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FROM PERTH TO PARIS VIA THE PIL­BARA, DE­SIGNER KYM ELLERY HAS TAKEN AN UN­CON­VEN­TIONAL ROUTE TO BE­COM­ING A GLOB­ALLY KNOWN BRAND, CHANG­ING NO­TIONS ABOUT AUS­TRALIAN FASH­ION IN THE PROCESS.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - NEWS - STORY MITCHELL OAK­LEY SMITH POR­TRAIT STEVE BA­CON

Aus­tralian fash­ion de­sign­ers have never had an easy time mak­ing it big over­seas. There are ex­cep­tions, of course. Ksubi, at its peak, boasted an enor­mous global fol­low­ing, with retail stores fol­low­ing suit. And be­fore the buy­out and de­par­ture of its found­ing de­sign­ers, Sass & Bide and Wil­low were well re­spected at Lon­don Fash­ion Week each sea­son. Un­for­tu­nately, those la­bels lacked the eco­nomic struc­ture or a shared cre­ative vi­sion be­tween in­vestors and de­sign­ers that is im­per­a­tive for long-term suc­cess, and their for­tunes have waned in re­cent years.

De­spite some great strides in re­cent sea­sons, helped by the plat­form de­vel­oped by the Aus­tralian Fash­ion Cham­ber, build­ing a global busi­ness as a de­signer based down un­der is still a hard slog. “It’s pos­si­ble, def­i­nitely … In­sta­gram and on­line shop­ping are so pow­er­ful now that you can build a pro­file and cus­tomer base,” says Kym Ellery. “It’s by no means the eas­i­est or best way to do it, but it is pos­si­ble.”

Ellery should know. Along with her con­tem­po­raries Dion Lee and Toni Mat­icevski, the Perth-born, Syd­ney­based and glob­ally roam­ing de­signer has, in the past few years, built a sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional pro­file for her self­ti­tled la­bel. Fol­low­ing sev­eral years show­ing her wares on the run­way for Aus­tralian Fash­ion Week, in Septem­ber Ellery be­came the third Aus­tralian de­signer, af­ter Col­lette Din­ni­gan and Martin Grant, to be in­vited to present a show on the of­fi­cial Paris Fash­ion Week sched­ule by the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale, the gov­ern­ing body of French fash­ion.

The Ellery la­bel was born in 2007, and it has made great strides in es­tab­lish­ing a com­plete brand in the near-decade since. While her sea­sonal fash­ion col­lec­tions form the core of the busi­ness, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with eye­wear de­signer Graz Mulc­ahy — mod­ern, ar­chi­tec­tural takes on clas­sic cats-eye glasses — has helped to grow her pro­file among celebri­ties, with no­table fans in­clud­ing Eva Men­des, Ge­or­gia May Jag­ger, Jess Hart and Sarah Mur­doch. A reg­u­lar A3­for­mat mag­a­zine, The Ellery Gazette, helped the de­signer to com­mu­ni­cate her vi­sion in the early years of the busi­ness, in a medium that she was fa­mil­iar with, hav­ing come to fash­ion from mag­a­zine pub­lish­ing. A col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sportsgirl in 2010, and the sup­port of Wool­mark and G’Day USA in 2012, fur­ther sup­ported the fledg­ling la­bel.

“It was al­ways my vi­sion to cre­ate a busi­ness that would be a lux­ury brand,” says Ellery. “I feel like we’re still on that jour­ney, and that there’s a lot ahead, but at the same time I feel re­ally con­tent with the pace and the strat­egy. As a 23-year-old woman when I started out, I didn’t know much about the in­dus­try, and I had no team and no real cap­i­tal, but I knew what I wanted to build from the out­set.”

It’s per­haps the scope of her am­bi­tion that has un­done the de­signer in the past. While the de­signs of Ellery still had an in­nate de­sir­abil­ity in her ear­lier col­lec­tions — the ex­ag­ger­ated pro­por­tions, the ar­chi­tec­tural sil­hou­ettes, the shiny fab­rics — her broader ap­proach was crit­i­cised. Con­struc­tion was an is­sue with some of the gar­ments, as was the abil­ity to edit down her ideas, some of which felt bor­rowed from, or in trib­ute to, Lan­vin’s Al­ber El­baz and Cris­to­bal Ba­len­ci­aga.

But fash­ion moves fast, es­pe­cially when you fol­low the north­ern hemi­sphere cal­en­dar, with four sea­sons a year. Re­flect­ing on those ear­lier col­lec­tions shows how far Ellery has come in a rel­a­tively short time. In­deed, when she showed her spring 2016 col­lec­tion at the Paris art gallery Palais de Tokyo in Septem­ber, Amer­i­can Vogue com­mented: “Ellery has al­ways ex­uded a vast am­bi­tion, but she now seems to have made peace with the idea that the only way to ex­e­cute her am­bi­tions is to dis­ci­pline them, strap them down.” Trade news­pa­per Women’s Wear Daily de­scribed the clothes as “at all times wear­able”.

The idea for Ellery’s col­lec­tion be­gan with Wrapped Coast, a pro­ject by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude com­mis­sioned in 1968 by Kal­dor Pub­lic Art Projects — one of the most sig­nif­i­cant phil­an­thropic bod­ies in the Aus­tralian arts com­mu­nity — in which Lit­tle Bay, in Syd­ney’s south­east, was wrapped in one mil­lion square feet (90,000sqm) of fab­ric and rope. The in­stal­la­tion, which lasted for 10 weeks, was the first large-scale en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­ject by the renowned artist duo and the largest sin­gle art­work ever made, and helped to chal­lenge per­cep­tions about Aus­tralian art with its sculp­tural qual­ity.

Ellery too has chal­lenged in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences’ un­der­stand­ing of what Aus­tralian fash­ion is and can be, for de­spite this par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tion’s ref­er­ence of a home­grown pro­ject, it was dis­tinctly global in its ap­peal. The vo­lu­mi­nous pro­por­tions were still present, but an­chored in a wear­able way that felt ef­fort­lessly mod­ern, such as in wide-legged jump­suits, dou­ble-breasted blaz­ers and over­coats, and cut­away tops, just ris­ing above the waist­line of the pants. Strips of fab­ric ex­tend­ing from seams, and a clever use of drape in some of the lighter-weight pieces, evoked the sculp­tural qual­ity of the Wrapped Coast pro­ject.

The nat­u­ral land­scape is some­thing fa­mil­iar to Ellery. Born in Perth, the de­signer was raised in the re­mote min­ing town of Kar­ratha, where the red plains of the Pil­bara re­gion meet the white shores and aqua­ma­rine wa­ters of the In­dian Ocean. A grow­ing in­ter­est in the far­away world of fash­ion led to a year of de­sign study at the Polytechnic West, a TAFE in Perth, fol­lowed by a sum­mer school il­lus­tra­tion course at Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins, the pres­ti­gious Lon­don school that taught Christo­pher Kane and Alexan­der McQueen.

Fol­low­ing those for­ma­tive cour­ses, nei­ther of which was greatly rooted in the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of ac­tu­ally mak­ing gar­ments, Ellery landed a job as a re­cep­tion­ist for in­de­pen­dent fash­ion ti­tle Russh, climb­ing the ranks of its fash­ion depart­ment as a stylist in­stead of toil­ing with a nee­dle and thread in an ate­lier. It’s an un­con­ven­tional route to be­com­ing a fash­ion de­signer, but it speaks to the unique na­ture of Ellery’s la­bel, which has been led by her own per­sonal taste in fash­ion.

“I get to think about what I want to wear, and be­cause we have a lot of fe­male em­ploy­ees I re­ally en­joy hav­ing team de­sign meet­ings and hear­ing about what they want to wear as well,” she says. “Ellery is about em­pow­er­ing women through de­sign, and so I think be­ing fe­male is one of the brand’s strengths.”

Each sea­son, that de­sign process be­gins with Ellery her­self. While her busi­ness has about 25 full-time staff — “and we’re grow­ing all the time” — she is the only de­signer, sup­ported by a team of pat­tern­mak­ers, sam­ple ma­chin­ists, a graphic de­signer, who over­sees yardage prints and tech­ni­cal fab­ric de­vel­op­ments, and an as­sis­tant.

While the four col­lec­tions a year and the south­ern hemi­sphere sea­son re­ver­sal are chal­lenges, the key to a suc­cess­ful col­lec­tion and a healthy busi­ness is to evolve each sea­son in a cer­tain artis­tic di­rec­tion while hon­our­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of clients. “It’s some­thing that we’re get­ting to un­der­stand through the me­dia and the re­ac­tion of buy­ers each sea­son, and I feel like I have a good han­dle on what peo­ple want from the brand now,” Ellery says. In the sales ap­point­ments fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion of her spring 2016 col­lec­tion, the most pop­u­lar and prof­itable item was a pair of flared pants, a hall­mark of the Ellery la­bel.

“It shows that what peo­ple are com­ing to us for isn’t what they go to other brands for,” she ex­plains. “We can play to that as a strength, be­cause we know they’re not com­ing to us for an ul­tra-fem­i­nine piece, or a big dress. The Ellery girl likes a pair of pants, and a style that has some­thing unique about it but still fits into ev­ery­day life.” That’s some­thing that Ellery is in­tent on de­liv­er­ing. “Peo­ple want pieces that are time­less, and I want to help women build a wardrobe while of­fer­ing them some­thing new, or a lit­tle bit art­ful.”

The de­signer hopes to par­lay that spirit into more cat­e­gories, help­ing to sup­port the growth of her busi­ness. She’s re­luc­tant to speak in too much de­tail about a new line, which she hopes to launch later this year. “New cat­e­gories come with an en­tirely new set of ex­per­tise. I see [grow­ing the cat­e­gories] as some­thing that I’ll de­velop over the long term, even though I’m very im­pa­tient and want to start ev­ery­thing right away.”

Retail, she says, is the next chal­lenge. Al­though she main­tains a small store in Syd­ney’s Padding­ton shop­ping strip, the Ellery is driven by whole­sale ac­counts, with stock­ists to­day in­clud­ing Dover Street Mar­ket, Lane Craw­ford, Open­ing Cer­e­mony and Net-a-Porter. Mov­ing her sales pre­views, and now shows, to Paris has aided in this growth. “From a strate­gic and mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive it’s so im­por­tant to be present on the in­ter­na­tional cal­en­dar, and to me, Paris is all about lux­ury, so that’s where I want to po­si­tion the brand.”

At the heart of ev­ery pro­ject is Ellery’s in­ter­est in the no­tion of lux­ury, some­thing she brings up reg­u­larly in dis­cus­sion. “It all starts with the qual­ity of the tex­tiles you’re us­ing,” she says, adding that her busi­ness sources fab­rics from lead­ing tex­tile mak­ers, im­port­ing them mostly from Italy and Switzer­land. Then there is lux­ury in the way the gar­ment is made. Be­yond her range of eye­wear and can­dles, each Ellery piece is made lo­cally in Syd­ney, af­ford­ing her the chance to over­see the level of pro­duc­tion. “Un­for­tu­nately this can be chal­leng­ing, as Aus­tralia is a young coun­try with very lit­tle nat­u­ral man­u­fac­tur­ing cul­ture, so we have to work hard to achieve the stan­dards we ex­pect,” says Ellery.

She notes, too, the ad­di­tional con­straints of be­ing based in Aus­tralia — los­ing a week ship­ping fab­rics in and an­other week in ship­ping the stock out to stores, cut­ting down the time al­lo­cated to the cre­ative and pro­duc­tion pro­cesses.

Given that she fol­lows a north­ern hemi­sphere sched­ule and spends so much time abroad sell­ing and pro­mot­ing her work, it must be asked why she doesn’t up stumps and move abroad. In fact Ellery stopped over in New York on her way to Paris last year to scope out the real es­tate scene, and at the time of writ­ing she was pre­par­ing to open the doors of the New York and Paris Ellery of­fices. “We strug­gle with time dif­fer­ence be­ing in Syd­ney,” says Ellery, who when trav­el­ling com­mu­ni­cates hourly with her team via What­sApp, the Skype-like soft­ware for iPhones. “To re­ally grow the brand and the busi­ness we need to nur­ture those re­la­tion­ships, so be­ing in LA will al­low us to nur­ture our Amer­i­can cus­tomers and be closer to the Euro­pean time, and I think it has the feel of Syd­ney in a way, so it’s a good meet­ing place.”

All that said, the de­signer is adamant that Ellery will al­ways be an Aus­tralian busi­ness, and her ex­ist­ing staff and stu­dio in Chip­pen­dale, in Syd­ney’s in­ner west, won’t be af­fected by the in­ter­na­tional growth. “We have all of this tech­nol­ogy now — it’s amaz­ing what In­sta­gram can do for sales — which is a great help, but you’ve got to con­tinue to be present wher­ever you want to be suc­cess­ful. If you want to be an ac­tor, you’ve got to be part of that scene in Hol­ly­wood, and just trav­el­ling to Paris four times per year isn’t enough. We need to be more con­sis­tent in our pres­ence. I’m proud of my brand’s ori­gins but I think it’s im­por­tant to have a global mind­set.”

“We know they’re not com­ing to us for an ul­tra-fem­i­nine piece,

or a big dress.”

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