Studio Visit: Actually Existing

Anna and Olivia Nicholas’s Melbourne studio is quiet and minimal, but its surfaces are abundantly covered with crates of leather scraps and stacks of recycled fabrics. “In our eyes it’s got a lot of order, but to others it looks like total mayhem,” says Olivia.

When Broadsheet visits the studio, inside a former hosiery factory in a Brunswick backstreet, Olivia shows us a couch cloaked in a sheet that they recently picked up from the side of the road. “We are anything but specialist upholsterers, [but] we’ll still give it a red-hot go,” she says. 

That’s the philosophy of Actually Existing. The footwear and accessories workshop was established by Anna and Olivia in 2017. It’s founded on a desire to create objects by hand, be they existing objects given another life, or original handcrafted pieces made slowly, to exceptional quality. The Nicholas sisters only make what is necessary, rather than holding onto stock, so they never have unwanted excess.

“Our space is pretty manic,” says Olivia, “because that’s kind of how our minds work.” Sewing machines and wooden shelving orbit a large desk where the pair’s creative process always begins. 

“We play around for days with shapes and forms – mixing textures, materials and playing with construction methods on our machines – seeing how we can manipulate materials,” she says. 

They’ll pull apart the design in order to create a pattern. From there, they sew multiple prototypes and test them for quality and function. Necessary changes are made, and the final sample is constructed. It’s then photographed and uploaded to the Actually Existing online store. 

“We only make another item if someone purchases it, so that only what is ordered is produced,” Olivia says.

The Edit project is the sisters’ creative response to the structural problem of mass production and waste. Each piece in the series is handcrafted from discarded items that they’ve found in hard rubbish or at op shops, or throwaway pieces from friends and family. Some materials are a result of surplus from local manufacturers, including these beautiful Safety Holdall bags made from scrapped industrial webbing no longer fit for its intended use.

Each month Anna and Olivia create a new “Edit” from a found item that would otherwise be destined for landfill. “One of our most popular edits was ‘Edit 7’, the Frico Sandwich Bag, where we attached hand-stitched leather handles that you would find on a high-end handbag to a foil-lined sandwich bag,” Olivia says. 

“People responded really well to our play on a luxury item. Humour and playfulness definitely runs through our work. The fashion and design industry can take itself very seriously, and of course we’re no exception, so we just wanted to lighten the mood and look at another way of doing things.” 

The Edit series was a finalist in the 2019 Premier Design Awards, and the project has allowed Anna and Olivia to forge a new path of experimentation. They are currently working with a materials scientist in London to develop new ideas and concepts from natural materials such as seaweed kelp, but also the human-made, such as concrete. 

“Utilising waste and turning it into items of use has always been our interest,” Olivia says. “Working with science to take this to another level is very exciting for us – the possibilities are endless.”

Prior to Actually Existing, Anna and Olivia studied fashion and graphic design respectively – both at RMIT. For 10 years they worked for different local companies designing footwear, accessories and clothing. “We had a keen interest in footwear and accessories, so we sought out further study to learn how to construct our own,” Olivia says. Both sisters travelled abroad to London and New York to learn shoemaking before returning to Melbourne in 2017. But even before launching their careers, they were privy to the ins and outs of accessories production – “Our parents manufactured accessories in Melbourne for 30 years.” 

Beside a large frosted window, shoe lasts are lined up two by two. “That’s the only thing that’s in order in our space,” Olivia says, laughing. The lasts are designed by Bruce Miller, a Melbourne maker who recently retired but continues to help local shoemakers. For a shoe to fit comfortably, the last must be made correctly. “He has an incredible knowledge about the production of footwear, and we, at least, call him the master of last-making in Australia.”

On the other side of the room is the first sewing machine that Anna and Olivia found when sourcing machinery for Actually Existing (it’s affectionately named Karl). It’s a cylinder-arm, walking-foot sewing machine made by the German company PFAFF and dating back to the 1950s or ’60s. “Karl is perfect for sewing heavy-duty materials, and the cylinder arm allows us to … sew three-dimensional pieces easily, which would be very difficult to do on a flat-bed machine,” Olivia says. 

Beside Karl sits Frieda: a roller-foot, post-bed machine also made by the German company. “It allows you to sew hard-to-reach places – for example, when you’re closing the back heel on a shoe upper,” Olivia says. The post-bed construction enables easy manoeuvring for most shapes and can handle heavy-duty materials like leather or canvas. The machine’s roller foot allows you to get elegant stitches around curves, and to master more intricate details.

Elsewhere in the studio there are multiple manual machines, such as a hand press to apply rivets and studs, a strap cutter to cut down leather pieces, a skiver that thins out edges of material, a sanding and polishing machine (that you’ll often see in boot repair shops), and a huge hydraulic press that weighs 800 kilograms. “It will cut out anything we put in it, from rubber soles to our swing tags. We also use it to do all of our own embossing,” Olivia says. “And, of course, we use many different hand tools to produce our pieces.”

The sisters’ conceptual shoe sketches on Instagram are a chance for them to experiment with materials, shape and form – and to showcase their creativity beyond the studio. “We kind of build stuff with stuff we’ve found around the place – just for the image – for 10 minutes, no more,” Olivia explains. “It’s more or less a creative exercise.” The Tea Candle Sandle melds aluminium, cotton cord and wax; the Sewing Needle Platform is crafted from vintage sewing needles and plastic sewing-needle casing; the Studio Rag Brogues are made of discarded bed sheets; and, fittingly for the current climate, the Our Reality Sandal repurposes a gas mask. 

As for that couch they found on the side of the road, it’s still a work in progress. 

Actually Existing 
3 Thomas St, Brunswick

Written for Broadsheet

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