What drew you to become a fashion designer?
I worked in the “corporate” world for many years in various roles within the fashion industry and including for companies such as Australia’s iconic brands; Country Road and the Just Jeans Group and my life started out in the marketing department so I have always wanted my world to be focused on fashion. Later I became the International Supply Chain Manager for Coles Myer and moved away from these links. Ever since I was little I was always dreaming of being a fashion designer, walking down the runway, playing with fabrics in my studio and I spent many hours dreaming of what my world would look like when I grew up. I didn’t dream it involved breeding alpacas and using their fibre to weave one off pieces and selling them in my farm gate shop but after falling love with natural fibres and moving my world away from the fast fashion industry I knew that it was natural fibres and specifically alpaca, that was drawing me towards realizing my dream. The fact that the source of my work is just in the paddock certainly works well
Why was it important to you to offer a sustainable, responsible, Eco fashion line and how do you incorporate ideals such a Zero Waste into your work?
The fact that I work with alpaca means that my work is sustainable, responsible and Eco friendly by its very nature. However I have a very strong belief, and I spread it wherever I can, that to wear natural fibres over synthetics just makes sense, not only to your body and the environment but in the long run to your wallet. We buy too much “stuff” instead of buying a couple of classic pieces each year or every couple of years and just adding to them. Natural fibres will last so you can do just that.
The alpaca animal is known as the “green” animal due to the fact that they are so very light on the environment and their fibre which as a rule is softer, lighter and warmer than wool and can be worn in Summer as well as Winter due to its structure means that in my paddock I have the basis for my Eco fashion running around enjoying the sunshine.
When shearing the alpacas once a year not all the fleece is used for my work due to the fact that as the animals get older their fleece becomes coarser. However I keep some to sell to felting artists and what doesn’t make the cut is sold for garden mulch in my shop or I make it into dog beds. My two dogs have alpaca beds all over the place.
Where do your find inspiration for new work?
Everywhere! Being a farming girl most of my inspiration comes from the Australian countryside, especially where I am in Gippsland Victoria which is generally always green with rolling hills, crisp winter mornings and wonderful sunsets. However a way out graffiti wall in the city of Melbourne will also have me getting out my camera as I love the play of colours and lines. I am also a professional photographer and years ago (too many to remember) when I was studying photography I learnt how to really look at something and when it speaks to me and I have made a connection I used to be able to produce a good image. Now I transfer that thought process to my fashion work
What materials do you work with – organic, reclaimed, etc.?
All natural fibres and primarily this is alpaca. Currently at least 80% of all my work is alpaca, usually more and it is complimented with silks and wool. I am not so much the view of the op shop shopper I think mainly as I can never find anything! But I do have a shop so of course I want to sell my items which I make, so my leaning is more towards the “buy little, buy well and make it last” and if you buy natural fibres which are made well then you are going to be doing this. I love it when someone comes into the shop and says that they need a scarf to go with their favourite jumper they have had for 10 years. Also being natural fibres you don’t have to wash them every five minutes. Hang them out for an airing and you are all good to go.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an sustainable designer?
Placing a dollar value on my time. I have a lot of people come in and see my loom sitting in the shop and fibre everywhere and either say ‘my grandma does that’ or the one that really gets me fired up is “oh you can’t charge for doing craft, people won’t pay it” People are pretty surprised when I respond with “yes you can and I do”. However it is wonderful when a customer comes who totally appreciates your work and is delighted to walk out the door with a Nickelby Design original.
Time to do produce the work is another challenge. Because of what I do I am not in a position to outsource as each weave is original, it is not following a pattern and it is my expression so to be able to produce enough of the work, charge the appropriate price that ensures I can stop for breakfast and have enough money to pay the mortgage and still find time to look after the farm and the animals is certainly a challenge.
How do you help customers understand the higher cost of sustainable garments when they are so inundated with sweat shop-produced cheap merchandise?
This is a difficult one and a very frustrating one. Firstly when a customer tells me they are cold and they have about 4 layers of clothing on I tell them that with alpaca they only have to wear one layer so it would be cheaper in the long run and they would look slimmer! It takes time and I think for your own sanity you have to accept that not everyone is going to ‘get it’ however I find that I am half way there when people actually touch an alpaca garment and they feel how soft it is and when I say it doesn’t scratch either I usually have their attention as memories of when they were children and their mums put a scratchy old woolen jumper on them still seems to send shivers up their spine.
I just keep going with the line I mentioned above about buy less and buying better and the impact on the environment and their bodies but I am lucky that I work with alpaca because once a customer touches an alpaca garment and they can afford it, it is sold. If I go out with friends I am often patted as everyone just wants to feel how soft my clothing is. Well that is what they tell me anyway!
What can we look forward to seeing on the runway at Eco Fashion Week Australia 2018?
Lots of colour, structured skirts, tops and dresses. Nothing terrible flowing and I am throwing in some hats as well. I weave SAORI style so out there and different but still very much street wear but the wearer has to want to stand out and not be a wall flower
How do you incorporate sustainable living in other areas of your life?
I am currently in the process of building my house which is comprising of three yurts and they are joined by two ‘pods’ and it is totally off grid. Solar, wood stove, tank water the works and I can’t wait for it to be finished. Due to the fact that I am trying to sell sustainable fashion it is taking longer than I would like!
I make sure that when I am purchasing anything for the business, the farm or for living that I am buying the best quality I can afford, that preferably it is made in Australia so it has travelled as short a distance as possible to get to me and I repair things wherever I can. Betty, my trusty farm tractor, is an old Massey Ferguson and I just love her and never want to trade her in for a newer model and of course do the usual composting and waste management which means my bins are only put out for collection about every five weeks.
Anything else you would like readers to know?
Now in my early 50’s, I live life as if I am in my 20’s and totally believe you are never too old to chase your dreams and if you put your mind to it you can achieve anything. I also live in a shed with my two dogs; Paddington and Archie. I must get that house built!
I have sat on numerous boards and been board chairman’s and I am a past recipient of the Victorian Rural Woman of the Year way back in 2011 which still sees me on the speaking circuit today.
I have run my tourism business; Nickelby At Darnum, for 10 years now on my farm and I am looking for the next adventure and am really hoping that being part of Eco Fashion Week Australia is going to a great launching pad for that to happen.