BAGS OF STYLE

There’s no stop­ping Ana Maria Es­co­bar, gen­eral manager and cre­ative direc­tor of the en­dur­ing Aus­tralian brand Oro­ton

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - News - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT PHOTOGRAPHY NICK CUB­BIN

If you tip out the con­tents of Ana Maria Es­co­bar’s hand­bag on to a ta­ble, you will find her wal­let, keys, phone, sketch books and a lit­tle plas­tic di­nosaur. The cre­ative direc­tor and gen­eral manager of Oro­ton is proof you can tell a lot about a woman by what’s in her hand­bag. It’s just that Es­co­bar hap­pens to have de­signed hers. “It is some­thing about them, it’s the way you put them next to you or what you keep in them, it’s an amaz­ing lit­tle space that you have with you all the time. You have sto­ries there,’’ Es­co­bar, 37, tells WISH. “I know it is su­per cheesy but [the say­ing] that you can de­fine a per­son through the con­tents of their bag is true be­cause I am sure if I go through the con­tents of my bag, there is a di­nosaur some­where. There is al­ways some­thing there that is go­ing to talk about you.”

That di­nosaur is a favourite toy of her two-year-old son, Emilio, whom she and her hus­band An­dres have nick­named “the dic­ta­tor” (he is a typ­i­cal tod­dler) and pro­vides a lot of laugh­ter in their Syd­ney home. But the pres­ence of that plas­tic toy has more to say about Es­co­bar, who was born in Australia but grew up in South Amer­ica: she is one hell of a fighter. Not one to give up eas­ily, or ever, ac­tu­ally. She went through eight rounds of IVF (af­ter four at­tempts at other fer­til­ity treat­ment failed) be­fore she got preg­nant. Not for the faint­hearted.

“I fought for this baby for so long,’’ she says. “It was in­sane. Only now I get what I went through be­cause [at the time] you can­not think about it. When they used to call me [to say I was not preg­nant], I would think ‘ok, at least they didn’t call me to say I had can­cer, I am still alive, life is okay’. I would cry for a lit­tle bit and then I was fine. It was hard. It was tough.”

This de­ter­mi­na­tion gives you a small in­sight into how Es­co­bar has climbed to the top at the Aus­tralian ac­ces­sories la­bel in her 30s. Such at­tributes would also come in handy in this cur­rent re­tail en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially with the ASX-listed Oro­ton mak­ing the brave move to “el­e­vate the brand” into the luxury mar­ket by elim­i­nat­ing dis­count­ing, re­fur­bish­ing stores and hir­ing Aus­tralian actress Rose Byrne as their am­bas­sador. Shares re­cently took a hit partly as a re­sult of this long-term strat­egy but Oro­tonGroup chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark New­man be­lieves it will reap the benefits in time. “We are get­ting good trac­tion,” he told share­hold­ers in March.

For Es­co­bar, po­si­tion­ing Oro­ton as a true luxury brand was all about go­ing back to the com­pany’s roots and em­brac­ing its very Aus­tralian his­tory, rather than shy­ing away from that as it had in the past. She says one of the most in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ences when re­launch­ing the brand was the dis­cus­sions she had with her ar­chi­tects about the new flag­ship stores (the first was launched at Syd­ney’s Queen Vic­to­ria Build­ing). “It was al­most like go­ing to a fash­ion psy­chol­o­gist,” she says. “All of a sud­den we had to go from zero and talk about con­cepts and what it [the brand] re­ally means. Australia was some­thing that came out quite a lot … and I kept say­ing I was re­ally frus­trated be­cause I don’t know how to de­fine Aus­tralian luxury, how do you talk about Aus­tralian luxury? The ar­chi­tect turned around and said to me, look, you are the only brand that has been around for 75 years, so draw on that her­itage and draw from who you are as a brand and then de­fine it your­self.”

Founded in Syd­ney in 1938 by Boyd Levy, Oro­ton be­gan as an im­porter of luxury Euro­pean fab­rics for the fledg­ing Aus­tralian fash­ion in­dus­try be­fore branch­ing out into leather goods. In the 1950s, the com­pany saw po­ten­tial in a metal­lic industrial mesh dis­cov­ered at a Ger­man safety-glove fac­tory. They re­leased a make-up com­pact in the mesh and it was a huge hit. Evening bags and purses soon fol­lowed (a limited edi­tion mesh bag was re­leased to co­in­cide with the open­ing of the Syd­ney Opera House in 1973). The bags be­came a sym­bol of the la­bel’s “re­laxed glam­our” which is ex­actly how Es­co­bar likes to de­fine Aus­tralian luxury as well as Oro­ton it­self.

“We know the glam­our of New York and that is go­ing to the theatre or a mu­seum, Australia is a re­laxed glam­our

“THE AR­CHI­TECT SAID, YOU ARE THE ONLY BRAND THAT HAS BEEN AROUND FOR 75 YEARS, SO DRAW ON THAT HER­ITAGE”

of a week­end or a lunch-time. It’s a glam­our in which you have al­ready gone to the beach in the morn­ing be­fore meet­ing peo­ple,’’ she says. “It is all th­ese things that de­fine glam­our in a very dif­fer­ent way, and that is very much at the core and soul of the brand.”

It is also, she says, about re­claim­ing the his­tory of Oro­ton, which for a long time was “not spo­ken about be­cause Australia has a young his­tory and is a young na­tion” com­pared with the ma­jor fash­ion houses in Europe and Amer­ica. This means pro­mot­ing the “1938” bag, made to cel­e­brate Oro­ton’s found­ing year, and re­dis­cov­er­ing the la­bel’s long­stand­ing con­nec­tion to Aus­tralian women. “There is a lot of her­itage and a lot of story,” she says. “When I speak to some­one about Oro­ton, they would say ‘I know Oro­ton, my mum had Oro­ton, my grand­mother had Oro­ton’. They had their own lit­tle nos­tal­gic sto­ries so we drew from that.”

Es­co­bar’s own his­tory with the brand started when she got a job as a sales as­sis­tant while study­ing fash­ion de­sign at the Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Syd­ney. Es­co­bar had al­ready stud­ied industrial de­sign in her home coun­try of Colom­bia af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school at just 16. “In South Amer­ica, it is all about be­ing a doc­tor or a lawyer, but I have a re­ally big fam­ily and one of my fam­ily mem­bers was an industrial designer,’’ she says. “So it was a choice be­tween an industrial designer and a den­tist.”

For­tu­nately for Oro­ton, Es­co­bar de­cided fix­ing teeth was not for her. “The method of an industrial designer is very dif­fer­ent from a fash­ion designer. You think about things in a very dif­fer­ent way,’’ she says. “You are very much look­ing at er­gonomics and me­chan­ics.” When she fin­ished her de­gree at just 20, Es­co­bar’s mother sug­gested she do a Masters at an Aus­tralian uni­ver­sity, so she stud­ied fash­ion de­sign in the coun­try of her birth. “Study­ing here was amaz­ing be­cause I was able to un­der­stand Aus­tralian cus­tomers and how it ac­tu­ally works, “she says. “It was a fan­tas­tic thing to do, it was one of my best de­ci­sions.”

Es­co­bar be­came as­sis­tant designer at Oro­ton once she had grad­u­ated. She left the la­bel for two years be­fore be­ing lured back as head designer and has since worked her way up to cre­ative direc­tor and gen­eral manager. “Ac­ces­sories are the best com­bi­na­tion of industrial de­sign and fash­ion de­sign be­cause they are al­most ob­jects of fash­ion, so I still have the kick of work­ing with three-di­men­sional el­e­ments, with the metal and buck­les, but then the soft­ness of the leather and ma­te­ri­als. And I think bags are a spe­cial thing and that is why I love designing them. As easy as they look, ev­ery de­tail from stitch­ing to the lining, there are all th­ese el­e­ments to think about that are so unique.”

Es­co­bar says she “draws in­spi­ra­tion from ev­ery­where” and loves trav­el­ling to places that are go­ing through change whether it be in art, fash­ion, events or ar­chi­tec­ture. “Right now Ja­pan is go­ing through that,” she says, and she is head­ing to Tokyo for the next col­lec­tion she is work­ing on, au­tumn-win­ter 2016. Her son, whose spirit an­i­mal lives some­where in that hand­bag (for the record, a black Jour­ney Tote), will also be with her.

“There is a Dis­ney­land there,’’ she says, laugh­ing. “So we can go to Dis­ney.”

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