During our recent week in Sydney for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia, we went for a drink with Kym Ellery, designer and director of high-end womenswear brand, Ellery. Meeting at the EVH offices, Kym soon steered us away from the chaos erupting within, and into the leafy streets of Darlinghurst. After searching for a few minutes for an appropriate place to chat, Kym pointed decisively at a humble pub spilling with locals.
SARAH; I hope this voice recording picks up.
KYM; I sometimes just record people for fun, in places louder than this. And it works.
SARAH; Do you really? So do I. I always feel like a bit of a creep, though.
KYM; Oh, yeah. We went to New York Fashion Week, and we had these guys flown in to make an installation of sound in the space, in a circle. I was like, “I’ve got these really creepy recordings of my friends over the years.” You know, saying things in Paris and in London, some interesting characters, taxi drivers, random shit. It was the funniest thing. They played them out of different speakers on repeat.
SARAH; That’s pretty cool. Did anyone recognize themselves?
KYM; Well, no. None of them were there. I was kind of like, fuck, that’s someone who’s quite famous and she’s revealing shit.
SARAH; Did it mention names, or whatever?
KYM; Exactly. There was one that came on of me going, “it’s fucked up!” At the run-through, I was like, “please, no, let’s scrap that.” My crass, loud voice booming through the speakers. Not cool.
SARAH; Did you make them delete – ?
KYM; Oh, they deleted that one.
SARAH; That’s actually one thing I wanted to ask you. It’s completely jumping to the middle of the interview, but whatever…
SARAH; I suppose there’s a kind of professionalism etiquette for women, for anyone, in a position of power regardless of their respective industry. I personally find it interesting to, I suppose, investigate how different people perceive what they should say, what they shouldn’t say, what they don’t like to reveal. Everyone has a different idea of privacy, where is your line?
KYM; I think it’s boring to refuse to say what you think. Which is why I just always say anything I want.
She smiled ruefully, and then resumed.
KYM; And then I get in trouble. On that note though, I met up with Leandra Medine from Man Repeller in Paris the other month?
SARAH; Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KYM; We’ve Tweeted at each other, and emailed each other over the years, our mutual love for each other.
Kym broke down into another giggle.
KYM; When I met her – because I think she’s the coolest –
SARAH; She is.
KYM; I was so happy to meet her. She was so refined, well-educated, well-spoken, and funny. She could get away with saying, like, “I found this really funny blog on vaginas, where women post ‘selfies’ of their vagina.” If I said something like that around the dinner table in Paris, I’m pretty sure it would come across as not-very-ladylike…
SARAH; I thought she’d be loud and American!
KYM; No, not at all. Afterwards, we were like, “aw, she’s so smart, and cool, and ladylike.” I was like, “I just need to shut the fuck up, not be like blahh all the time!”
Kym waved her hands in the air.
KYM; I realized I have to check myself, and act professionally. We are from a different country though, so maybe it’s… I don’t know. Different.
SARAH; Even still, in Australia, I feel like I have to be somewhat reserved when it comes to swearing for the hell of it or talking about really vulgar shit, for the hell of it…
KYM; I dropped the C-bomb actually, the other night, in front of my mum.
Kym sucked a breath slowly through her teeth, in obvious shame.
KYM; She was horrified. I was so busted. So busted. My dad was there, and he was like “oh, leave her alone”.
After a few moments of inevitable digression, during which we all shared personal anecdotes on the subject, we returned back to the interview.
SARAH; So how was your Fashion Week?
Kym sipped her drink and nodded her head encouragingly as she swallowed.
KYM; We basically made the collection and sold it in Paris to all the international regions. Then when we came home, I decided we should do a show, with two weeks to put together extra pieces. At first I was thinking, it’s going to be super easy because the samples are there already and normally they’re what make it difficult, and cause the all-nighters, but it was pretty full on anyway.
She took a deep breath, and looked around the bar.
KYM; I don’t know, we’ve been doing this a long time – almost six years – which I think is a fair amount of time to know what to expect. I was saying to my friend the other day that this year feels super hard, I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just the energy or the fact that everything’s so driven by email and social media. It takes a lot of extra work.
SARAH; Or the fact that you’re expanding?
KYM; And that. More stuff creates more work, but a different type of work, which is nice. Yeah. I forgot what your question was, sorry.
An apologetic smile ensued.
SARAH; Oh, just Fashion Week.
KYM; That’s right, yeah, I’m really glad I did it. A few things just fell into place, like getting Hanne out here. IMG offered me Hanne Gaby Odiele. I didn’t even read the email! I just vaguely saw Dan, my friend who’s just started IMG Australia, say “hey babe, do you want Hanne?” and I just read the first sentence and wrote back, “fuck yeah!”
Kym’s words broke down into laughter.
KYM; Anyway, I woke up the next day and I thought, “you know what? I’ll fucking make this work!” So I called my publicist, we organized a flight, and voila.
SARAH; She was amazing?
KYM; She was awesome. She opened, and Julia Nobis closed. They’re good friends as well, them and Ruby-Jean Wilson. They were really cute together. It was good, all the other girls were really happy she came.
We all took another sip, somehow in unison.
SARAH; You shoot a lot of your campaigns, right?
KYM; Yeah, I shot Hannah Holman in New York out of necessity because we didn’t have a photographer. I was like, “I’m not losing this amazing girl just because we can’t find a photographer. I’ll hire a camera, do it myself.” So after that – that was my first shoot – I’ve shot a few things for my boyfriend’s brand, for our new brand L’America, so yeah. I always threaten my photographer friends that I don’t need them, that I’ll just shoot it myself!
She giggled, and we all instinctively followed.
SARAH; “Soon I’ll learn make up, and hair, and you’ll all be obsolete! I’ll be a one man band!”
KYM; Yeah! Totally! Like Karl.
We laughed harder and looked to one another in encouragement.
KYM; My ex-boyfriend Darren McDonald is a really amazing photographer. I worked with him and Holly Blake before they were really propelling, and they’re doing such a good job now. Coming from Perth, I always think, I don’t want to come into this industry and pay someone who’s already doing well to do a job, I want to support and nurture up-and-coming people who I think are talented. Even with our staff, I try to hire an intern for the job, instead of advertise for it, just try and work that way.
SARAH; That’s good to hear.
KYM; Darren gets a bit shitty that I asked Holly to shoot Julia, but I asked Holly because I love her, and also because I was shitty at Darren for being an arsehole to me when we used to date. He got so annoyed. He was like…
Kym adopted a low-toned imitation of Darren’s voice.
KYM; “I can’t believe you didn’t get me to shoot Julia, I really love her.”
She dropped the imitation.
KYM; So I said, “well, stop being a dick, and I’ll ask you next time.” So he behaves now.
We shared a giggle.
SARAH; I have to say though, everyone talks about your shows like they’re flawless. Anyone I ask, they say, “oh, yeah, Kym. Her show was perfect, of course.”
KYM; Aw, that’s nice.
SARAH; It’s obvious that you place a huge emphasis on your shows.
KYM; We try to make them something memorable. It can be really challenging, because finding a location is super hard. Casting the girls can be really hard as well.
SARAH; I can imagine.
KYM; This year, I’d been working for over a year on that location.
The Ellery show at this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia was held at the Helenic Club in the heart of Sydney’s inner city.
KYM; It didn’t come easily by any means. They sent through these hardcore legal documents on Friday before the show on Tuesday. For a minute there I was like, “okay, there’s no show everyone!”
She clasped her hands together dramatically, and laughed from beneath the wide brim of her Saint Laurent hat.
SARAH; Let’s do it out of the office, it’ll be fine! Down the EVH hallways.
SARAH; How would you define a successful show, though?
KYM; For me, I focused this year on different things. I focused on making all the clothes look wearable, and still a little bit avant garde. It’s doesn’t reference too much the design development inspiration, which I have been caught up in the past. This year, I worked with Romy Freedman, who’s a stylist.
SARAH; Style Me Romy?
KYM; Yep, Style Me Romy. She used to work for Vogue, she’s been around a long time, and I like her aesthetic. I thought it would be better to work with a woman who understood what women want to wear, and we share a similar goal. Quite different, but where we met in the middle, it worked out.
SARAH; Sound like a good team. So, I would like to know where your career began.
KYM; I was in Perth, at TAFE after high school. I took a year off, I worked in a surf shop, and I worked in bridal during high school. Then I studied part time after that at a place called Swan College, it’s like a TAFE.
SARAH; Was it design that you studied?
KYM; No, pattern-making. I was a bit of a self-taught pattern maker before that, so I learnt the technical way, which I think was super important now that I think back. Then I moved to Sydney, I worked in Scanlan and Theodore for a couple of years, and I’m still very close with the CEO of Scanlan and the owner and designer, Maria and Gary. Shanna, the guy who’s in charge of all the business side, is still one of my mentors. He’s a legend.
Kym fiddled with the damp coaster beneath her glass.
KYM; Then I worked as an intern at Russh. They offered me a job, but I’d booked a flight to England to study at Central St Martins. I was a bit torn. I wasn’t sure whether I should take the opportunity to work at a magazine, or whether I should go do a degree.
She drummed her nails on the timber table.
KYM; I did summer school at St Martins, instead of the four-year degree. Came back, and I thought, “you know what? I’m probably going to learn more working for a magazine than I will doing four years going to uni. I didn’t want to follow the system, and go to uni, get a massive HECS bill, and then start from scratch. I thought I’d learn the industry first, and I think it rewarded me. It meant that all my friends worked in magazines and they all supported what I was doing. I was very lucky.
SARAH; It sounds like it. What advice would you give to a woman starting out in this industry?
KYM; Make sure you want to do it, because it’s such hard work. You really need a strong support network and you have to really want to do it, because it’s one of the most difficult things, I think; to build a brand in an industry that’s such high-risk. Especially right now, with the economy. You’re creating a product, and you’re putting up capital to make that product for people to order, which is a three-month process. People also aren’t very honourable in business, and it can be a real strain from that point of view as well.
SARAH; Would you say that’s a design perspective, or a general business perspective?
KYM; Business perspective, definitely. For design, it’s fun to have creative freedom. That’s a pro. And that’s kind of why I left the magazine, I was over managing other people’s projects. I got to do my own thing a little bit, but I just thought, I want to have something that allows me freedom. For two years, I was working full time at Russh, going home and working through the night on Ellery, then going to work at 9am, going to parties for work, attend everything for the advertisers and blah blah blah. I was really tired.
SARAH; Are you still really tired?
KYM; I’m okay now. I’ve got a good team now.
SARAH; You’re probably used to it, as well?
KYM; A little bit. I’ve applied more boundaries on myself. I want to start a family soon, I’m turning thirty next week, I want to start focusing on bigger things now. Like, Paris, New York, twice a year. The girls from Sass and Bide, and Willow, they’re all mothers. My publicist, Emma. In some of the ways, I see how they have to live, and I think they’ve all got it nailed, and I want to have that too. Like Magdalena Velevska, I don’t know how she does it. She had no staff, and a baby, two babies, I think.
SARAH; That’s insane.
KYM; Totally! She told me she’s been felting on the kitchen floor, with a kid, and I’m like “ahh, that sounds like hell! I want nannies!”
SARAH; And staff, preferably!
KYM; Yes please.
SARAH; Are you a healthy hard worker or an unhealthy one? I tend to find most people fall into one extreme.
KYM; I don’t know. I don’t like exercising. I don’t smoke, but sometimes I do, if I’m stressed. I need coffee. So I don’t know.
SARAH; You mentioned earlier that you eat healthily.
KYM; I like organic food, and smoothies, and all that. I only learned that stuff last year, really, though. I had this relationship that was really fleeting but the one thing I did get out of it was all that. He was very knowledgeable about all that.
SARAH; Who are your female influences?
She drummed her nails once again, looked upwards, and returned back to the table.
KYM; I like Diana Vreeland a lot. I think she was a really incredible human. A hard-arse, which I think is good.
She threw us a coy grin.
KYM; I saw a documentary on her recently, and I liked that she referenced a lot of things other than fashion.
Her tone quickly switched from pensive to animated.
KYM; I took my boyfriend, who’s a surfer. I was like, “come on, you’re coming with me!” Then there was this one part where she says that surfing is the most magnificent thing you could ever do, to be between the sky and the ocean. “Just fabulous!”
SARAH; She won him over?
KYM; Yeah, he got brownie points. Now he’s like, “what’s that quote, baby?” I emailed him the link so he could show all his mates. It was pretty funny.
SARAH; That’s pretty cute.
KYM; I also like Daphne Guinness. For her style. She can, of course, do whatever she wants because she’s an heiress, but I still think it’s pretty cool that she has her own unique point of view. She’s a curator of fashion! You know? She really has a passion for fashion, and she… oh my god, did I just say that?!
Laughter erupted around the table.
SARAH; You definitely just said that.
KYM; Make sure you put an ‘r’ in there! Parshion for farshion.
SARAH; Accent noted.
KYM; Miuccia Prada as well. She’s quite a lady.
SARAH; You recently spent some time in Paris. What did you do there?
KYM; I was there for three weeks and we created a pop-up boutique in the first. We got loads of traffic from the industry, picked up some really great new accounts, and discovered some French fans we didn’t know existed! They couldn’t speak English. They just had photos on their phone of Julia [Nobis] or product. We hired this French shop girl, and kept asking her what they were saying.
SARAH; That’s really cool.
KYM; We had a great time. We’ll definitely go back and do it again in September. Also, we’re doing pre-collections in New York. We did Fashion Week in New York last year because IMG contacted us and approved us for the schedule. My girlfriend was producing it, with Chris Esber, and she wanted me to do it as a group kind of… um… installation. That went really well too…
Thoughts took over her speech for a few seconds, before she shook her head and continued speaking.
KYM; I want to find a balance. Do pre-collection in New York and main collection in Paris, twice a year.
SARAH; Not many people many know about your new brand, L’America. Tell us about that.
KYM; It launched last year. It’s a project that was born from an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I’m not actually the designer, the brand is just part of our group.
KYM; Yeah. I own it, it’s my business, but we’ve got a girl at the moment called Anja, and Sarah, who design. We hire a team to do it and I just oversee the creative aspects: the campaign images, the general feel of the range, to make sure it’s taking the right direction. I like the idea of having a brand that’s more youth-driven and more affordable in price point.
SARAH; Is Ellery more mature?
KYM; Yeah. I mean, not so much our customer, but it’s focused moreso on quality and we ship in the best of everything around the world, using local manufacturing, where we can keep an eye on it. With L’America, it’s a lot quicker. We work out of Hong Kong with production. Yeah.
KYM; I’m looking forward to seeing where we can take that. I just wish I had two of myself!
Kym gestured to an empty seat beside her where the hypothetical second Kym Ellery would likely sit.
KYM; It’s pretty full on. I think it’s got a lot of potential. We just sold it in America and it was really well received.
SARAH; It certainly seems that way, it’s all over social media.
KYM; Oh good!
SARAH; Lauren was saying actually –
KYM; Oh, you know Slater?
Lauren Slater is the brand manager for L’America.
SARAH; Yeah, we met the other day! She was saying she gets bombarded with requests every day for the red jersey sweater.
KYM; Oh my god, I know. I emailed Anja the other day going, “uh, I think we need to order more of these!”
She mimed a typing motion.
KYM; My girlfriend in New York who’s very high up in the hierarchy of fashion, emailed me asking for the fucking sweater! And asking for one for her supermodel friend. I was like, “huh? How did you even find out about L’America?”
SARAH; The power of social media.
KYM; Yeah, I mean, we haven’t even really pushed it a lot. We did a soft launch. I really want to amp it up though. I want to make sure I keep up the creative vision.
SARAH; What’s your main ethos as a designer and as a woman? Are they the same or do they differ?
KYM; Just be honest, is my philosophy. I was brought up that way, but you know when you’re trying to find your way…
SARAH; Also, I suppose, this industry gets blames a lot of the time for being one of the most dishonest ones.
KYM; Yeah, and it definitely is. It’s hard. You’re kind of caught between the glamour and the hard work. I don’t subscribe to the bullshit anymore. The minute someone’s difficult, I just think, “I’m not working with you anymore”. Life’s too short.
KYM; I don’t like that sometimes people don’t recognize talent because it doesn’t have an accompanying CV.
SARAH; You obviously recognized that even when you chose experience over university at the beginning of your career.
KYM; Absolutely. I wanted to see all facets. I worked briefly in PR, in retail obviously, at a magazine, and I was a model when I was a kid and there are still other things I wish I’d done.
SARAH; Like what?
KYM; I never worked with a designer. I didn’t get a degree and I didn’t work with a designer. A lot of it was a bit, kind of, self-taught. Not having a business person around to tell me about budgets and I’d be like, “I’ll have a hundred of those $500 pieces of fabric, thanks!”
Laughter rang behind her words.
KYM; Then I’d be like, “oh, fuck.”
SARAH; It’s all part of it, isn’t it.
KYM; It is, and hopefully it’ll be a bit more easy-going in the future.
SARAH; Speaking of, what does the future hold for Ellery?
KYM; Hopefully a presentation in Paris, that’s what I’m working towards. I’ve had meetings with the head of Paris Fashion Week, to try and secure a slot. If I get it, it’ll be pretty crazy, because Colette Dinnigan is the only other Australian that’s had that. I admire her business a lot, I’ve heard she’s a real hard-arse, but I finally met her the other night. I was like, “hi!”
Kym, hand on hips, offered an exaggerated performance of enthusiasm.
KYM; I said to her, “I’m a huge fan, and I saw a documentary on you once, and I just want to say… well… done.” She kind of didn’t know what to do, I think. She was like, “oh, um, thank you.”
After a few amusing moments, we all sobered up.
KYM; Anyway, what was the point? Oh, Ellery. Yes. It’s all very exciting.
PHOTOGRAPHY; Cale Mason
WORDS; Sarah Scaife