Credit: Supplied courtesy of Specsavers and via @kittycallaghan
In one corner of a showroom in the first arrondissement of Paris sits Maxime Sokolinski, a composer with pre-Raphaelite curls channelling ‘endless summer’ vibes on a Gibson Les Paul. In another sits an exquisite mid-century brass (at a guess) bar cart procured in hindsight after a trip to Italy and from which, for 10 days last July, Kym Ellery served her guests Aperol Spritz.
It’s the Australian designer’s preferred apéritif to serve the international buyers and journalists who have come to the showroom for a closer look at her latest wares – the footwear collection seemingly propagated from clippings of Brancusi sculptures – and new permutations on the recurring signatures that have seen Ellery’s brand of womenswear design become just that: a brand built on billowing flares; unmistakable bell, ruched and leg-of-mutton sleeves; impeccable tailoring and riffs on natty shirting of the kind you’d be wise to invest in now.
And while Ellery is yet to master the Les Paul, it’s harder to deny that she isn’t coming close to mastering those riffs on classic tailoring that are speaking to a great deal of around the world.
“Seeing [people have] emotional reactions to pieces in the showroom in Paris – it’s so rewarding to see buyers become breathless when something comes out on the model,” says Ellery, now 33-years-old and ten years into her career as one of Australia’s most successful exports. As she swipes through the photos of the recent press showings on her phone’s camera roll, she describes how her definition of success has changed now that she has achieved at such a young age many of the milestones that would constitute success for a designer at much later stages in their career.
“The relationships we get to build and the opportunities we have to make friends all over the world who share a common language in their love of fashion – all different countries, religions aside. It’s funny, [the showroom] is a place where we all appreciate the same thing no matter how or where we’re brought up. I always find that really beautiful and interesting.”
An innate love of fashion presented itself early on in a young Ellery, who recalls seeing her mother – now an art teacher who has made ceramic buttons for Ellery’s mannish, architectural coats and accessories in the past – standing out in the crowd at a ballet recital thanks to her “orange, screen-printed dress with pill-shaped jade green polka dots” as being her earliest personal connection with fashion. And then there’s the even earlier story that involves a timid three-year-old Kym, prone to quietly sucking her thumb and being well-behaved, throwing her first ever tantrum on being denied a “white frilly skirt with red polka dots” at a Karratha strip mall. “It was the first time she had ever seen me have an opinion on anything,” recalls Ellery. “She was in such shock she just bought the skirt and I wore it all the time. She still has it.”
Credit: (Clockwise from top) @maxsokolinski, @kymellery and supplied courtesy of Specsavers
Years later, when she was eight-years-old and living in Geraldton, Western Australia, Ellery and her mother nearly drowned while swimming in a strong current.
The experience was all it took for Debra Ellery to acquiesce to her daughter’s repeated requests that she be allowed to learn to sew, despite being what was considered too young at the time. A purple and white skirt and vest twin set soon followed, as did variously successful encounters with teenage fashion competitions at high school in Perth (“It was just the highlight of my year”) where the nascent designer competed for glory across three categories: casual, evening and fantasy.
Unsurprisingly, she took home a prize in the evening category and parlayed her strong interest in art, cultivated while living in the world’s most remote city, into the first of her creations to be shown in a museum setting.
“One of the dresses I made in Year 10 was accepted into the Art Gallery of WA as part of an exhibition. I made it out of paper, and painted Botticelli’s The birth of Venus on the front,” Ellery remembers fondly. “Then I made a top that one of the girls was wearing in another Botticelli painting, which was hand dyed. I actually think that was a really good one, even in retrospect.”
Last year, the Perth-born designer was unanimously granted entry into a more prestigious institution: the rarefied ranks of French fashion with an admission to the Chambre Syndicale by The Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the governing body of French fashion. Prior to that milestone, Ellery had shown off-schedule in Paris for four seasons; in October 2015, she made her official move to Paris Fashion Week’s official program, making her the third Australian designer after Collette Dinnigan and Martin Grant to be granted that same honour. Suffice to say, this is no small feat.
The admission interview took place in January. In front of “all the CEOs of all the big brands”, Ellery, the girl who on moving to Sydney at 19-years-old and didn’t know who Cristobal “Balenciaga was, or that Chanel was spelled with one ‘N’”, presented her vision for her eponymous label. In lieu of a runway, the designer presented “a lot of print outs for my little presentation. The funny thing was, while they appreciated that, what they really loved was talking about was the business side of things: figures, turnover and growth percentages and all these things that made them [say], ‘Wow, well done. Is it cheap to produce in Australia?’ And I was like, ‘Actually no.’ That [the company] is still 100% owned by me is something they find really impressive to see, the growth of something that has no investors.”
Both Sophie Duruflé, the CEO of Isabel Marant, and the CEO and co-founder of Leonard, Daniel Tribouillard, offered to support Ellery’s application in front of a panel that also included “the CEOs of Dior, and Céline and Kenzo and Barbara Bui and Sonia Rykiel, just all these iconic brands that I could only dream to be included amongst”. On leaving the room, the powers that be took a vote that guaranteed Ellery entry into the elite pantheon of an industry that only ten years earlier she had decided to enter while working alone on January 3 in an empty office at Russh in 2007.
She celebrated, of course, with champagne.
Credit: (Clockwise from top) @kymellery, @kittycallaghan, @kymellery and @kittycallaghan
Seven months later, her admission finally confirmed, Ellery was back in Australia as part of the “back and forth and around” liminal period between applying for and receiving a visa that will allow her to set up a proper studio in Paris to connect with her studio in Chippendale, from where the designer and a team of 33 sample everything the label produces except for the shoes (made in Italy), the denim (made in Turkey) and the furs (Paris, naturally).
Except for those signature sunglasses that she makes in collaboration with one of her best friends Graz Mulcahy, which have found favour with fans like Chloë Sevigny, the eyewear has been made in collaboration with Australian retailer Specsavers, with whom Ellery has partnered on the release of a collection of 14 optical glasses and six prescription sunglasses. It’s a first for the designer and her label – a complete ophthalmic collection – and something she considered “a good opportunity to think about a more diverse customer for the Ellery brand”. An accompanying campaign was shot by Darren McDonald and stars Gemma Ward, who made her local runway comeback at Ellery’s Spring 2015 show and whom Ellery considers to be a model representative of the “accomplished, intelligent woman” who has come of age with the brand, and alongside its designer – growing pains and all.
Credit: @kymellery and supplied courtesy of Specsavers
I ask Ellery what she thinks she has had to sacrifice, if anything, to be where she is today wearing elliptical gold-rimmed spectacles and a boxy lambskin silk-lined leather jacket of her own design named ‘the Hemingway’, sipping an Aperol Spritz. Not missing a beat, she replies, “My personal life.”
“There are lots of things that you don’t realise at the time are sacrifices. My youth – my twenties are gone. I pretty much had my head in a laptop, or was crying over cutting fabric. When I turned 30, and Myer was suing me at the time, I had my birthday in my lawyer’s office literally at midnight and was in the Supreme Court the next day. I was like, ‘This was a low point’, but it has only ever been awesome since. It has definitely paid off.
“I loved getting sued, I love every mistake we’ve ever made because you never make it twice. You’re a fool if you do.”
Throughout those challenges – high profile disputes over exclusivity agreements settled out of court in 2013 amongst them – it’s to her parents that Kym Ellery still looks to for support, especially her Perth-based father Bruce.
Once “a truck driver in the 80s for Shell”, her father was the first benefactor of the business, despite having started his own business concurrently “so it’s not like he had the spare money. He’s a very humble man [and] he has been so supportive.” Now, Ellery says, the two talk on the phone about the respective challenges that running a business inevitably presents – be it in couture or concrete polishing.
What becomes apparent when talking to Ellery is just how passionate she is about both the creativity and the logistics of her fast-growing business, a duality she has clearly inherited from both her mother and father respectively. Throughout the remainder our brief exchange, the designer touches on everything from the impact of Brexit on British fashion; the logistics of the increasingly ubiquitous ‘see now, buy now’ model of runway and retail; the very real effects of global events like Ramadan and terrorism on the microcosm of her Paris showroom; the importance and responsibilities of managing your back of house, which sees her reminding her contemporaries like Christopher Esber to pay your “tax, super, PAYG, GST”; and the challenge that all designers now face to produce more collections each year, invoking Vetements’ and Balenciaga’s designer Demna Gvasalia’s recent comments that designers are simply humans who, like you, tire easily.
Despite those unenviable impediments, she hopes too that one day Ellery the label and the name can become something that a new generation will want to inherit.
“It’s funny because I chose my name and I didn’t really realise at the time that that’s a very personal thing, and it’s very intimate. But I would hope that my children are interested in the company, or that there will be people that can have it go on. Maybe they won’t be. I really look up to people like Miuccia Prada, who has built this amazing company that gives back to the arts so heavily and who, both creatively and in a business sense, is very inspirational and has achieved that in their own lifetime.
“There’s no hurry either, but we’ll see.”
Tile and cover image: @kymellery via Instagram