Sophie Holt has taken the reins at Oroton, charged with reviving and reinventing a venerable label that was teetering on the verge of extinction. By Zara Wong.
Sophie Holt has taken the reins at Oroton, charged with reviving and reinventing a venerable label.
Coming to Oroton, Sophie Holt found herself pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t think I would fall in love with the brand as much as I have,” she says with a shy smile, as if she is still bewildered by it. She excitedly pulls me from a meeting room, leading me around to show off the open-plan Oroton offices on Sydney’s North Shore. There’s a design room in the corner where she can most often be found. As she explains, she is still commuting to the Sydney head office from her home in Melbourne until a second office is established in her home town. “So most of the time I come here, I don’t have an office,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m just a little rogue Melbourne off-shoot!”
Holt is part of the new guard charged with revitalising the sleeping giant. Founded over 80 years ago, in 2018 Oroton went from voluntary administration to having new backers who saw value in its history. “It was a slightly surprising decision,” she says, with a hint of mischief in her eyes, of accepting the role at the Australian label. She was enamoured with the goodwill and respect the public has for the brand. “It’s older than so many European houses, and we should be proud of that. It stands for quality and there’s still so much love for the brand. Combining the quality and the history with a modern, new fresh approach is a really nice recipe.”
The injection of the contemporary, of relevance, of what makes our style uniquely Australian – these are subject matters in which Holt is a pre-eminent expert. Although she has long loved fashion, as did her family (her grandmother Zara Holt had the boutique Magg, and she, along with her mother and stepmother, were considered supremely stylish), a career in the industry wasn’t an obvious choice. Her official fashion career started at Sportsgirl, not as a designer but as a merchandiser, at the age of 25, where she successfully launched off-shoot brand Elle B, before working at Witchery, where she started Seed, and then spent 13 years at Country Road. It’s a formidable list of achievements.
Holt resigned from Country Road in 2016, with the aim to freelance and consult, but “I worked out one thing – I don’t like not working full-time!”, she says, chuckling to herself. She came to Oroton as a consultant before assuming the mantle of creative director. “I really love brands and I love creating a concept and vision for the brand and then working with the teams to deliver that to the customer. And so the follow-through is really important for me.”
Like her grandmother, Holt does not cut patterns, sew or design – she hesitates to classify herself strictly as a designer. Instead she throws the credit, the design glory back to her small team. “They are the true designers,” she says proudly. “I think of myself as a mix between a retailer and a designer: I’ve got good designers working for me, so therefore I can step back and concentrate on the overall vision for the brand and look at the marketing, the store designing and the colour palettes, then direct the team.” They are accessories designers by trade – one had previously studied industrial design, bringing an understanding of structure and function to the Oroton accessories. It is her team that has taught her about the specifics of what it takes to make a good handbag – “there’s a focus on functionality”.
As creative director, she has the vision but also the attention to detail to tease out the essence of a brand. “We need to give it a big swing, make it fashion-relevant and commercial,” she says. Although she was aware of Oroton growing up, she did not own any Oroton pieces, “because it wasn’t very relevant and modern to me, but it made me think of quality”. She attests that this makes her unusual, but it means that her conception of what Oroton is and where it should be is unhindered by the heavy burden of the past. “Oroton now needs to be understandable, but relevant.”
For Holt, this translates to a sense of lightness and freshness, so she has introduced non-leather materials such as raffia, cotton drill and canvas, as well as silk scarves, her latest fascination. “I spend my time in the design room with the team, and that’s my main focus. We’re talking about colour, hardware and leather – and I’m always trying to talk about scarves, because I needed to get some colour, fabric and print into Oroton, loosen it up,” says Holt. She has also looked to her grandmother’s store Magg, which was established in the same era as Oroton, for inspiration. “It’s got that same nostalgia and history.”
The day of this interview is precisely the third day of Holt and her team’s foray into apparel. While Oroton has previously experimented with a small selection of knitted tops and cardigans, the Australian brand’s first full line of apparel will launch in 2019, a blank slate for Holt. (“It’s fun slash scary”, she says of the experience.) She is careful to emphasise that this is the very beginning of Oroton’s first steps into clothing, but it is indicative of the greater vision she has for the Australian brand.
Holt admits her past experience has focused on clothing, and she pokes fun at herself about her first day: “When I got here, I got a bit of a shock when there were no clothes on the scene.” As well as appearing within Oroton’s accessories range, the scarves will also serve as inspiration for the apparel collection: Holt is imagining them reworked as garments. “If you understand the history and the DNA of the brand, it’s about creating handwriting for the brand, which I think myself and the design team have started to do with the handbags and the scarves. The next thing is to create a handwriting for the clothing that tells a similar message.”
“I NEEDED TO GET SOME COLOUR, FABRIC AND PRINT INTO OROTON”
And all for the better, Holt has moulded Oroton somewhat to follow in her own personal style and taste. “One of the reasons I came to Oroton is that it fitted me very well. I am quite classic and I like a pretty blouse, but I like a bit of utility,” she says, gesturing to her black trousers, her white broderie anglaise blouse and flat shoes. She always wears flats or very low kitten heels. “I like to be comfortable and on the move! And that suits Oroton, because there’s a strength about the brand, there’s an honesty in the raw materials and that craftsmanship. All of that really speaks to me.”
Sophie Holt wears a Dries Van Noten top, $1,250, and skirt, $1,255, from Poepke. Her own jewellery, worn throughout. Dorateymur shoes, $595, from East 43.
Loewe shirt, $1,335, and Emilio Pucci skirt, $1,645, both from Parlour X.
Glomesh frame bag, $249. Leather tote, $599. Silk scarf, $100.
All pieces by Oroton. Leather-trimmed tote, $399. Gold-plated necklace, $199.