. The look is tweaked with a simple jersey singlet underneath and a silk bandana wrapped around the neck and tied in a bow beneath the chin.
The outfit would not be out of place among the ubiquitous black garments on the streets of Melbourne where Sanderson spent his late teens and early 20s. An initial interest in photography led him to enrol in a communication design degree in Melbourne, but he found it too generalist and dropped out.
Then one night, at an exhibition opening at the GPO building on Bourke Street – long before it was occupied by H&M – he met people studying fashion at RMIT University. “That was the first time I had heard of a fashion degree,” he says. “It was such a revelation and I decided to apply.”
Throughout the four-year course, he worked in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, at the consignment store Bruce and the multi-brand boutique Left. Both experiences exposed him to designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake, who challenged conventional construction with avant-garde techniques. Sanderson left Melbourne for Paris and, having earned a masters at the Institut Français de la Mode, he joined the menswear team at Hermès.
Despite this experience at the top of the industry, he describes his pattern-making teacher from RMIT, Glen Rollason, and an internship with Melbourne designer Susan Dimasi of MATERIALBYPRODUCT as the biggest inspirations for the type of work he is creating now. They taught him the process was fundamental to the creation of a garment, and that the idea could not be separated from the process. They encouraged him to find a language through construction and craft rather than simply designing more collections.
For some designers this approach might be reflected in the volume of fabric used or by subverting the norms of construction. In Sanderson’s process, it is the amount of time dedicated to each piece that most deeply informs their appearance. Time, along with the finest materials available, also informs their price tag: the coat is $4500, the shirts are at least $1200. Of course, his business model is difficult to scale, but for Sanderson big business is not the goal. His parents instilled in him an appreciation for the joy of labour, the beauty of the natural world and the satisfaction to be found in the rhythm of practice.
“There was often a sense of things being done for a value that was appreciated in a very discreet way, even if it took a lot of work,” he says. “There was a personal joy that came from the effort of using a particular material. There was always an appreciation of natural fibres.”
Sanderson is proud of the imprint that hand-stitching leaves on the garment. “You can see it’s slightly irregular. There is a subtle inconsistency in the distance between each stitch,” he says. It makes the extremely precise shirts, jackets and pants feel alive, a quality that would not be there otherwise.
It’s a detail so carefully hidden that it makes the logos of the heritage brands France is famous for look positively gauche.
And for Max Thomas Anderson, it’s the subtle detail that grounds his work.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Signature stitch".
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