Kym Ellery: Inside the Designer’s Studio

by Mitchel Oakley Smith
Posted: October 26, 2015

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One of Australia’s most internationally respected designers, Kym Ellery has found new ways of doing business. In Paris, she recently presented her spring 2016 collection. 

Ellery explains how she manages a global business from one of the most isolated countries in the world. In today’s globalised fashion industry, the romantic notion of the designer as a studio-bound artistic hero is no more. Kym Ellery, the founder and designer behind the eponymous Australian label, may be officially based in Sydney, but – in truth – she’s rarely in Australia these days.

In early October, Ellery became only the third Australian designer to show at Paris Fashion Week on the official schedule of the Chambre Syndicale, France’s governing fashion body. (Collette Dinnigan was the first, followed by Martin Grant.)

Before that, she was in Beijing, China for a series of special events and trunk shows at one of her prominent new retailers, Lane Crawford. Later in 2015, she’ll open satellite offices in Los Angeles and New York to help service her growing business in the United States.

How does her long-distance business work?

“WhatsApp,” says Ellery plainly, nominating the mobile messaging service as central to her business today. “My team and I communicate through it all day and all night, so wherever I am in the world I wake up to a hundred messages and try to deal with them in real-time. It’s been an interesting transition, and, yes, it’s hard, but it’s the way it has to go when there’s such a high demand for travel, and with the company becoming more global, we have to build processes that support that.”

That’s not to say that when Ellery is abroad that the local design studio rests. In the inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale, some 25 full-time staff are busily at work on between five and six collections that the brand produces each year, in addition to an ongoing eyewear collaboration with Graz and significant seasonal photographic campaigns.

When Ellery was recently travelling in Asia to promote her business, her local team had the new collection (spring 2016, which was to be shown in Paris a fortnight later) sent to her hotel via courier, where she was able to make tweaks to the fit and finish of the samples. From there, the garments were transported back to her sample machinists, and then met Ellery at the airport in Paris, ready to be fitted on models prior to the recent show at contemporary art museum Palais de Tokyo.

Setting up shop all over the world

Ellery says that managing a global business from Australia, one of furthest countries from the fashion capitals of Paris or New York, isn’t easy.

“It’s possible, definitely, but I don’t think it’s the best way to do it or that it’s easy, but it can be done,” she says. “It’s like being in a role in a Hollywood film, you’ve got to be in Los Angeles and be seen to be part of that local scene of the field you want to excel (in). Even being in Paris four times a year isn’t enough, but because you want to support everywhere you sell and have a presence, you have to pop in consistently.

“From a strategic marketing point of view it’s imperative to be present on the international [fashion week] calendar, and I’ve always wanted to show in Paris. We’re all about luxury, we want to empower women with quality design, and Paris has that history. Beyond that, it’s something I’ve personally wanted for a long time,” says Ellery of showing her wares in Paris, noting the gratification that comes with the hard work of sitting on a schedule alongside Chanel and Louis Vuitton.

Who’s who at Ellery?

While Ellery is the lead creative of her business, she is supported on the ground in Sydney by a design assistant, patternmaker, graphic designer, two sample machinists (managing the receiving and cutting of patterns and dealing with makers) and a team of makers; the numbers fluctuate with seasonal demand.

“The most important element of the design studio is that everyone understands me and what Ellery is,” says the designer. “Because we have such a good relationship, it just works – I can be overseas and everything still ticks along.”

Trans-seasonal and transcontinental

Being so global in presence brings with it the challenges for Ellery of catering to the dual seasonality of both northern and southern hemispheres. Ellery follows the fashion seasons of the European capitals, and has found that sales in her local boutique in Paddington have increased since adopting the strategy.

“I’ve noticed that Australians buy season-appropriately. Pre-fall, our most wintry collection, drops in May so there are coats when it starts to get cold. Europe and America aren’t so interested in that concept, as they tend to pre-plan their wardrobes.” In any case, Ellery’s aesthetic is more trans-seasonal than season-specific.

“We think of our customer as global, knowing that she travels a lot. I think that’s the case with the industry today – it’s a global mentality.”

Despite that global approach, Ellery’s origins are still very much Australian, including the production of each individual garment. Beyond her eyewear collection, which is manufactured in Hong Kong, every piece is cut, sewn and finished locally using fabrics sourced from around the world, particularly Italy and Japan.

Why it pays to be Australian-made

Debate rages about the challenges for Australian designers manufacturing locally, due to cheaper wages in emerging economies and rapidly developing technology, but Ellery points out: “There are challenges no matter where you do it, whether that’s speed or cost or quality or whatever it might be. Running a supply chain is really difficult anywhere.”

Ellery loses a week shipping fabric to Australia and another week in shipping her garments abroad, but streamlining processes has allowed the designer to deliver stock on time, something she believes is vital to building successful long-term relationships with stockists.

“We work really hard on meeting those deadlines, and it pays off,” she says. Ellery is now stocked by respected international boutiques and online stores including MyTheresa, Net-A-Porter, MatchesFashion, Moda Operandi and Dover Street Market (UK and US).

Experience unlimited

Interestingly, Ellery hasn’t had years of training in a design studio. She completed a certificate of fashion design in her home city of Perth, Western Australia, as well as summer school studying fashion illustration at London’s renowned Central Saint Martins College. Her prior industry experience was as a market editor at Russh magazine and, following that, as a freelance stylist.

This creative spirit gives Ellery’s label its unique point of view in a crowded global market. She designs collections for herself, imbuing each garment with an authenticity often lacking in the fast-moving industry. Ellery’s signature is bold, architectural silhouettes – bell sleeves, wide-legged flares and oversized, deconstructed tailoring – and high quality fabrics, such as silk and wool blends.

“She still likes her clothes to take up lots of space, but she found lots of ways in this collection to control her volumes, or concentrate them into small, significant gestures,” read a review by American Vogue of her latest collection. “Ellery is a textile obsessive, and she developed some outstanding ones this season.”

Her independence has found her fans around the world, with regular clients including celebrities Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Miranda Kerr and Lorde.

The last word

It seems that Ellery has carved a glamorous lifestyle, globetrotting and making friends with famous actresses and musicians. But the designer is under no allusions about success.

“It can be incredibly rewarding, absolutely, but it’s also bloody hard work. If you can push through the exhaustion and the challenges and stay focused then I don’t see any reason why an Australian designer can’t become an international brand.”

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Mitchel Oakley Smith

Mitchell Oakley Smith

is a global-roaming journalist, editor, author and curator. He has written for Architectural Digest, ARTAND, Art Monthly, Belle, CNN, GQ, Harper's Bazaar, Monument, The Australian, Wish and Vogue Living, and edits and publishes quarterly men's journal Manuscript. He is the author of three books, including Art / Fashion in the 21st Century, which has to date been published in three languages.

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