Now in its 15th year, Nancybird has become a much-loved label for many. Covetable prints combine with luxurious leathers on clothing and accessories that inevitably become treasured wardrobe staples. Creator Emily Wright has a knack for putting things together. So it was no surprise to find that her Northcote studio is also delightful. Welcomed by streets lined with gumnuts – fitting for a label that often references Australian natives in its designs – Emily and her team took some time to reflect on their journey, their creative process, and making products that stand the test of time.
Emily Wright created her first unique range of coin purses and wallets following her studies in printmaking, in a time before online sales and design markets. Working from home, Emily indulged her passion for print by screen printing her designs onto natural fabrics and combining them with high quality, colourful leathers. The initial ranges carried a strong vintage aesthetic and sat squarely in a new product genre for the time – one that took all of the skill, craftmanship and creativity from the artistic realm and applied them to items for every day use.
The resurgence in craft followed. Continuing to design and make from home, with all of the learnings from her first few ranges under her belt, Emily found herself in a favourable environment to accelerate her brand. She developed an admirable list of stockists. And while the demand for handmade products exploded, and the shape of retail changed forever, she persisted with tenacity and a flair for design and business she is still too modest to admit.
“It is such a different world now to when I started,” reflects Emily, “people weren’t selling online, blogs were at the really early stages and designer markets didn’t really exist, so I didn’t have those avenues to sell through. Melbourne is now full of tiny businesses doing interesting things. There is much more competition if you are starting out now, but at the same time many more avenues to sell through.”
Her work thrived in the juncture between fine art and design. “I think I found that most interesting. I was really inspired by the few places that were selling interesting little designers. I got probably just as much out of that, or maybe more, than heading into a gallery where you were expected to be inspired,” says Emily.
Nancybird grew. And although Emily had developed a creative practice through her fine art studies, the process of running a business and the world of fashion were both very new to her. Over time she mastered the art of scheduling time to design, not resting on things too long and sticking to a process of clear decision making to enable her brand to deliver two comprehensive collections per year.
“The creative process for me is very structured; we do two ranges a year and there’s quite a strict process in that. We need to have certain samples done at certain times. To be part of the buying cycle of stores means we just have to fit in with that. Early on I had no idea of that or that sort of stuff. It was a steep learning curve and I remember finding that really tricky because I had never worked in fashion before. I’m so used to working in a particular way now, it has become second nature really.
Moving into the Nancybird Northcote factory in 2008, the company now employs five people, including textile designer, Sarah Strickland. Together, Emily and Sarah implement their well-oiled design cycle, starting with the selection of leathers and colours they will use for each range. They then settle on a theme and draw together images from Pinterest, various art influences, nature and their combined travels to support the design of up to seven motifs. Then, while Emily designs the products, Sarah sets to work creating a range of designs to be digitally printed, hand screen printed, embroidered and embossed onto natural fabrics and leather. These prints are used in a variety of ways for each range, with products now including homewares, clothing, silk scarves and shoes.
Each theme usually features both a botanical and geometric print. Because their designs are used in so many ways, from a large scale print on a bed cover, to a small panel of printed linen on a clutch, the scope provided by up to seven designs allows the space to integrate a few unexpected shapes or subjects into the range.
“We think about what has worked in the past and what people have responded to and we’re also trying to push that too. Not just go, ‘Well this is what they want, so here you go’, we’ll try to pop in a little interesting colour way or some sort of unexpected subject matter into a print to keep it a more edgy or interesting. Even though floral and geometric are absolutely beautiful, and I love them, just getting something else in there is keeping it interesting for people – pushing it out a tiny bit, but still bringing people along for the ride.”
This balance can be tricky. As a veteran of more than thirty successful collections, Emily recognises that while many are drawn to designs that interesting, unusual and eye-popping, her buyers often favour something a little more subdued for their higher end purchases. She explains this by saying, “I look at other labels and think ‘You’re all about bright graphics stuff so it is obviously working for you’. But maybe that is at particular price points. At lower price points people are more flexible and willing to jump in. We’re a bit more ‘investmenty’, especially with the things like bed linen and leather, which cost up to $450. Many people aren’t quite so playful with that price point.”
Which brings us to the heart of what Nancybird is all about: investment pieces that will stand the test of time. It is this approach that forms the cornerstone of the brand’s approach to design, and to sustainability. The brand quickly outgrew its ability to produce locally by hand and remain competitive, so Emily and her team thoughtfully outsourced elements of their production overseas, such as the stitching of their products, where they have maintained ongoing relationships with many of their suppliers. The move allowed the business to flourish and stay focused on designing pieces that buyers could use and enjoy for many years.
“My feeling about sustainability is that it has as much to do with the end the user and the way they use it as how it is produced. If you give somebody a quality product in good materials and then they take care of that product and use it sensibly, that will make a massive difference to the longevity of that product,” says Emily. “There are amazing luxurious European leathers that we would love to use but they are just too expensive for our market, so we have to make compromises, but it’s still all about the quality of the materials. I find it really depressing when I hear about a bag (not ours!) only lasting once and people having to get a new one straight away. I don’t want to sell a product like that. I want to be confident that we’ve made something that will last.”
Admiring the work of newer labels such as Kowtow, who focused on their supply chains before building their business, Emily admits the issue of sustainability is a complex one for an established business to navigate. “We’re almost trying to do the opposite. We have created these product ranges and now we’re trying to improve our supply chain. It is much harder to do it this way, once production has been established. But we are consistently improving things through factory audits, sourcing better raw materials, finding better tanneries and leathers to work with. Things like that."
Admitting they are imperfect, and constantly improving, Nancybird discreetly hits many meaningful minestones, including: full disclosure of how and where their work is made (clearly available on the Nancybird website); long term relationships with companies who pay sick leave, overtime and above award wages; preference to ship by sea rather than air wherever possible; flat packing items and using recycled cardboard packaging and a headquarters run completely on wind power.
With Nancybird’s preference for natural materials – including silk, cotton, linen and vegetable tanned leather – and allegiance to the Vivienne Westwood mantra of ‘Buy less, choose wisely and make it last’, the future continues to look bright for this inspiring and thoughtful business. For now, this looks like tasteful tassles, lilac leather, embossed scallops and strong, bold brush strokes, all woven through the recently released Spring/Summer range, which references a trip Emily recently made to Japan. Sarah has been to Japan a couple of times, so the design duo delved into traditional woodblock printing, carp kites, kimono textile designs and calligraphy brush strokes to deliver a fresh and bright Nancybird take on some of the country’s powerful artisanal traditions.
The cohesiveness, originality and skill of this latest collection is a sign of a brand that knows itself. Block printed leather loafers, or dainty appliquéd scallops? Broad brush stroked silk, or THAT fringed lilac clutch? Yet again it would seem we are spoilt for choice.
Product images courtesy of Nancybird
Studio shots by Threadbound