ME: Tell me about your fashion business in terms of product choice. What drew you to start a clothing label?
MEL: I’ve worked in the fashion industry for a long time as a designer, and I really started to feel like mass-produced clothing had a lack of soul to it. I felt like I could see it on the hanger.
I’d design a beautiful proto, and go through all the sampling stages to sign off the product to a high standard before production, thinking that’s how it’ll look in-store. But then, when you go into store, and see that it hasn’t been treated with the care and respect that’s gone into making it exist, you’re left thinking……is that it.
I just felt my experience in working with mass produced clothing became uncomfortable. I started to feel like, what’s the point of doing this when I’m not proud anymore.
ME: I’ve been through similar feelings. Did you give yourself a break before starting your label?
MEL: Yeah, I had about a six month break. But I knew when I was working in industry, that I had to give it one last go, or get out altogether. I decided I wanted to give it a go on my own terms and see if I could make a success of my own label or otherwise, it was time to do something else.
ME: What drew you to the type of product you do, and the name?
MEL: In starting this, I just decided to do what I want, and focus on product that makes me happy. When you’re in industry you’re always designing for someone else, you have to keep that client in mind, but to make it enjoyable I have to connect with the product I was designing. So, I’m doing exactly what I want.
I’m designing what I want to wear and seeing if that resonates with the market. For me, I love sport and fashion and femininity. I love clothes that are for more than just one purpose. I love to mix it up and wear a sporty pant, with a beautiful feminine top. So, I’m aiming to produce modern clothing that’s more versatile; feminine meets sporty.
I think too, there’s a greater proportion of the population wanting to connect with a more mindful & conscious approach to what they buy and how they buy it. And that extends to other parts of the life-cycle of a product too, be it with design or production. I needed to feel meaning and connection again with the clothes if I was going to feel proud of what I was working on.
ME: Now that you’re designing on your own terms, what do you love about your business?
MEL: I love the creative process. But in saying that, I get very anxious before I start it. And I go through the doubting questions of ‘What am I doing?’ or ‘Should I be doing this?’ But, when I get there, I know I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s just the starting that’s a challenge because I know how badly I want it to work.
Once I start drawing, and printing things off, finding the right bases and colours, I start to feel better. I get all my fabrics together, as well as my own prints, which I design myself and put it altogether and play. I add things in, I pull things out, I move them around, and then I start to see something that clicks. That moment just makes me so happy.
ME: I’m always fascinated to know if the phrase ‘10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’ is true in business. How often do you get to enjoy the creativity?
MEL: In working for yourself the opportunity for the creative process is much lower than when you’re working as a designer for a larger business. So in my case, this phrase is definitely true, because you’re looking after everything.
But in spite of that, I still love most of the other parts. I particularly love connecting with the customers, whether it’s online or with my wholesalers. People are really generous with their feedback. I love taking on board what they say, and I value their opinions. I get a buzz if something sells really well.
Of course, there’s parts I don’t like. Such as chasing the money and debts, or faults and mistakes in manufacturing, which inevitably happen no matter how many safe guards you put in place.
I had one particular fault that really did make me question what I was doing by manufacturing in Australia. I was asking myself ‘if the duty of care isn’t here then I can’t manufacture in Australia’. The accountability for errors when producing in Australia isn’t as clear cut as it is in dealing with China. And yes, it could happen anywhere, but it had me asking questions around responsibility in the making process. I got through it and it was eventually resolved, but it was really tough.
ME: In looking at the making of your clothes, do you think design informs the production technique or is it the other way around, where the technique informs the design?
MEL: My designs are limited in their complexity because I make locally in Melbourne. And I probably didn’t appreciate until now, how much they are limited. I didn’t know prior to starting, we can’t make clothing with those techniques anymore.
So, for me, my technique definitely informs my design. It dictates what I can and can’t do. I can’t do shirring, smocking or pleating, because the local makers have lost all of those machines. The machinery was sold to China when their offshore production started to boom in the late 80’s/ 90’s.
So, I focus on clean, simple construction using really good fabrics instead. For example, I’ve got these beautiful woollen pants for Winter, and I’m just loving the feel of the fabric. And even though the construction is very simple, the joy of working with a fabric like this is heaven. I think a simple make, that’s well made, is still very attractive.
ME: So do you feel strongly about maintaining your production locally?
MEL: Yes, it’s interesting you should ask. One of my friends, who’s also been in the industry for years asked me, “How do you feel about the restrictions in production limiting your creativity?” I have to say, seeing what’s happening in the world of fashion, and watching the runway shows as soon as they come out – I do feel an element of Fomo. I really would love to do x, y or z, and I can’t.
So, to date, everything has been made here and I consider that ‘Made in Melbourne’ is what’s attractive about my label. I love having the connection with the makers. But if I need a particular technique or a beautifully embroidered panel done – I might have to look further afield. That’s the reality now because we don’t have those capabilities in Australia anymore. It’s a bit of a dilemma for me, but it’s not on my radar for the immediate future.
If I was to do that though, I would declare to any buyer that the core range is made in Melbourne, and only the smaller highlight pieces are made offshore. And I’d also want to ensure my offshore production was ethical.
I do want to support the makers here. And if there is a turn-around, the factories will invest in the technology and machinery again. But it takes more than just me trying to do this.
ME: With fabric being key to your product then, how has that influenced the fabric suppliers you work with?
MEL: There are no locally made fabrics in Australia. All the fabrics are imported, and I mostly import directly, so as to keep the price down.
I’m sourcing silk directly and printing it offshore. I did try printing locally, and they did a beautiful job, but it was just too expensive. So the fabric side of things is difficult.
Surprisingly I’ve found some fabrics from France, where they still weave it themselves in small volumes. It’s beautiful quality, and amazingly good value for the price. They seem to have looked after the industries in Europe, which is so nice.
ME: Moving onto the brand as your customer would see it, what’s the response been in the marketplace?
MEL: It’s still really small, but I do think that some of the people buying it, are doing so because it’s made here. It’s all delivered fully pressed, in individual polybags, and straight away the stores love it. They can see it’s been handled with care.
And the ‘Made in Melbourne’ is resonating. I think people get a buzz from this, and think to themselves, ‘Wow are they still doing that here’?
I think that a country that makes nothing, is a dangerous position to be in. We can’t all be in the service industry, it doesn’t absorb enough people into the workforce. And every new wave of immigration can often find employment doing something with their hands, if they can’t speak the language.
If people can contribute through using their hands, it can provide a sense of purpose and an income. Making things makes people happy. It’s an innate thing, whether it’s cooking, baking, gardening or building. Most people benefit from nurturing something creatively. Human beings need that.
ME: Looking ahead, what’s next for your label this year?
MEL: Right now I’m on the journey of cementing the hand writing of the designs. I’m onto my fourth range, with only two having been released at retail. We want to grow it slowly and organically and be in the right stores. We have an agent now, and she also stocks other Made in Australia brands –so it’s a good alignment.
I feel like I’m happier with each new season, and I can see where I’m going. I feel good about some of the feedback I’ve had, and I feel good about it overall, but it’s just so much work. More than I thought it would be.
If I can continue to create on my own terms, and still resonate with the market, then I’m happy. Oh, and it’d be nice to draw some kind of wage soon too, rather than everything going back into the business.
Le Stripe can be found online and through independent boutiques.
To know more on the Founder and Designer of Le Stripe – here’s 3 Things with Melanie Clements
What was the first piece of significant clothing you bought with your own money?
The first piece of significant clothing I bought for myself was when I was a student at RMIT. A new shop on Chapel Street had opened (called Scanlan & Theodore) and I remember being wowed by the clever cuts, colour scheme and designer feel. At that time in Melbourne (25 years ago or so) there wasn’t much choice and independent designer labels were not common like they are today. I bought a pale sky blue cotton shirt with the most beautiful details like tiny self covered buttons and very deep cuffs with a pointy collar. I thought it was amazing….so beautifully made. Back then, it was all Australian Made.
When you buy clothing for yourself, who do you shop with when it’s not your own product?
I love unstructured clothes which move easily and feel good on. This Summer I have loved Lee Mathews and Ulla Johnson….both feel easy, feminine and have lots of cotton in their ranges which I love. I have also bought from another Made In Australia label by Catherine Murphy. We were at uni together and I think it’s interesting we’ve both arrived at the ‘same place’ after working in mass produced clothing in recent years. I really admire what she’s doing as I know how hard it is.
What’s one thing people might not know about you?
After leaving school I had a stint at nursing – I lasted 5 weeks and dropped out. It definitely wasn’t me….
Thank you Mel. I’ve loved being able to share your story.