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.
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.”