It seems that Lee Mathews was always right. Twenty years ago, when fashion famed the trendy-trashy ilk of Paris-Hilton-types, Mathews was following an altogether different ideal. Having cut her teeth in both high fashion and magazine editorial the Northern-Ireland born Sydneysider found an accidental niche. Unable to find the clothes she wanted to wear, Mathews began crafting her own. She was uninterested in flash-in-the-pan haute trend, she wanted pieces that suited her life, her environment, her day-to-day. Turns out she wasn’t alone. This quest for a premium Australian lifestyle uniform, one that looked and felt superior, burst open when her friends and colleagues began to ask for pieces as well.
So, the concept was serendipitous, then? “It was never really a concept, the whole thing was an accident!” Mathews tells me a couple of weeks before her fashion week show. An accident of fate that now boasts two decades of premium resort collections, multiple stand-alone stores and a cult following here and overseas. Whether or not a she had a sartorial crystal ball all those years ago to tell her the track she was embarking on was good and clear, Mathews sure picked the gravitation to non-seasonal forever-pieces. There has never been a more important time to embrace slow fashion – the buzzy, yet exceptionally sensical movement that sees designers refining capsule collections rather than churning out multitudes of stock simply as a response to hefty consumerism.
So, on Wednesday morning, the Australian fashion world celebrated Mathews and her impressive anniversary. In a raw hanger at Sydney’s Carriageworks, the set saw a simple sheer botanical curtain float above the exposed cement floor. It was to be a fashion retrospective, of the most modern nature.
“It’s 20 years for us this year so I wanted to do something that was a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a combination of Natalia, myself and a print collaboration with (artist) Christina Zimpel who I worked with years ago. We had to make room for everyone’s ideas – which sounded like an easy thing to do at the beginning but it’s proved to be much more complicated than I anticipated (laughs). I guess we wanted to all bring something. Natalia is the true modernist and she’s embraced the sort of archival aesthetic my business has always had. It has been a really interesting mix.”
Last year Mathews brought on co-creative director Natalia Grzybowski (a former designer for Lover, Josh Goot and Alice McCall) to massage the modernity of the brand. A masterful stroke, and one that requires a strong, ego-free founder. Grzybowski’s modern eye is bringing an artistic nouveau to its wanderlust foundations. A wanderlust that has become an understated, conscientious staple of Australian fashion. Any textile-appreciating, sartorially-savvy woman is without a doubt a Mathews fan. In fact, so dedicated are her customers that many shop her creations exclusively, season after season. Is this pressure (and pleasure) one she needs to keep top of mind?
“Yes. Absolutely. I don’t want to stray too far from the concept. It’s that idea of being able to wear lovely things in natural fibres, in nice colours, all the things that are hard to find. There have been times we’ve strayed a little too far…which becomes the determining factor. We have to ask ourselves, does it work, would we wear it, does it sit well with other pieces, do we love it? We have an office vote and then if everyone likes then we go ahead, but if some are a bit “ugh I don’t know about that”…well, then it’s a fight to the death! (laughs)”
She (and Natalia) are achieving what many other labels can’t seem to – one that transcends age, trend and season. I know 22-year-olds who wear their cherished balloon-sleeve dresses to weddings and parties and fashion shows. But I also know 30 and 40-something mums who rotate a Mathews utility uniform, investing in the trousers and the organic tees and the trenches. Then there’s the well-dressed, intrepid Baby Boomers who are known to nab one of everything each season.
It’s not just the styling, the concept and the pretty shapes that echo here, the true testament is the unsurpassed quality of her fabrication and the delectable precision of her construction. Up close, these garments are perfectly orchestrated pieces of textile art. And with Lee Mathews, this is what we come for.
Today, at her show, we are treated to a kind of Lee Mathews best-of. In celebration, she has re-established some of her favourite cuts, revisited archive pieces and even dusted off some original prints. For fans like me, the result is exceptionally gratifying. One after the other, ensembles of structured quilted A-line skirts, of raw-edged shirting, of printed bubble dresses, of candy-striped blouses, of pleated silk maxis and flak-pocketed industrial basics form a strident march proving why Mathews is, to put it banally, such a staple. But it’s not just the styling, the concept and the pretty shapes that echo here, the true testament is the unsurpassed quality of her fabrication and the delectable precision of her construction. Up close, there is nothing sample-esque about these garments, they are perfectly orchestrated pieces of textile art. It’s the ruched panel appliques, the gathered silk hems, the perfectly stacked ruffles, the exposed twill binding and the varying opacities of layered white silks and crisp cottons. With Lee Mathews, this is what we come for.
“We really went back through our own archives, designs and what we wanted to re-love. It’s hyper-rustic and hyper-modern. So, there’s a kind of clash. I asked Christina to take some of the old prints and do her interpretation of them. She’s re-painted some prints from a long time ago, so that they’re reimagined. It has a lot of meaning but I suppose the thrust of it the initial idea was about evolution, how things change and evolve. I wanted to be able to retain and, in fact show, some of the processes. So there’s bits of rawness and bits of things that look like they’re inside-out and things that have elements of the past collections…they’re almost out of place but that’s the intention, if you know what I mean.”
It’s proof that twenty years of scrupulous detailing and genuine talent brings about only good things. In fact, now more than even, the brand is exploding into must-have territory. Does Mathews feel like it has changed since its beginnings?
“Well…yes and no. That’s a good question because in actual fact it hasn’t really changed in terms of the base cloths – linen, cotton, silk. The fabrication is a constant, which a number one part of the aesthetic. It started on the Northern Beaches as a truly sort of easy, Australian, non-seasonal, casual. But then when I moved the business into the city 6 or 7 years ago I had to embrace [this lifestyle]. When you’re dropping the kids to school and working in an office in town but you’re always hanging out in a drawstring skirt and a sloppy shirt suddenly you have to smarten up a little a bit. It does change your aesthetic…and your business. I started to think maybe there’s another customer we could be reaching because people need to be dressed from morning to night, and it’s not just the Northern Beaches customer.”
With a hype that is ever-increasing, it seems that growth is inevitable. But, for a renegade of slow-fashion and a true-to-self creative, expansion might not really be conducive.
“I like the luxury of just taking my time. I feel like [in life] there’s a constant race and I’ve had the good fortune just to be able to go along and make things that I like. I don’t really have any plans apart from that to be honest. I mean, I’m happy with where things are now and if we’re able to continue in this way for the next ten years then it would be really lovely. It’s been a pleasure being able to do it…even when it’s difficult and hard work and hellish trying to finish a collection together for fashion week!
She giggles in a such a fun, approachable way that I want to be her best friend. I tell her I can’t wait to see the show, “God, I hope it’s okay!” she adds, before laughing hysterically. How endearing (and humbly Australian) that after 20 years, one can still nervously anticipate a new collection. As the models took their final walk during Wednesday’s spectacularly successful show, Mathews gave an emotional bow, even wiping away a tear. The rapturous applause and whoops from the huge crowd, for both the new pieces and her achievements, were deafening. I hope she knows now just how “okay” it was.
Lee mathews Resort 2020