NO STRANGER TO TAKING RISKS, KYM ELLERY TOOK HER BIGGEST ONE YET WHEN SHE RELOCATED TO THE FASHION CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. STELLAR CATCHES UP WITH THE AUSTRALIAN FASHION DESIGNER AS SHE CONQUERS THE CITY OF LIGHT
As she prepares for the launch of her new eyewear range, Kym Ellery catches up with Stellar in her adopted home of Paris.
Summertime in Paris. A young woman strolls down a street in the trendy Marais district, looking chic in black flares and a jacket with long, ruffled sleeves that tumble down her arm. A photographer follows her and she turns to flash him a mega-watt smile. She stops to chat with a flower vendor in the local language.there’s lightness in her actions – she’s all joie de vivre as she sings to nobody in particular. “Summer is here…”
And so is Kym Ellery. The namesake behind one of Australia’s most successful fashion labels, Ellery moved to France 18 months ago. Her mood, as she prances around her adopted hometown for an exclusive Stellar shoot, seems to indicate she does not regret her decision.
She’s opened a new office, is mastering a new language and even found time to land a French boyfriend. “Considering all of the changes,” she later says as she sits inside her apartment, “I’m actually very settled. I find Paris so vibrant and interesting. At 34, I felt like a challenge.”
Ellery’s new home is predictably well-appointed but modest. A bar cart is stacked with fashion and art books; a copy of Jean-paul Sartre’s Existentialism & Humanism lies on the coffee table. A guitar is perched on the couch and a stack of vinyl is piled near a turntable as the soundtrack from Boogie Nights plays. A rack of clothes is parked in the narrow hallway. It’s all very boho-chic, exactly the kind of rental you would imagine for a rising style star finding their way in one of the world’s fashion capitals.
Since moving, Ellery has had to get her head around permanently working across different time zones and hemispheres. There are five Ellery staff based in Paris and 45 back in Sydney. On top of this, her place is also doubling as a crash pad for various members of her team. There is a makeshift bed in the dining room for a photographer friend visiting from New York. Ellery’s brand manager also recently moved over from Sydney and is another temporary housemate. Ellery admits the adjustment has not been without its challenges.
“I’m on the phone in bed every night until 1am and make sure I wake up early to be available at 8am,” she explains. “Thank God for iphones and technology.”
NINETY-FIVE PER CENT of Ellery’s customer base lives outside Australia, so her move was a strategy to help grow the label. It has not helped that the retail climate in Australia for the past few years has been particularly brutal.
“It’s incredibly sad,” she says. “I believe in the Australian market. I know Australia is a strong market because we sit in the top five to eight countries for Net-a-porter, Matchesfashion and Mytheresa, which are the three biggest online retailers. There is a big Australian customer.”
So Ellery remains fiercely loyal to her Australian base, refusing to move production overseas even if it is more economical. She is also passionate about promoting sustainability in an industry where fast fashion and disposable garments have become the norm.
“Most of our products are still made in Australia. We fly our fabric in from Europe and manufacture locally in Australia, which isn’t easy. You lose a lot of time and money flying fabrics in, but for me it’s important to support the local industry. We’ll do that as long as we possibly can.”
She is also keeping strong ties via her ongoing relationship with Specsavers. Ellery is launching a new range of prescription glasses and sunglasses exclusively to the brand after several styles from her first Specsavers range sold out last year. “They were really overwhelmed with the response, which was obviously a thrill for us,” says Ellery. “I was really impressed and delighted.”
This latest collection is comprised of six new optical frames and four sunglass styles that channel Ellery’s signature architectural lines and bold silhouette, albeit for a more accessible price-point compared to her high-fashion runway pieces. Gemma Ward has been the face of the campaign for each collection and, like Ellery, was raised in Perth before leaving home in an effort to conquer her chosen profession. Ellery calls her “an intelligent woman who I felt was the best person to represent the Ellery Specsavers collection. [And] she’s more than just a model – she’s a beautiful woman who is incredibly accomplished. She’s mother to a beautiful little girl, just a very gentle spirit.”
The respect is mutual. “As a fellow Perth girl, I love seeing one of our own flying so high with her own colours,” Ward tells Stellar. “Kym is a magical being, very enthusiastic with great flair. I think her designs show great precision, but are infused with her fun, infectious attitude. I’ve been so happy to champion her along the way. You go, girl!”
ASK PEOPLE TO describe Ellery and they tend to share the same observations. They remark on her perseverance. They single out her tenacity. They marvel at her work ethic and drive. In moving to Paris, she is somewhat mimicking the move her parents Bruce and Debra made in the ’70s, when they relocated from New Zealand to Western Australia with dreams of building a better life.
Before moving to Perth, Ellery’s father drove trucks for Shell in the remote mining town of Karratha in Australia’s far northwest. Her childhood was not remotely fashionable – she and brother Casey spent much of it playing in red dirt; she would dodge poisonous snakes as she rode her bike. This instilled a kind of self-sufficiency that served her well when she arrived in Sydney at age 20, with no money or contacts, after a brief summerschool stint at Central Saint Martins
“Emma Watson? It’s exciting to see intelligent, beautiful women wearing your clothes”
fashion college in London. Ellery secured a job as the receptionist at Russh magazine while also working as a sales assistant at Scanlan Theodore.
“I worked seven days a week and five nights a week,” she says proudly. “I was working at Russh and at Scanlan Theodore on the weekends. I was doing shifts at a cocktail restaurant and working the door at a nightclub every Sunday night. It was so intense.”
In 2007, at 23, she started her own label. Luck and connections were on her side. Her dad loaned her $5000 to buy fabric. Her publisher at Russh happened to own a textiles business. A pair of sparkly tights she designed caught the eye of a stylist friend, who put them in Vogue.
Four months later her first collection debuted at Australian Fashion Week. In May this year, she came home to attend the event once more – this time at the helm of a 10-year retrospective.
Even she sounds taken aback by what has transpired. “When I started I had all these grand ambitions but didn’t really know how to achieve them,” she says. “But with hard work came success, as well as having the right people in my team. I slowly took my time and perfected my craft in my backyard before taking my next step into Europe.”
There have been hiccups. In 2013 while under contract to Myer, she sold pieces to rival David Jones and her company was sued. The dispute was settled, but Ellery has no regrets. “I think I did the right thing,” she says defiantly, explaining her main issue was the terms of her contract. “Yes, I made a mistake [selling to David Jones] and had bad advice. And we shouldn’t have done what we did. I’m glad we were able to reach a compromise.
“That situation taught me a lot,” she believes. “As a young woman coming up against suits who tell you that you don’t necessarily know the right thing or that you can’t do something… that’s bullsh*t.” Ellery says the dispute was a lesson in how to better stand up for herself.
More recently, her use of fur earned blowback from animal-rights activists including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Ellery pointed out she sourced the products from Finlandbased Saga Furs – because they follow strict government regulations and focus on sustainability – but ultimately made a call to back away from using it altogether.
“I did not want to upset people, regardless of the fact that it was produced ethically,” she says. As of this month, the company no longer uses fur.
Ellery remains one of only three Australian designers – aside from Collette Dinnigan and Martin Grant – to have been invited to show in Paris. Along with her four ready-to-wear collections, each year she puts her name to shoes, jewellery, denim and Specsavers eyewear. She says she “can’t wait to launch bags one day”.
Her clothes have been worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian. “I was over the moon when I saw Chloë Sevigny wearing Ellery,” she says. “Lady Gaga had me on Instagram, Kate Bosworth looked amazing in one of our tops to an event a few weeks ago. Emma Watson? Someone like her is truly inspiring. It’s exciting when you see intelligent, beautiful women wearing your clothes.”
Next on her wish list: new French first lady Brigitte Macron. “Oh, yes! Brigitte Ma-crohn,” she says, adopting an exaggerated French accent. “I would love to dress her. That would be amazing.”
ELLERY WAS AT a bar in Paris five years ago when she met Maxime Sokolinski, a Gucci model and musician who was playing in a band that night. Years later, Sokolinski was looking at Ellery’s social media accounts when he realised she had made the move to Paris. They reconnected, sparks flew and now he is her boyfriend. On the day Stellar visits the Ellery showroom, buyers are viewing the latest collection and Sokolinski – a bohemian, long-haired model straight out of central casting – is playing guitar in the corner.
“It’s a different experience dating a French man,” Ellery says, laughing. “But I’m really enjoying it. He’s a sweetheart and so intelligent. He has an economics degree and reads Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He loves having deep conversations. I got in trouble the other day because I wasn’t ‘present’ when he was trying to tell me something.”
For all the delight Ellery takes in her new surrounds – the buzzing streets, the historic buildings, the riot of shop windows bursting with fashion – she still longs for home. Asked how she thinks she might surpass her latest successes, she retorts: “I don’t think I can.”
But then she grows reflective. “It would be nice to be in nature. As I get older, and with more time spent away from Perth, I realise how much I miss that stuff. It actually is a part of me, because my beautiful parents made sure I spent so much time in nature.
“That is the dream – to be able to enjoy both worlds,” she says. The new Ellery eyewear collection, exclusive to Specsavers, is priced from $199 for two pairs and is available in stores nationwide from August 3.
STYLE MAVEN (from far left) Kym Ellery catches up with Stellar in France; in her Paris showroom; with Gemma Ward; showing at Paris Fashion Week in March.