To be completely honest with you, I basically know nothing about fashion. That’s why The Design Files steers pretty well clear of the subject most of the time…! However, whilst I would never profess to be much of an expert on the subject, of course like every self respecting Melbournienne – I know what I like, and I know where to find it (most of the time)! I’m loyal to just a handful of local retailers and labels… and am especially drawn to brands that manufacture their wares here in Australia (there aren’t many!). Obüs is one such special label, and so I am super excited to interview Obüs founder and designer Kylie Zerbst today!
Obüs is such an inspiring Melbourne success story! Since launching her label 11 years ago, Kylie has carved out a very special niche for her business, in what is a notoriously competitive industry. As a defiantly independent label, Obüs has always done things their own way. With an unmistakeably quirky, indie aesthetic, each season Obüs seems to wander it’s own path, refreshingly detached from documented international ‘trends’. Inspired by travel, Kylie’s colours and prints always pack a fiery punch – yet somehow each garment seems perfectly smart and grown-up and ‘professional’ (not that I would really know what one is supposed to wear ‘in the office’).
Obüs now has three stores in Melbourne (CBD, Fitzroy and Northcote), and many stockists nationally. Somehow though… there’s something so very ‘Melbourne’ about this label.. don’t you think? Although I must admit, with it’s ‘Destino Mexico’ vibe, Summer 11/12 is looking outrageously colourful for us monochrome-loving folk! Bring it on! – and bring on the summertime whilst you’re at it!
Obüs is currently having a 40% – 70% off everything sale!
Final winter reductions in all stores until this Sunday July 17th (stores listed here!).
Can you tell us a little about your career background and what path has led to what you’re doing now?
I’ve been running Obüs for so long now it hardly feels like there was a before… But of course there was! Back to pre university days my loves were architecture and graphic design, and I’m not sure why I did choose graphic design in the end… Sometimes I think that if I had chosen Architecture all those years ago I would probably be an architect now as opposed to a fashion designer!
Anyway… graphic design was the path I chose and a few years after that whilst studying for my masters I took my first trip overseas… To India, and that changed my life. It changed the way I thought about things, the people around me, and also where I wanted to be in my life. So then my masters was sadly abandoned, (however I did continue teaching Graphic Design at RMIT), and Obüs the one lady show was born! Ironically I do still spend much of my time designing the prints for our ranges and also all of the Obüs marketing material, so these skills earned at university have been invaluable to me even though I ended up on a different path.
Obüs has grown steadily since you launched the label 11 years ago! You now have three retail stores in Melbourne and many national stockists! When you first embarked on the journey, did you ever dream of making such an impact on the local fashion industry?
It’s very flattering to be asked that! But no… It took me many years to realise what my dream was beyond the pure creativity of designing clothing… My dream now is to run a healthy and sustainable business that will always be small enough to be personal; To create retail environments where women of many different sensibilities can feel comfortable and respected, and to help clothe these women in such a way as to help them feel special and look beautiful.
Obüs still proudly manufactures all clothing in Melbourne which is such an incredible and impressive feat! What is it that inspired the decision to keep things local, and is it difficult to maintain and stay competitive?
I can’t say it has never crossed my mind to manufacture offshore, as it is something that has been suggested to me time and time again, however it is not something that I have ever considered an option for Obüs. It is important to me that Obüs is an active and positive art of the local community and economy, and in my mind manufacturing here is essential to that.
Any kind of manufacturing is probably frustrating and fraught with problems at times, as many people are involved in order to create the desired product… But there are lots of skilled manufacturers still operating locally. It’s great to be able to put a face and a personality to the people we are working with, and to be able to work together, face to face, to create a quality product we are all proud of. Of course it is hard to compete on a price level… Very hard… But I think more and more people are consciously searching out socially responsible consumables and really want to do their part to support local businesses and manufacturers.
Can you give us a little insight into the company structure at Obüs – how many people do you employ, are you still very hands on in every aspect of the business, and what significant tasks do you outsource?
Between the studio and the stores we have a total of 6 full time staff plus me, and 3 part time staff. We also almost always have one or two interns working with us in the studio. I’m a bit too hands on sometimes, I think to everyone’s frustration… But there just never seems to be enough time to get everything done, so we all pitch in however we can.
Because the business started as a one lady show I do have a thorough understanding of all aspects of the business, and over the years have handled all parts of the business myself through either necessity or stubbornness… From designing, basic patternmaking, sewing, production, wholesaling the ranges myself, working in the stores or bad bookkeeping I’ve pretty much tried my hand at all of it! Thankfully now I have an amazing team and for the most part I try to stick to what I should be doing… Designing and overseeing the creative direction of everything we do, managing the team, sticking my nose into everyone else’s jobs and worrying too much!
The most significant thing we outsource is the actual manufacturing of the garments, which are made in factories around Melbourne (however we do everything up until that stage in at the studio, including patternmaking and sewing all toiles and samples.) We also work with an external sales agent who wholesales the Obüs collections for us, and a PR company in Sydney.
Which Australian designers, artists or creative people do you admire or take inspiration from?
That’s a hard one, there are so many amazingly creative people in OZ! To name a few though… Artists Kristin McIver, Helen Shelley, Matthew Griffin, Pat Foster and Jen Berean, as well as Aboriginal artists Minnie Pwerle and Betty Mbitjana. Designers and craftspeople Kathryn Baulch, Elke Kramer, Penelope Durston and Sarah Parkes who are all amazing!
Where do you find creative inspiration when starting a new garment or range – online, magazines, your environment, travel, fine art, etc..?
There is no key to finding inspiration, it just pops out at you whenever it feels like it! The concept of Obüs as a brand is to take it’s wearers on a journey so of course travelling is essential for me… To step outside of my life in Melbourne and experience new places is always a good way to find inspiration. That doesn’t mean the next range will necessarily be inspired by a recent trip… But then again maybe it will be, you just never know which moments will become important in your mind.
After many years travelling throughout Asia, from China and Japan to India, and as far as Istanbul in Turkey, I’ve been lucky enough to have had 2 big trips to Europe in the last 2 years. Both trips were an amazing mixture of outdoor adventures and everyday sightseeing! From skiing and traversing glaciers in places like Chamonix in France, and the Dolomites in Italy, to walking the cobbled streets of Amsterdam and Venice… And then also seeing and experiencing amazing architecture like the Therme Vals – designed by Peter Zumthor and nestled in a desolate looking valley in Switzerland. I also was so inspired to visit for the first time some of the world’s most famous galleries… Places where the buildings and the history they tell of are as inspiring as the treasures within. On a more local scale I am constantly inspired by discoveries of handcrafted items… Embroideries or knitted treasures and vases in markets, by all sorts of old and new books, and by simple things like my garden.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
It all depends on the time of the year it is… Lately we are starting on the range for next winter, so I have spent many hours on the computer designing the yardage prints for the range, which I really enjoy, but which is very time consuming. I’ll chat to my assistant Anna about any ideas and patterns she can start work on, touch base with our new production manager Maximilian (summer will be delivered into store within a few weeks so it’s a busy time all round) to see if there are any problems and try to help solve them. Part of every day is also spent working with Kate, who is the Obüs business manager… Planning events and the million other things that are part of running a business.
What would be your dream creative project?
In line with Obüs taking wearers on a different journey each season, I would love to design uniforms for an airline… I don’t know if it will ever happen but it’s something I have dreamed of from very early Obüs days.
What are you looking forward to?
It’s been a very busy but exciting time at Obüs over the last few months… New team members, pregnancies within the team (our production manager Kerri’s water broke last week in the studio… Very exciting!), and lots of new ideas and projects like our partnership with Melbourne’s The Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, and the Obüs Wall project which involves female artists and illustrators… So to be honest I’m really looking forward to things quieting down for a bit!
You favourite neighbourhood in Melbourne for shopping / strolling / people watching?
I love Gertrude Street. I really think it’s the best street in Melbourne! Great restaurants, bakeries and cafes, shops, galleries and great people.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
I love stocking up on books and magazines at Readings in Carlton. Apart from that most things we use (fabrics, trims etc.) we buy through agents who come to the studio to show us their offerings.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I had a beautiful midweek lunch with a couple of friends who were in town at Joe Green, a great little place near the Obüs studio on High Street in Northcote. Between us we shared white anchovies with house made bread, baby octopus with green peas, some kind of goat braise, the softest pasta, and rocket and pear salad. Yummo!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
My partner Simon and I like to go away a lot… But if we are in town we will walk up the road for breaky at Pope Joan on Nicholson street, or to Ceres for a wander around… But if we do go out we will both be just as eager to get home so Simon can put something in the slow cooker for a meal later in the day and so I can potter about in the garden.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Longplay on St Georges Rd… Of course. But it’s so good I don’t think it’s a secret anymore.