We end this week with an interview that I have been dreaming would happen for quite some time! Fiona Scanlan is nothing short of an Australian design icon, and we are super thrilled to have her on The Design Files today!
After more than 20 years riding the immense success of Scanlan & Theodore, Fiona made the leap to childrenswear in 2005 with a unique new kidswear concept. Big by Fiona Scanlan made an almighty splash in the market from day one – it’s eclectic sensibility, layering of retro details with contemporary basics, and the idea that every day is a day for dress-ups(!!) inspired Mums and kids all over Australia! In just 6 years, Big has amassed a loyal following of very well dressed little girls across the country, and has established 3 gorgeous retail spaces in Melbourne and concept stores in David Jones Australia wide.
AND what gorgeous stores they are! Have you BEEN in one? Oh my. They are so freaking cute. Don’t be discouraged if there are no little people in your life just yet. Even the most grown up of grown-ups will be seduced by the gorgeous vintage details, expert visual merchandising, and unique accessories sourced from many local makers – including a few very special TDF favourites such as Betty Jo and Pene Durston! It is kind of like the Paul Smith of kids shops. Gorgeous unexpected details in every corner!
It is so inspiring to read Fiona’s story. It’s heartening to hear that even at the top of your game, that elusive work / life balance is still a constant struggle. But mostly it’s really fantastic to be reminded that no matter how established your career, it’s never too late to start something new!
Tell me a little about your background – what path led you initially to womens fashion and then on to launching Big by Fiona Scanlan?
Womens fashion was something I was very interested in – old or new, bought, borrowed or found. Despite starting in Interior Design, I was constantly more engaged with womens trends and I felt there was a niche to explore what other designers weren’t. This was in the mid 80’s and Australia was a barren wasteland except for a few bright sparks that stood out. There were import shops, a few chain stores, but few little inspirational boutiques. I was born out of a fashion movement that got represented by the early Fashion Design Council and creative vehicles and showcases for emerging talents.
Another fledgling designer Martin Grant and I worked out of an old beautiful building down town and worked and worked until we developed our handwriting and basically created our own platforms. I loved and hated working this way. I dreamt about owning my own boutique and creating a beautiful environment that felt found and yet like it was established. But with a contemporary hand. I really loved some Melbourne institutions like Georges of Collins Street, Le Louvre, and basically I loved retail. I loved the theatre, the ramping up for seasons, decking out the stores. Fitting it out in a humorous unexpected way. I loved things to be unique but relevant. I loved the chance for an individual approach. And so Scanlan & Theodore was born. It was intense work for years. And I had never been officially trained, so the school of hard knocks was challenging. But despite it all, S & T gained a following for womenswear that seemed to understand stylishly what one wanted to wear. It was contemporary, it was confident and it was sexy without being overt. I loved the artist collaborations – whether it was our 10th birthday with Bill Henson taking our anniversary images, or working with local textile designers, or collaborating with superb crafts people in Italy with fabric, shoes or whatever.
But it was wearing. And I usually give everything about 150%. I felt I needed to regroup and I felt home was neglected too continually, despite what I put in place. I decided to leave and just sit for a moment. I had another child and I got a chance to enjoy all the quiet times. Big came out of the need for childrens clothing that expressed some fun and joy. I felt childrenswear was nothing short of horrible and I knew I could change that. So we developed a handwriting that was all about joyful contemporary clothes. I think we had a lot to do with the resurgence of costume mixed with day clothes. I loved the psychology of the way a child liked to dress. I really wanted to go with that thought. So we developed costume and beautiful pieces to be worn back with signature denim, tees and great everyday wear. It was conceived to be a strong range that had simple baselines with a highly electic top note. Clothing with a reminiscence and an emotional tie. Old fashioned details, mixing up of prints, a good clash of colour here and there.
Was it a challenging transition from high end fashion to kidswear?
In a lot of ways the transition was both difficult and simple. My design ethos was very similar. Early on I found my groove with old fashioned details, layering of prints, colours and textures. Mixing retro aspects with contemporary must haves. In fact I felt a freedom that wasn’t allowed in womenswear. I was using colour liberally and in the land of S & T that can be difficult. But it was definitely a brain reprogramming. No longer did I need to obsess about how to make ones legs long and hips neat. But I definitely needed to get some irresistible beauty involved. I think I worked some long hours and thought back to what I wanted for my own girls and couldn’t find. And what made me swoon as a customer. I think I always put myself in the the shoppers mindset.
Do you have any favourite projects / collaborations Big has been involved in in recent years? I spotted ‘Lino Forest’ pieces in your Carlton store recently by Betty Jo… do you often hook up with independent local designers in this way?
Our stores are a playful forum for our seasonal themes. I love to support artists and designers who’s work fortifies our vibe for the season. Betty Jo was an obvious choice. Her work is totally charming and unique. Her clocks were a classic. Pene Durston tugs at your heart strings in a similar way, recycling old fabrics and napery into gorgeous lovable items. Kristen Masters a crochet artist for neck pieces that were signature in last season’s summer collection. Daniel Frigo an old school visual merchandising king who helps with the funny and wacky things we do in store at times. This season being our travel theme we have cargo nets and boxes and sweet things tucked in amongst boxes. Our windows and stores always have some feeling of past memories and strong sense of nostalgia. A time and a feeling that is quite hard to emulate in the mass produced world of chain stores.
What is it that you love most about designing for kids!?
Their humour. Their funny take on things. The fact that you can make a child so happy when they get to wear clothing that makes them feel good.
In addition to running Big you’re also a busy Mum of two girls! How old are your daughters now, and what is your secret to balancing parenthood with a successful business!?
I have 2 daughters. And as I refer to my girls, the unlikely bookends. They are 9 and 19 years old. George and Maisie. Both very gorgeous spirited girls, but both with very different demands from their parents. That is probably the greatest of challenges is how to appease each girl and keep the status quo where it should be. Balancing home and work is a juggling act and one that needs constant review. I would honestly say I don’t always get it right – but what I am sure of, is that they live a very full, animated and colourful existence. They probably have learnt some good lifeskills from seeing that family is very important, but self expression is also something that needs to be relished.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Since Big has retail stores, concept stores in David Jones and supplies to wholesale accounts nationally, depending on the time of year we can be either developing a new range, executing the present range in store and concept stores and/or researching and planning for new endeavors. I generally work a fairly dense week – and leave all other time for family and my beloved home.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international press, books or the web etc?
It may sound cliched but I find inspiration always on route. I am forever bringing things home that I love. Sometimes I haven’t quite worked out how I can reference something – but that just seems to come with time. I love secondhand clothing and I am an eternal fossicker. Always have been. Always will be. I am always referencing good bits for the stores, and like to keep the weekend free to look around fairs, markets whatever. A trip locally or internationally usually covers off on a swapmeet, fair and second hand stores. I love bookstores and old mags as well. I look for vintage online. But I don’t spend hours sitting in front of the computer. It’s just not me.
Which other designers or creative people do you admire?
I generally love people that explore an idea and I definitely admire those with original thought. And I admire those that have the tenacity to see their ideas through. Liane Rossler (founding partner of Dinosaur Designs) is an inspirational girl. So passionate about modern art. She has a beautiful aesthetic. I think she has had a lot to do with the Australian contemporary aesthetic. An old friend that I studied Interior Design with, Don McQualter, has a way of looking at things that I always feel inspiring. His work is never contrived, always unexpected and has a true sense of beauty.
What is the best thing about your job?
I suppose it’s the chance to do things in a unique fashion. To create a story and to wrap it up with some beauty. And ultimately to make people happy when they wear our clothing.
What would be your dream creative project?
A nice big garden with a big budget to buy great pots, established trees and access to gorgeous plants.
What are you looking forward to?
Time to do such a thing.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
As much as I am very happy in my domain in Windsor, I think I am more intrigued by the other side of the Yarra. Fitzroy, Brunswick, Parkville. I basically have a love affair with old houses and buildings, so it is wherever I can see them on mass.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I went to Neil Perry’s new restaurant, Spice Temple. I was blown away by the flavours. Such a beautiful and exciting meal.
Which favourite shops do you frequent in Melbourne?
For seeing some beautiful things I love to go to Christine in Flinders Lane. She is an old school retailer. That is not a criticism but a comment of adoration. She buys selectively and always creates the theatre in retail that is sadly missing. I love popping in on a Saturday and whilst she keeps my little George happy with a few biscuits and a glass of lemonade in a beautiful old glass, she weaves her magic on me. Very funny. The Mediterranean Wholesalers in Sydney road Brunswick. I love to go over early and stand in line for my expertly cut prosciutto. Plump beautiful olives and tins of tomatoes.
Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?
At the Prahran market shopping for the weeks fare, and driving across town to get some goodies from the Italian and Middle eastern Grocers. We travel for food in our household.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Mmm, I don’t think I can tell you.