Today's interview has been a long time in coming... I have been meaning to interview Emily Wright of Nancybird for seriously about 2 years but you know, I am secretly a tad disorganised (sshhh) and easily distracted by things like email and for whatever silly reason it has taken me a ridiculously long time to finally make contact! Luckily Ms Wright has been graciously waiting in the wings... but we're thrilled to shine the spotlight on her today!
Nancybird really is such an inspiring creative Melbourne success story. After studying art and printmaking at RMIT, Emily undertook the government's New Enterprise Initiative Scheme (NEIS), and in 2001 plunged head first into the launch of her accessories label - Nancybird. 10 years on, Nancybird has grown an impressive list of boutique stockists both here and internationally, her team now consist of 3 fulltime staff, and Emily has acquired a little factory in Northcote from which to base her business. (Her workspace is SO cute - pics below!). Emily has also made a successful leap from local production to a careful balance of local textile printing and offshore manufacturing. It's refreshing to hear Emily speak so candidly about why this decision was important to her business, and how she balances this with her committment to working with fantastic local collaborators, such as Ink and Spindle, who print many of Nancybird's distinctive fabrics!
Emily is one of those rare people whose skill and passion for design and the creative side of her business is equally matched by her business acumen! Her insights below are so generous and will provide any budding Australian creative start-up with invaluable advice and such fantastic optimistic encouragement!
Massive thanks to Emily for her wonderful responses to our questions and all the stunning pics. AND Emily is Dux of the class around here this week because she provided her own HTML HYPERLINKS in her interview responses! The perfect interviewee!
Do check out Emily's brand new Winter range in stores and online now!
Tell us a little about your background - what did you study and what path led you to founding Nancybird in 2001?
I started out studying Fashion Design at RMIT back in 1996, but only lasted a year! I needed to get some travel out of my system and spent a couple of years away in Europe, the Middle East and India. I came back ready to put my roots down again, and did the Diploma of Visual Arts at RMIT TAFE, and then completed a degree in Fine Art, majoring in Printmaking, again at RMIT.
While I was doing printmaking, I learnt screenprinting from the lovely Rebecca Mayo, and really fell for this process. I did quite a bit of extra printing at home, experimenting with fabrics and other surfaces. I started using my patternmaking and sewing skills from fashion design, and made a little range of purses, and then eventually bags. It was a funny time, there weren't many stores that sold small local labels, but two that did were FAT and Alice Euphemia, where I started selling my range. It has changed so much now, there are a million design markets and stores and online places, so many options! After uni finished, I just jumped straight into the business, I did the NEIS course, and was on my way.
Nancybird has grown in leaps and bounds over the past 10 years – these days you have so many stockists Australia wide (and a few international), and a loyal customer base. Can you give us a little insight into how the business has grown and changed over the past 10 years? Has the growth been gradual or have there been key landmark moments along the way?
The business has grown gradually over 10 years, which is the way I like it, but there have certainly been some big moments along the way that have marked a new phase. Until about 4 years ago I'd been working from home - and the boxes were literally taking over the entire house. I took the leap and bought a little windowless warehouse shell. That was a big milestone. We grew into that pretty quickly! And the second phase of that was building a little mezzanine studio inside, which we completed a couple of years ago. What a luxury to finally have windows and see the sky!
Another one might be moving part of our production offshore. It’s one that I wish people talked about more – the realities of making things, whether it be here or overseas. My reality is that making locally works for some products (and scales of operation) and not for others. Obviously, the preference is to make locally, if you can find people to make those things and still have a viable product at the end of it. We’ve always kept most of the printing here (which I’m proud to have done - yay Ink and Spindle), but the stitching of leathergoods on the scale that we are at, which isn’t really that big, was an impossibility locally.
The entire 10 years has been a huge learning curve. Every season we are dealing with new issues, new exciting things to try, better ways of doing things.
And I guess I still see us as a pretty small operation. It has changed considerably, we have much better systems in place, we've learnt from a million mistakes along the way, and we do stock a good number of stores in Australia. But it's essentially a small niche label that is not on every shop corner, with a great following of (I think) like minded people who enjoy what we are creating.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Nancybird day to day? Where are you based, how many people do you employ, do you still play a very hands on role in the design and day to day running of the business, and what significant tasks do you outsource?
We are based in Northcote, right next to Merri Creek, and opposite Ceres (who make the best sausage rolls in Melbourne by the way!) I employ 3 people which covers packing/stock control, admin and part of the design. We probably need another person to take over the sales side of things, as I always tend to neglect this area!
Up until very recently, I was the sole designer of the range, but happily I have some very capable eyes and hands to help with this area now.
I’m very much involved in every aspect of the business, I answer the phone and chat with customers every day, we all unload a shipment together when it arrives… I am now banned from packing orders as I invariably get the numbers wrong, but other than that, I’m there…
We outsource all production. Our printers, both digital and screen printed, are in Melbourne, and I really enjoy working with them.
We’ve recently started working with some other local manufacturers, making some textile based products like cushions and knitted scarves, and will hopefully be expanding this side of things in future ranges.
Our leathergoods manufacturer is based in HK/China, and we produce some digitally printed silk scarves out of India.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Answering a bunch of emails from our stockists, manufacturers and suppliers happens first thing with a cup of Earl Grey. I seem to communicate all day via email, so am sitting at a computer screen more than I’d like...
We have a six month cycle here, so depending on what point we are at, I could be sketching new ideas for a future range, choosing yarn or ink colours, amending a bag sample that needs some work, putting together the final edit of the range, location scouting, choosing the clothes for a shoot, putting together our catalogue… Or, less fun things like invoicing or book work! It can’t all be fun you know!
Can you name for us 5 resources across any media which you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
TDF is a great inspiration (but not good for my reno budget!) The Sartorialist and Garance Dore I seem to read, if only for their cute references to each other – it’s a bit of a soap opera, but I like it!
Other than online, I have a collection of reference books like African Textiles by John Gillow, Art of Nature by Judith Magee or Insects of Surinam by Katharina Schmidt-Loske that I come back to time and time again.
Which other designers or other creative people do you admire?
I really admire anyone who is creating something with a clear aesthetic and with integrity, as I know how hard that is to do!
Locally, I admire a couple of other labels that started out around the same time or a little before me, who have just grown incredibly – Gorman and elk. They are both just rocking along and it’s good to see.
I also admire my printers – Tegan and Lara from Ink and Spindle. They are doing great things, have bucketloads of integrity and I hope will keep carving out a niche for their beautiful, hand printed wares.
And my neighbour, Damien Wright, who has been working away as a furniture designer and maker for 15 years or so. He made the Victorian Koori Court table with 10,000 year old red gum which was partially fossilised. He makes really incredible stuff and is just so focussed on that.
What would be your dream creative project?
Exactly what I’m doing but with five times the amount of time to design it and five times the budget! Ooooh, the things we could make!
Otherwise, designing a capsule range for another label would be fun (that means you Marni or Cacharel!) We did this last year for the National Gallery of Victoria, which was super interesting and a great learning experience working with such a large institution.
What are you looking forward to?
Right now I am looking forward to finishing the SS13 range that we are in the thick of at the moment! It has been so refreshing working with another designer, and wonderful to be able to concentrate on parts of the range rather than the whole thing.
And after that, I’m looking forward to moving into my house in 3 months which is getting renovated. We dealt with no real bathroom and an outside toilet for WAAAY too long…
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I have a few favourite pockets – I like the galleries and shops around Collingwood, I like walking along the Yarra in Fairfield, I like living in Northcote because I have friendly neighbours and big gum trees along our street.
Your favourite local bookshop for great reference material / books / magazines?
I think the NGV bookshop at Fed Square. They have a great range of art books, the other day I bought The Place For A Village by Gary Presland, which I highly recommend!
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Hopefully out for breakfast or out of Melbourne somewhere. But lately at somewhere slightly unpleasant looking at fridges or tiles or something. Renovation fun…
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Bend of Islands. It’s only about 50 minutes out of Melbourne, is right on the Yarra, where there are minimal fences, no cats or dogs, only indigenous plants and some pretty interesting creative types living there. My partner has some land there, and is building a little weekender for us to hang out in and watch the kayakers float by.
And this isn’t in Melbourne and not really a secret anymore, but Walkerville in South Gippsland is magic. There’s an old lime kiln ruins on the beach made out of local stone, and backed by the Cape Liptrap National Park, and facing the Prom… Nice.