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