Emma and Richard Jarman’s men’s label Commas, with a name denoting meaningful pause, is upping the ante for resortwear – and women are won over too. By Alice Birrell.
Emma and Richard Jarman’s men’s label Commas is upping the ante for resortwear.
I’m laughing,” says Emma Jarman, one half of local label Commas, seated in the brand’s Sydney studio, recalling a memory from its beginnings. “Because, to give you a picture, we were in Florence and we had Bergdorf Goodman coming in and Mr. Porter coming in – all of these stores – and we genuinely had no idea what we were doing. They were asking, ‘And how much is this?’ And we’d say, ‘We’ll get back to you about that.’” Richard Jarman, partner in life and work with Emma and Commas’s creative director, nods in agreement. “We didn’t have a line sheet; we didn’t know our numbers. We really didn’t have our heads around anything.”
They were at Pitti Uomo in 2017, the twice-yearly showcase of men’s fashion, only a year after the brand’s launch. Although officially a men’s fashion label, Commas has attracted a loyal female clientele through its clean-lined unisex camp-collar shirting and linen pants in chalky natural tones from the start. When Woolmark selected them to represent the country as part of an Australian showcase back then, the brand, and the couple’s partnership, were new. “I was dating him for six months in his showroom and thinking, “I don’t even know what fabric this is,’” says Emma, who is now head of communications and wife to Richard.
They had to learn fast, as Damien Paul, head of menswear for international e-retailer MatchesFashion, divined the brand’s potential immediately. Paul called Matches’s then owners Ruth and Tom Chapman and told them he’d never seen anything like Commas’s laid-back but sophisticated brand of Australian resortwear and swimwear and that they had to be their first stockists. His support set the wheels turning, fast. “We went out to dinner with him and chatted everything through.” It all seemed too good to be true, something Richard feared when, having a picnic on Valentine’s Day at Bronte Beach, a call came in from the major retailer. “I was panicking, thinking: ‘Oh, something’s gone wrong. This is terrible. It’s all over.’” It was another Matches buyer. She wanted more stock straightaway; it had been selling so well. “I said, ‘How quick do you need it?’ She said, ‘As soon as you can.’”
More European-based stockists followed before expanding into Canada and the Middle East, forming an enviable roll call of retailers including MyTheresa, SSense and Harvey Nichols. It has culminated in a momentous last 18 months: Commas was selected to show on the official Milan Fashion Week schedule (digitally, owing to Covid) and just months into 2021, picked up Australia’s National Designer Award and Honourable Mention for Sustainability.
After selling well-formed breezy clothes embodying an Australian coastal pace to the world, the couple is now working a bigger foothold back home. Commas will hold its first Australian Fashion Week show as this issue goes to print, backing up a sell-out capsule collection with Byron Bay hotel Raes on Wategos last August.
Along with hard work, a bittersweet kismet has been acting upon the label. As the pandemic rages on, the idea of the name – Commas, a byword for a pause, breaking for breath – captures both the switch-off brought on by holidays, and, unintentionally, the state of inertia many have been plunged into. The circuit breaker of Covid-19 triggered this period of introspection in which fashion is examining its own flaws, a factor that has worked in the couple’s favour, among others. “Australian travel just peaked, and people were looking to support local, whether it was restaurants, hotels, brands. I feel like Who Made My Clothes started to boom, that movement of people wanting to see [where clothes were made], and we’ve made back here since day one,” reflects Richard. “It highlighted all these other things we’d never spoken about, like sustainability.”
That includes swimwear made from upcycled polyamide, with a five-year repair warranty, a recycling program, and that the designs – minimalist painter’s shirts, louche lounge shorts, fuss-free robes for poolside or out to dinner – are versatile and timeless, with superfluous details stripped out. “We’re the brand that does two considered collections a year. We’re really classic. We don’t do avant-garde fashion and it’s not about performance in that way, it’s more about a feeling,” says Emma. Linen is sourced from Italian mills and cotton from Japan. Commas’s keepsake prints, from abstract patterns of wine bottles, gestural painterly patterns and hand-sketched ionic columns, are commissioned in-house.
Production in Australia came about, Richard admits, from a practical standpoint first. As a student of property development, unsatisfied with a lack of creative stimuli, he gravitated towards architecture and fashion (see aforementioned Greek columns), eventually taking his work in property with him out to garment factories, where he could sit and learn about fashion firsthand. “We tried everyone who had a good reputation in terms of makers. We’ve been with [ours] almost since the beginning. So it’s been really cool to grow with them.”
The rise and reign of comfort dressing can’t be discounted in Commas’s growth, either – the label doubled in size last year. Embodying the brand themselves, the Jarmans have strong ties to the ocean and consider it their muse. “I lived down in Cronulla. Emma lived on the North Coast,” Richard says of their childhoods. “Both our parents live in the water.” Emma’s father teaches marine biology, living near the Great Barrier Reef. Now, before work, the couple swim at sunrise together. A coastal lifestyle “definitely motivates us,” she says.
Not that Commas pieces are limited to a beach setting. “Remember when we saw that girl in Paris wearing one of the silk shirts out to a club?” Richard prompts. “That’s the great thing about Instagram,” says Emma. “Your customers tag you and you can see where they are, what they’re doing. You see it in such different contexts, it’s amazing.”
The new lookbook has been shot on a woman for the first time, a nod to the label’s universal appeal. Orders come now from both women’s and men’s retailers for the pieces which, in the main, can be considered unisex. There’s currently no women’s swimwear though, something asked after by many, including Emma. “It’s not something we could do overnight, but we’d definitely consider it in the future,” says Richard. “Except that’s the piece that’s missing because I wear head-to-toe Commas!” says Emma.
While Richard usually mines holidays together for inspiration – from Italy to Spain, where they got engaged – highlighting European inflections and influences like The Talented Mr. Ripley, (both the 1960 and 1999 film adaptations), that’s now not possible. It’s another reason why the new autumn/winter ’21 collection captures a reflective mood. Richard asked himself: “If you got your chance to travel tomorrow to anywhere in the world, what would you want to do? And I feel like now no one wants this itinerary where you’re chopping and changing each day and you’ve got a race to be in another place. You want to try and understand a culture, you want to be there.” Earthy hues, a paisley print in tobacco tones and a Japanese jacquard are the result, less about Instagram moments, than the richness that comes from experiencing a place, perhaps agenda-less, or completely off-grid.
Instead, the pair will next travel to Broome for a break. Judging by what being anchored at home has given them in a short space of time, it will no doubt be a fruitful experience for the brand. “It looks so incredible and I feel like Australia is one of the most inspiring places in the world. It’s just not neglecting that I guess, and diving back into it,” says Richard. And no doubt they’ll make an even bigger splash upon their return.
“We do two considered collections a year. We don’t do avant-garde fashion and it’s not about performance in that way, it’s more about a feeling”