THEHOUSE THAT JAC+ JACK BUILT
NEIGHBOURS, FRIENDS AND BUSINESS PARTNERS JACQUELINE HUNT AND LISA DEMPSEY HAVE BUILT A BRAND AROUND CASUAL LUXURY KNITWEAR. THEY TELL US WHAT IT TAKES TO LOOK SO EFFORTLESS
The late summer sun is streaming through the large windows of Jac + Jack’s light and airy converted warehouse space in Sydney’s Surry Hills, where co-founder Jacqueline Hunt is talking about her inspiration for the latest collection. Seventeen thousand kilometres away, Hunt’s business partner, Lisa “Jack” Dempsey, is in wintry London and “freezing [her] butt off” with not enough of the Australian luxury brand’s trademark cashmere jumpers. “I got an emergency phone call from Jack [for a rescue package],” recalls Hunt: “Send lots of cashmere and send it now.”
The reason Dempsey is freezing in London is that, 11 years after they began their luxury knitwear business, Jac + Jack has just opened their first international store, at London’s Ham Yard Hotel. She is making the most of her lack of preparedness for the London cold.
“It’s a good learning experience,” she says. “You think about what might be required [for the store], sitting at a desk in another country where it is 30C, compared to freezing your butt off here and thinking, hang on a second, this is not going to work. I am going to need layers, fine close to the body layers, rather than a big chunky knit with a big puffy jacket over the top, walking around looking like a Michelin man.’’
It is the fifth store for Jac + Jack, with two stores in Melbourne and two in Sydney, as well as being stocked in David Jones around the country. The label has also moved beyond knitwear and womenswear, and now stocks bottoms (much to the relief of those customers who kept harassing the pair for something to wear below their prized cashmere jumpers and shirts) as well as venturing into menswear. Over the past decade, the label has become synonymous with pared back, casual, effortless luxury, with a focus on the most beautiful fabrics and considered design.
“It looks like someone has just picked up something off the floor and not given it much thought. That you have taken no work to look incredibly chic,” says Hunt, when quizzed on what the term “effortless” actually means to her as a designer. “Reality is that it doesn’t really happen. ‘Effortless’ is that everything has actually been considered by us and I have spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about it, sourcing it, designing it, fitting it.’’
The effortless look is achieved through good fit, beautiful colours and the highest quality fabrics. It is, according to Hunt, about the “little details” and the small decisions she makes that gives the label a “bit of an edge”. She grabs one of her new season shirts as an example, pointing to the extra wash of the Italian cotton, or a tiny collar or the decision to make the stitching tighter, which gives the shirt a more crumpled feel. “They are really subtle nuances but they make a huge difference,” Hunt explains. “And people discover it slowly. They say ‘I love that, it looks amazing’ and they put it on and ‘oh, I really love this’ and then if they buy it and put it in their wardrobe, quite often I get feedback that ‘oh my god, I wore it all season because it just worked’.’’
For Dempsey, effortless is about being understated, relaxed and timeless. A piece from Jac + Jack can go with other clothes in your wardrobe and you can pull it out at any time, even if it has been worn across many seasons.
“It doesn’t have to wear you, you can wear it and it will feel amazing,’’ she says. “Effortless, to me, is not having to think too much about it but knowing you can rely on it. You shouldn’t have to put much thought it into. It’s like wearing a great white t-shirt and pair of jeans.”
Jac + Jack’s strong ethos on using the best quality fabrics from around the world can be traced back to Hunt’s training as a fashion designer. Her first job straight out of university in Melbourne was in New Delhi, working for a fashion production house, sourcing fabrics from around the region. India was a bit of a culture shock for a girl who grew up in regional Victoria.
“I remember flying into Delhi and quickly grabbing the inflight magazine for the world map and going, ahhhh … there is India,” she says. “But it was just amazing and it taught me how to be really resourceful and gave me a real appreciation for a culture that is very different from ours but also has a huge history of artisan textile creativity. I think that was really the start of my love affair with fabric, with technique, quality and workmanship.”
Hunt spent five years travelling around India working with the artisans on techniques like block printing, embroidery and tie-dye. She would take samples back to the capital to be evaluated. “There was a very sophisticated, chic, older designer/buyer that would fly in every four weeks,” Hunt recalls of one of her first bosses. “She would sit there and go ‘no, yes, no’, and I used to be in awe of her. She was this very sophisticated lady.”
A designer job at JAG beckoned and then one at Marcs. It was there that is she met Dempsey, who was a buyer and brand manager. Originally from New Zealand, Dempsey took a very different path into fashion, bypassing university. She moved to Sydney when she was just 18 and got a job in a clothing store. “I started off as store manager, then buyer, the brand manager, I really just worked my way up the ladder,” she says. “I always loved fashion, but rather than being behind the scenes, I am very much front of house. I love working in that environment, with customers. But I am also passionate about fabrics and yarns as well.”
She and Hunt became close friends and colleagues, travelling around the world together for work. This is where their label had its genesis — even its name, when Marcs founder Mark Keighery nicknamed Dempsey “Jack” after the famous 1920s American boxer with that surname. “There was a lot of ‘Jac and Jack’ when he was yelling out and looking for Jac and me,’’ Dempsey says.
During their travels for Marcs they noticed a gap in the Australian market for luxury knitwear. “We were inspired by beautiful knitwear brands overseas [and we thought] why shouldn’t we be able to offer that in Australia?” says Dempsey. “We did so many world trips together, so eventually after a few years, we started talking about what our own label would look like,” adds Hunt. “We both have a similar aesthetic and felt there was no one really doing the quality knitwear we wanted to do.”
They worked on a business plan for a year before resigning from Marcs and launching a 20-piece collection of knitwear and t-shirts in 1994. Hunt was in charge of design, fabrics and manufacturing and Dempsey looked after the sales, retail and marketing.
“We just wanted to create a quality label that was easy to wear and that people would fall in love with, and make something that was seasonless,” says Hunt. “We were really fortunate, we got into the right doors at the right time because we were doing something different. At the time, it was all embellishment and t-shirts with a lot of treatment so we were doing this minimalist thing and it hadn’t really been done in a major way.”
The label has grown and expanded beyond the original focus on knitwear, but slowly enough for Hunt and Dempsey to feel they had some control over its direction. It took a few years for Jac + Jack to get into David Jones (a key goal) and the pair did not open a standalone retail store until their sixth year of operation.
“It’s evolved really nicely,” says Hunt. “The opening of London has come at the right time for our business, 11 years in. It’s a small store, but strategically [very important]. We have our four stores in Australia, we have our online store and our next idea was to get this great little store in one of the international cities of the world.”
The duo were open to trying New York or LA, but an “opportunity presented itself” at the new Ham Yard development in Soho, a purpose-built hotel with 13 retail stores. “This site came up fortuitously,” says Dempsey on the phone from London, where she has been “working like a demon” since January. “We were over here showing for Net-a-Porter, we were staying at the Ham Yard and saw what they were doing ... We were invited to go in as the last remaining store.”
Designed by Sydney interiors architect George Livissianis (who also designed the layout for Jac + Jack’s Australian stores), the London store will stock signature shirts and cashmere jumpers all year round to cater for travellers and hotel guests. “It’s really exciting,” says Hunt of making the leap overseas. “It doesn’t feel too overwhelming. It is not like we are opening on Bond Street, a 1000sqm store. It feels small and working with the hotel and their clients, our range has a real travel, seasonless quality about it.”
And after more than a decade together, the pair, like their clothes, seem to have an effortless quality to relationship. It doesn’t look like hard work. They are best friends, live in the same street in Bondi, work together and yet still see each other socially. Apparently there has ever only been one fight — over something Hunt described as “ridiculous”. Dempsey adds that they have a lot of respect for each other.
“We are endlessly chatting and it even surprises me that we still have stuff to talk about,” admits Hunt, laughing. “The business has been such a bonding experience. It is such a shared journey. At times it’s really challenging, other times it’s really euphoric if something goes really well. I couldn’t do it on my own. It would be weird and lonely and not fun!”
“EFFORTLESS, TO ME, IS NOT HAVING TO THINK TOOMUCHABOUTIT BUTKNOWINGYOU
CAN RELY ON IT”
Lisa ‘Jack’ Dempsey, left, and Jacqueline ‘Jac’ Hunt