Behind the seams with fashion designer Christopher Esber.
At a time when most 20-year-olds’ Saturday nights revolved firmly around the next pit stop on their social crawl, Christopher Esber was usually alone, hunched over a sewing machine inside his parents’ garage.
A decade on, Esber laughs as he tells Stellar about those early days (and nights) spent in service of launching his eponymous label. “I would say I didn’t have a crazy 20s,” says Esber over coffee at a cafe beneath his studio in Sydney’s Redfern. “I wasn’t able to! My friends would be out, like, ‘Oh, where are you?’ I’d say, ‘I’m sewing; I’ve got a deadline.’”
Esber graduated from Sydney TAFE’S Fashion Design Studio in 2007 aged 20; along with three other students, he was chosen to showcase his work at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week. When his first collection debuted three years later, Vogue Australia praised the “ambition” of Esber’s sharply tailored designs and the shrewdness of his decision to use the working woman’s wardrobe as its nexus. As the review observed, “Christopher Esber is only 23, and he’s already set himself spectacularly exacting standards.”
Since then, the designer has enjoyed a steady rise, carefully pacing his brand’s momentum in the midst of industry struggles and the domino-like topple of big labels such as Marcs and David Lawrence. In 2014, he was a finalist in the International Woolmark Prize; a year later, the recipient of Vogue Italia’s Most Talented Designer Award for Australia-pacific. In February, Esber debuted his A/W ’17 collection at New York Fashion Week. More positive reviews followed. London’s Harvey Nichols came onboard as a stockist.
Reflecting on his early days, Esber, 30, says his childhood in the outer Sydney suburb of Auburn was “pretty normal”. There is a nine-year age gap between Esber and his older sister, Patricia, which he suspects fed his creativity. “I grew up an only child in a way,” he explains. “Playing on my own and creating my own reality. I wasn’t necessarily very quick to make friends. I’m still that way.”
Given his shy nature and the fact he had no connections to the industry, Esber credits a strong, non-judgemental support network of friends and family with helping him get from his parents’ garage to the runways of New York. “Which was surprising,” he admits, “[because] they’re a traditional Lebanese household. I said to my dad once, ‘I want to be a fashion designer.’ He said, ‘If
that’s what you want to do, then you work hard and make it happen.’”
Esber’s parents, George and Therese, emigrated to Australia in the late ’70s; George told his son that during his own youth, he longed to join an orchestra. “His father wouldn’t allow him to do that,” Esber says. “It had been one of his biggest regrets.”
When he was launching his label and spending long stretches working alone, his mum would “come in with Lebanese coffee on a tray with little snacks and biscuits”. Yet even today Esber suspects they were quietly dubious about his prospects. “My mum, dad and sister are teachers and my brother’s an accountant. In that respect, I was definitely the black sheep. I think in the early days they were like, ‘What is he doing? He’s just playing around with denim.’”
Still, George has fond memories of the son who made clothes from whatever he could find lying around. “He would spend days and nights working on a collection,” George says. “So many times I’d ask him, ‘Is it worth it?’ and he would say, ‘Sometimes I get angry and upset, but at the end of the day I’m happier for it.’ He loves it – he wouldn’t do anything else!”
As for his mother, Esber nominates her as his toughest customer. “She is very picky,” he laughs. “Even now she can pick apart a collection. She’s traditional and definitely has her codes of how she wears clothing and what she likes. She hates print, and actually I do, too. Maybe that was a bit of an influence…” The butterflies, he admits, have started in earnest. Esber collaborates with textile specialists around the world to turn his visions into reality. As he points to a “fabric board” for the show and a piece of “latex lace” he had specially made in Switzerland, he says the starting point for any piece is usually the material. In this instance, he explains, “I wanted to take everything we know about sweet proportion and garden dresses – then put a subversive twist on it.”
Esber plans to show in New York again this September, and is set on cracking the American market – even if it takes more than a few tries. “I’m a modern-day Kylie,” he jokes.
“He’s certainly got what it takes,” predicts Vogue Australia editor-in-chief and Australian Fashion Chamber chair Edwina Mccann. A longtime supporter, she says she’s “watched Esber and his brand evolve since his early collections. We saw a huge amount of interest in his brand from buyers and media when he took part in the Australian Fashion Chamber’s Designers Abroad program in Paris last year. He already has a repeat international retail customer base and an original point of view. People like him, so they want to invest in him.”
Local fans include Lara Worthington, actor and model Phoebe Tonkin and Home And Away’s Pia Miller, who chose Esber to design her slinky black gown for the 2015 Logies. “Chris’s designs and aesthetic appeal to a woman’s true shape,p, which is why I loved collaborating with himh for my custom Logies dress dress,” Miller says. “I naturally have cu curves and I love the way Chris’s de deconstructed tailoring works with my shape. And I admire h his attention to sophisticated d detailing.”
For all his ex exacting focus and tireless com commitment to doing the hard yards, Esber is far from infallible.infallib There are times, he tells St Stellar, when he’s considered the taskst at hand and asked himse himself, “Am I going to do this? Can IdI do this?”
There is only o one correct answer. Esber doe does not see himself walking away, he jokes, until he’s “dead on the ground”.
“I want to grow the business,” he says. “I want tot get stocked here and ther there. You hit those milestones anda you’re like, OK, what’s ne next? You just keep pushing t through.”
``i was definitely the black sheep´´
MATERIAL WORLD (from left) Christopher Esber in his Sydney studio; putting the
WHEN STELLAR MEETS with Esber, he’s in the final stages of preparing to showw his resort collection at Mercedes-benz edes-benz Fashion Week Australia, stralia, which kicks off tonight. night.