A Melbourne-Based Made-To-Order Label Has Just Six Garments – Designed To Work Seamlessly With Your Existing Wardrobe

When Covid sent traditional retail into freefall and our need for extensive wardrobe options withered, something was ignited in Courtney McGregor, founder of made-to-order label Shé. “I realised that clothing had become overly complicated,” McGregor says, its breakneck turnover times “driving a constant need for validation”.

Many of us relished the idea of wearing the same clothes on repeat during lockdown; the stress of getting dressed was gone. McGregor set out to capture that feeling with a capsule of classic, flexible designs that allow the label to sidestep the industry’s endless trend-chasing cycles.

Anchored by an eco-conscious brand ethic, Shé garments are made to last. McGregor designs her clothes in her former childhood bedroom – a safe haven and Covid-safe distribution hub through the uncertainty of the pandemic. She then works closely with a Melbourne patternmaker and local seamstresses to realise her made-to-order model.

The local label sources premium dead-stock fabrics from around the world, from Italy to Japan. This end-of-line fabric is discarded from international design houses, and its limited availability ultimately determines the number of units Shé is able to produce. Every Shé garment is numbered, too, allowing McGregor to track the life cycle of the garment.

Capsule one launched earlier this year with just two pieces – the pintuck pant ($329) and ace shirt ($289). Made from a seafoam-coloured satin back crepe, both items have a subtle shine and drape beautifully against the body. Their relaxed look means they can be worn as a set or harmoniously with other items in your wardrobe. The long-line shirt’s exaggerated split cuffs and large side splits mean it can be styled up to five different ways.

Part two of the first capsule collection dropped last month. The new tailored bodice ($289), split-hem pant ($329) and miniskirt ($169) introduce a matte-green texture in a cotton-polyamide blend. Plus, a wrap skirt ($395) – adds a floaty, feminine look. Quantities are extremely limited, with just 12 wrap skirts, 30 bodices, 30 miniskirts, 30 fitted pants and 70 ace shirts and pintuck pants available.

“Shé provides a blank canvas,” says McGregor. “A 25-year-old young professional could be wearing the same outfit as a 60-year-old woman, both unapologetically bringing their own flair to the garment.”

shopshe.com.au

Written for Broadsheet

Studio Visit: Colourful African Wax Fabric Designs With Melbourne Label Ulo

Up the rickety stairs of the Sacred Heart building on the sprawling grounds of Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, you’ll find a tiny studio and retail showroom brimming with colour. “It hits you like a tonne of bricks,” says Ulo founder and designer Dinzi Amobi-Sanderson. “What I’ve tried to do with the showroom is build a space which represents Africa – as if you’re going into the market,” she says.

Rolls of wax fabrics – from Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal – are stacked tall, and homewares such as cushions, lampshades and placemats decorate the space.

“Customers come in and they say, ‘Oh, I like this fabric’ then they turn around and say ‘No, no, this one.’ And that’s what it’s like growing up in Africa and shopping in the market. You just walk around [and] you love everything.”

Amobi-Sanderson was born in London. She moved to Nigeria as a child and lived there until she was nine. She later moved back to the UK to study law. Then, six years ago, she moved to Australia to pursue a career as a lawyer, spending her evenings designing clothes with fabrics her friends and family would send from back home.

“I guess the dream is to be able to showcase all the different textiles in the African region,” Amobi-Sanderson says. Ulo uses African wax prints, also known as Ankara and Dutch wax prints. The colourful cotton cloths are produced with batik-inspired printing (an Indonesian technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to the whole cloth). The result is equal colour intensity on the front and back of each piece.

“A lot of these fabrics carry traditional African stories, and myths and fables are incorporated into the designs,” she says. They’re vibrant, colourful and really, really beautiful to work with. They’re [also] very limited in quantity.”

The designer sources her materials directly from African fabric vendors, who only ever carry very limited quantities of each pattern. “We thought [it] was a bit of a challenge at first because how do you create clothing or collections with one or two pieces of fabric? But it’s actually been a wonderful part of our business.”

Ulo means “home” in Igbo – one of the African dialects spoken in southern Nigeria. The designer says the blue record print symbolises the joy of African communities that love music and celebration. The Fleurs de Mariage print’s name comes from the Ivory Coast; it’s a vibrant depiction of the marriage flower. “Our vendor in Ghana, he actually wore this fabric for his wedding ceremony,” Amobi-Sanderson says. “And for me that was such an I-have-to-have-that-in-my-collection [moment], not only because it’s such a beautiful, vibrant colour, fabric and pattern, but also because it was a way for me to start telling the stories of some of the vendors that we work with in Africa.”

Patterns are carefully considered for each garment. “For example, with a dress you want to use a really big bold pattern because you can showcase that better in the design. [For] pants, you may go for more intimate, subtle, intricate patterns.”

Amobi-Sanderson designs every collection, working alongside a small production team that works on a made-to-order model. “It’s not about a seasonal collection. It’s creating pieces that people are going to wear for years and years to come.”

Since the pandemic began, Ulo’s production has taken place off-site. But the retail space at Abbotsford Convent continues to be the beating heart of the company. “It’s a welcoming space. It’s warm. It’s small. But it’s a good space to start.”

uloaustralia.com
@uloaustralia

Written for Broadsheet

JOANNE MAKAS: AN EMBODIED EXPERIENCE

The ambience of Joanne Makas’ studio is starkly different depending on what she’s working on. “When I am painting, I like listening to music; but when I am drawing, I work in silence and focus on my breath,” the Sydney artist explains.

Joanne, who has a background in fashion, attended art classes at Waverley Woollahra Art School when her children were young, but it quickly turned into much more than a hobby. She became captivated by the paintings of Australian landscape artist Elisabeth Cummings, whom she did a couple of outdoor workshops with, and who ultimately pushed her to go to art school, enrolling at the National Art School, Sydney in 2010 at the age of 40.

“I am interested in how colour has the ability to create bodily sensations, activate feelings or trigger memories,” Joanne says. “Essentially, it is the relationship between the body, time and colour that I am exploring.” She does this through the mediums of painting, drawing and installation.

The artist’s paintings are monochrome; built up through many layers of oil pigment. “Through the ritual of colour mixing I am able to connect to my inner self,” she explains. This process led Joanne to create more conceptual installation works. “I became excited [with] how colour creates its own spatial and temporal dimension when released from the plane,” she says of her installations. “I like to use everyday materials, and paper, creating a virtual reality that traverses between painting, drawing and sculpture.”

This year, Joanne has been expanding on work that emerged from an art residency in September 2018 at New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale, NSW. The work, which includes an installation titled The Forest That Sighs, is inspired by her drive from Sydney to Armidale, along Thunderbolts Way, where she noticed the absence of green in the countryside. “The land was dry. Black Gully Reserve, which is behind the museum, was a daily reminder of the environmental crisis in our country and globally,” she says.

Beginning with a humble painting class, Joanne has explored the full range of her creative potential, and her works are only getting bigger, bolder and more confident.

Feature image: Joanne Makas, The Forest That Sighs. Tissue paper, acrylic and mylar, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Document photography.

Written for Art Edit

JAMES KING: A NOT SO FORGOTTEN LIFE

For Sydney-born artist James King, 2003 was a watershed year. He won the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, organised by the South Australian Museum. “It was the year that changed everything, and I started to believe that painting was my true calling,” he tells.

James’ figurative oil paintings and works on paper, re-contextualise found photographs from the 20th  century. “For many years I’ve been building up an archive of vernacular photography with an emphasis on mid 20th-century images,” he explains. “Some images speak louder than others and they’re the ones I do a small study in watercolour, gouache or ink. If it has legs, I’ll work it up into a painting.”

His latest work focuses on people in isolation, or tightly packed groupings, reflecting the radical shifts in society – particularly in 2020. Assembly depicts blank faces staring up from within a crowded space – a nod to social distancing. The Truthtellers, appears as a school class photo yet cynicism is rampant. The group of young female students hold posters with slogans that address current global issues including “Stop global warming”, “Denial is not policy”, and “Refugees welcome”.

James’ work has often been described as quirky but has lately taken on more dark and humorous connotations. His subjects range from bleak architectural and cloud-filled landscapes, to portraits of people and objects painted on old timber panels, large canvases and hardcover books, whose titles often provoke the direction of the work. While he uses oil on canvas or board, he has recently taken to watercolour, gouache and ink for his preliminary studies. “There’s a level of alchemy and mystery they offer that are so fundamentally different from oils.”

While the undercurrent of unease uniting James’ work may appear to be a product of contemporary life, it is often the found objects and photographs from mid 20th century that inform his subjects. “They have an immediacy and veracity that I have difficulty finding in today’s media,” he says. Taking us back through time, James’ playful reconfiguration of perspective and context brings the past flooding into the present.

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LEONIE NGAHUIA MANSBRIDGE: A NEW FRAME OF MIND

Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Leonie Ngahuia Mansbridge is of Ngāti Maniapoto descent, a tribe based in the Waikato-Waitomo region of New Zealand’s North Island. Leonie wed and moved to Fremantle, Western Australia in the 1970s – where she has lived ever since. “I have always been creative, out of necessity,” she says. “I made all my clothes using one pattern and changing it up with material – adding things like black felt stars on a white mini dress. I didn’t take up art seriously till my late 30s.” Leonie attended Claremont School of Art, followed by a Creative Doctorate at Curtin University in 2018.

Leonie’s recent works seek to explore her identity, using the landscape to connect to her Māori heritage. “When I immerse myself into a landscape that I am familiar with, this sense of belonging feeds into my paintings,” she says.

“I haven’t been back to Aotearoa, New Zealand for a while, so I rely on my collection of photos to activate my memory of place. Māori see the land as a living entity. This relationship and connection ultimately shapes who we are and our existence. Māori have a saying, ‘We are the land, and the land is us.’”

The artist says her exaggerated colours are used to take notice of the land. She uses dots, spots and crosses as pervasive iconography. The cross represents her belonging, and her gold gilt frames “reframe the land,” she says. “I am developing a visual language to engage with the landscape…what my marks hold are intangible in the physical sense, but they allude to a clear and definite system of oblique storytelling.”

The visual artist works with synthetic polymer, anything from house to artist quality paint. “I don’t follow the hierarchy of the Western canon of painting, I live and work on the margins, where everything exciting happens,” she explains. Some works can be done within a week, but most take two to three weeks to complete. “After years as an artist, I work intuitively – tacit knowledge comes into play,” Leonie says. “My studio is organised chaos. Once I’m painting, time just disappears, I come into my own.”

Leonie has exhibited consistently for more than twenty years in Australia and New Zealand. She has received a number of awards, including finalist in the Joondalup community Invitation Art Awards. This year Leonie has been invited to exhibit in the Bangladesh Biennale.

Featured image: Leonie Ngahuia Mansbridge, A Particular Understanding In The Margins. Synthetic polymer, pencil, board in found frame, 130 x 80cm. Courtesy: the artist.

TOBY RAINE: BEYOND ENTERTAINMENT

“There are a few defining moments I can recall that shaped me in terms of realising I was an artist,” Toby Raine tells me.  “One was a scene in Tim Burton’s Batman in which the Joker’s goons are vandalizing paintings in a museum; he prevents them from destroying a gruesome looking Francis Bacon. Bacon would come to be a significant influence for me. 

“The other moment was watching The Exorcist for the first time at the age of nine. I believe this was the first masterpiece I experienced, and it was not even a painting.” Toby says he was obviously too young; shocked but also fascinated by it. And it still serves as a source of inspiration for the Auckland-based artist.  

The artist’s themes tend to focus on entertainment or subgenres, “even superficial things like Ozzy Osbourne doing cocaine or holding a teddy bear,” he says. His work is not derived from any internal convictions, rather he responds to things that visually interest or motivate him, or things that have a sense of nostalgia. 

“I choose my subjects for my entertainment, not for their psychology. I have enough personal anxieties which I do not wish to bring to the meaning behind the work; the work is intended as more of a distraction,” Toby explains. 

The artist works from a studio in the basement of his house. Here he has a number of objects and tools that are typically thickly soiled with a muddy grey paint residue, as is the floor. 

He primarily works from photos, sometimes several at once, then deconstructs them on canvas through gestural applications with large amounts of oil paint. He uses a variety of tools for applying paint including large palette knives, rubber spatulas and different sized brushes. Rags and paper towels are also used for cleaning brushes, spills and things that have not worked on the canvas. 

“I like to have at least thirty canvases ready to go when I embark on any new body of work, these will typically be three different sizes,” he says.

Toby is currently working on a series of portraits of his stepdaughter Irene, as well as some nudes and a smattering of subjects he will always revisit like The ExorcistKings of Leon and Mel Gibson. He is considering addressing some more religious themes as well. “My primary motivation comes from a compulsion to make something better or more surprising than I have previously,” he says. 

His work has featured in several exhibitions and art fairs including Gow Langsford Gallery and Scott Lawrie Gallery in Auckland, Page Galleries, Wellington and James Makin Gallery, Melbourne. He will show with James Makin Gallery for Sydney Contemporary later this year.

Featured image: artist Toby Raine in his studio. Photo: Lyle Adams. Courtesy: the artist.TOBY RAINE: BEYOND ENTERTAINMENT

Written for Art Edit

In a Room Full of Ostentatious Furniture, Melbourne Icon Franco Cozzo Still Looms Largest

“Megalo, megalo, megalo!”

It’s the slogan Italian-Australian Franco Cozzo used to spruik his Baroque-style furniture in low-budget ’80s TV ads. But “megalo”, meaning “large” in Greek, is just as true of the 85-year-old’s charismatic personality. The furniture mogul, who came from Sicily to “Foot-is-cray” in 1956, commands the (show)room with his tongue-in-cheek humour, unmistakable thick accent and heady splash of cologne.

When I arrive at the Footscray showroom, Cozzo’s chatting to another journalist in the mezzanine-level office. He’s been in back-to-back interviews ahead of the world premiere of Palazzo di Cozzo, a documentary by local filmmaker Madeleine Martiniello, slated to screen this month as part of MIFF. The 86-minute film is a touching tale of Cozzo’s work and personal life, simultaneously telling of how immigrant groups made their mark across Melbourne during that time. (“Franco, you’re a movie star!” I say later, in jest. He replies: “How many times I gotta tell you? I am a movie star – with no money.”)

Ahead of our sit-down, his wife Assunta pops into the office to let him know I’ve arrived. Through the window, I watch him tidy his desk, straighten his chair – as well as his tie – and head down the stairs. (But not before spritzing on his signature scent and catching his reflection in the mirror of a dressing table crammed tightly into his office.) When the door swings open, the new furniture smell is surpassed seamlessly by eau de Cozzo.

During the pre-interview photoshoot, Cozzo parades proudly around the showroom. He entertains us with a drum solo on a decorative Roman-style plinth, a dashing rendition of Il Divo’s Grazie Amore Mio, a demonstration of how he’d kick a goal for the Doggies, and a raft of cheeky comments. “Abbiamo finito? (Are we done?)” he asks, followed closely by, “Damma mangiare, che c’ho fame (Let me eat, I’m hungry).”

Over six decades, Cozzo has built an empire – and by now he has a legion of loyal customers and even more loyal fans. There’s a laneway unofficially named after him and a giant mural in his honour. And the selfie requests come in a steady stream. “When the public sees me, shakes my hands or kisses me … I feel very proud,” he tells me. “All of Melbourne is my friend.” “They love you,” I encourage. “Bravo. I love [those] who love me … If you respect me, I will respect you triple.” But despite becoming a household name, Cozzo’s humility is unwavering. “I’m the same man [as the one who] arrived in Australia … I got where I live, I got plenty mangiare [to eat], I’ve got everything I want.”

As for business? It’s quieter now. Cozzo was part of the 1950s post-war wave of mostly Mediterranean migrants, as were his early customers. But now the demographic after his ornate, ostentatious furniture is more varied. Cozzo also says people’s tastes have changed since he first opened in 1960. “Ma intanto cosa possiamo fare? … Si tira avanti (But in the meantime, what can we do? … It goes on),” he says. “If you’re not happy, you’ll be sick.” Dipping in and out of Italian and English, the Melbourne icon takes every opportunity to share words of wisdom with me. I do my best to keep up and take them all in. (Afterwards, I even ask my Italian-speaking mum to sit down with me and listen over the interview recording in case I missed anything.)

“L’educatione è la cosa più bella del mondo (Education is the most beautiful thing in the world),” he says. I understand him but – ironically – it’s at this moment I wish I’d followed through with my plan to take Italian lessons so I could respond eloquently. Instead, I smile and reply in English, the same way I have with my grandparents for years. Cozzo’s passion for education is reflected in his intentions for his grandchildren. When I visit, his grandson (with whom he shares a full name) is helping in the showroom. I ask the elder Cozzo whether he plans to hand the baton onto the younger Cozzo in the future, but he says school is more important than business. “Se non sai leggere non può fare niente (If you can’t read, you can’t do anything).” It’s not a no.

Cozzo’s trilingual advertising (Italian, Greek and English) was an important normaliser for multiculturalism in Melbourne. “[It] really drives people crazy but sticks in your head,” filmmaker Martiniello told Broadsheet in 2018. “It’s just a TV ad but it has a place in the public consciousness.” And she’s right; it’s become engrained in Melbourne’s pop-culture fabric. “The commercial is the life of the business,” he says. But why was the Sicilian-born Cozzo hell-bent on adding Greek to his vernacular? It’s simple, really. Greek-Australians were also prominent in Footscray and Brunswick (where he also has a store) in the ’80s. “To get them you’ve got to give them something, and [so] I learnt a few words,” he says. “Megalo, megalo, megalo. Xepulima sto (clearance sale at) Franco Cozzo.” The words roll off his tongue as if he were a native speaker.

The production of this film has forced Cozzo to reflect on his 65 years in Australia. “È cambiata la vita (life has changed) … I’m getting [older] … I’ve got everything, but I don’t have the age. Nobody can buy the age. I’m older but I’m very happy,” he says.

As the interview is wrapping up I remember to peek over at the dressing table. Bottles of Davidoff Champion and Dior Farenheit take pride of place. Of course. At heart, he’s still that youthful 21-year-old Sicilian guy who arrived in 1956 – just now with the addition of 10 kids, two houses, a couple of thousand Instagram followers and a film in his honour.

Palazzo di Cozzo is slated to premiere on Sunday August 15 at The Comedy Theatre, lockdown permitting.

miff.com.au/palazzo-di-cozzo

Written for Broadsheet

The Cannoli Bar Team Opens 25 Tilba Street, a Quaint Espresso Bar Brimming With Italian Nostalgia

Written for Broadsheet

Entering 25 Tilba Street is like stepping into the photo albums that document my parents’ childhoods. Retro leather dining chairs in a mix of burnt orange, chocolate and beige are tucked neatly under mismatched tables. Brown floral-printed tableware is near identical to what my nonna’s had for years. There’s a bar and dividing wall made of stained chipboard. Pops of greenery. And, by the entrance, a vintage telephone table.

“I have always had a fascination with Italian culture in Australia and I’m a big fan of the pioneers that arrived [here] after the war to create a better life for their family,” owner Carlo Mellini says. “I wanted to recreate that old-fashioned espresso-bar feeling that is unfortunately seen less and less in Melbourne – an Italian oasis in Aberfeldie.”

Mellini also co-owns Cannoli Bar in Avondale Heights, which opened in 2018 and regularly has lines out the door. “They are two different concepts: one is a cannoli bar and one is an espresso bar. One has breakfast, one doesn’t. But they both sell Italian nostalgia,” he says. And if you aren’t keen on lining up at Cannoli Bar, find a small range of cannoli at 25 Tilba Street.   

It’s not all about cannoli, though. 25 Tilba Street has a loyal following for its bruschetta-style breakfasts and coffee by Nomadi Coffee Roasters. “I love Nomadi because they are not large-scale commercial roasters,” Mellini says. “We offer a large variety of coffee from single-origin cold drip to traditional Italian caffettiera.” (Yes, you can order a four-cup Bialetti moka pot, fresh off the stove, to your table.)

The all-day menu centres around bruschetta and features homegrown herbs. Ovens Street Bakery bread comes with toppings such as sauteed wild mushrooms, smoked scamorza and black-truffle oil; fresh cherry tomatoes, melted fior di latte and basil; and sauteed asparagus, smoked salmon, avocado and Meredith goat’s cheese. There’s also house-made granola and the Bricklayer roll with pork-and-fennel sausage, bacon, scamorza, smoky barbeque sauce and a fried egg.

Aside from cannoli, sweets such as cartocci (spiral-shaped Sicilian doughnuts filled with custard and coated with sugar), almond croissants and amaretti are baked onsite daily.

Your experience at 25 Tilba Street will differ based on where you sit. For takeaway or a quick coffee pit stop, park yourself on the milk crates out front and watch locals making their way to the nearby Maribyrnong River. Want to linger a little longer? Pull up at the breakfast bar or in the cosy dining room. And for larger groups, there are a number of picnic tables among tomato plants in the back courtyard.

“The decor is very rustic, industrial, mid-century,” says Mellini of the space he designed himself. “We decided to keep the old red floor from the butcher that used to operate [here] to keep some character.”

25 Tilba Street
25 Tilba Street, Aberfeldie

Hours:
Wed to Fri 6.30am–2pm
Sat & Sun 7am–3pm

instagram.com/25tilbastreet

Australian Puffer Jacket Label Toast Society (Made With Vegan Down) Is Inspired by Tokyo’s Vibrant Street Fashion

Written for Broadsheet

Puffer jackets. They’re practical, sporty, stylish – and best of all they keep you warm. But are you aware of the cruelty often involved with stuffing them? In most cases, the staple jackets are stuffed with down –feathers found closest to a bird’s skin. Feathers are often plucked when the bird is alive, causing skin injuries, until they grow back and can be plucked again.

To combat this, Uniqlo has launched The Down Recycling Project – an effort to recycle down and feathers you already own into new garments. All of the down and feather in this range comes from 620,000 down jackets collected from customers so far. Garments are given new life as winter staples that are both comfortable and kind to the environment.

But Toast Society – an Adelaide-based outerwear label – is going one step further. It uses vegan down to fill its bright, pastel-coloured coats. Vegan down is a cruelty-free alternative to goose or duck feather down. It’s made from 100 per cent polyester and will keep you dry and warm, even in wet conditions.

Toast’s designs are inspired by the fun, rule-breaking street fashion of Tokyo. “We love the playful approach to colour – the layered looks; voluminous bold, statement pieces; and bright colourful make-up,” says Georgie Babyska, who is a co-founder of the label with her sister Alex. Toast also offers cropped cuts, statement collars and jackets with oversized pockets and hoods.

Launching one collection a year, Toast focuses on durable fabrics and designs that won’t date. Garments are designed in Adelaide, but produced in a factory offshore. This year’s Orbit collection is all about colour.

“Yellow, in particular, was a must for us this season,” Alex says. “It’s energising, bright and enlightening. If we can’t always enjoy the outdoors and the sun, we thought, ‘Why not wear it?’” The polyester outer-shell is available in buttery-soft gloss and metallic finishes in colours such as teal, khaki, raspberry, sea mist, cinnamon, ivory and black. They’re water-repellent and wind resistant.

“We wanted to offer more adaptable and seasonless styles,” says Georgie. “The Elara bolero jackets, and Cali hoodies are the perfect transeasonal pieces.” With a cropped silhouette, the Elara bolero can sit above a pair of jeans or add layers to a longline knit dress. And you can unzip the Cali hoodies in the warmer weather to expose your back and shoulders.

And its name? “Toast represents the feeling you get wearing our puffers,” Alex says. “Warm, comforting, a staple. It’s also easy to say, spell, remember – and most importantly – who doesn’t love toast?”

toastsociety.com

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

actuallyexisting.com

Written for Broadsheet