Studio Visit

Gwendolynne Burkin

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
22nd of March 2013
Gwendolynne Burkin's bridal showroom in Fitzroy.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Gwendolynne Burkin's showroom in Fitzroy.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Stunning beading details at Gwendolynne Burkin's showroom in Fitzroy.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Busy staff working in Gwendolynne's studio above her Fitzroy store.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Gwendolynne's studio above her Fitzroy store.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Gwendolynne Burkin in her Fitzroy store.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
OK so before anyone gets a bee in their bonnet about TDF going all BRIDAL today, allow me to explain. As you all know, it is currently L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Week.  Truth be told, I know very little about fashion, and am not usually overly interested in featuring too much fashion here on TDF.... not that I don't greatly respect all the talented Australian fashion designers out there, I guess it just isn't really my strongpoint.  But what I do always LOVE is a talented, successful independent businesswoman, and today's interviewee is just that! Designer Gwendolynne Burkin has worked in Melbourne's fashion industry for 25 years, having cut her teeth originally at various local labels including Bettina Liano and even Sportsgirl, before launching her signature label in 1997.  These days, Gwendolynne focusses purely on made to order bridal couture, created in a bustling design studio and workshop above her beautiful Fitzroy showroom.  Here, with a team of fourteen talented staff, Gwendolynne creates the most exquisite gowns for Melbourne brides, characterised by a sense of modern romanticism, and brought to life with an uncompromising attention to detail. Gwendolynne has been so generous and candid with her responses to these questions - it's incredible to learn how her business has evolved over the years, and the invaluable lessons she has learnt along the way, which are so relevant to any creative small business. What's most apparent, and what really makes Gwendolynne such an endearing character (to me anyway), is that she really does this her way.  She is staunchly independent, and has never compromised on quality or ethics to build her business - instead choosing to focus on an area where an intense commitment to quality and handcrafted detail is highly prized, and can be costed accordingly. Gwendolynne will be showing her latest amazing gowns at LMFF in the Red Carpet Runway event, presented by Harper's Bazaar Brides this Saturday 23rd March at 9.00pm.  Her Fitzroy showroom is open on Fridays and Saturdays, by appointment.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, what originally drew you to fashion, and to launching your own label?
I used to drape fabrics and sheets around me and dance around the lounge room fantasising that I was an elegant ballerina as a child. As I grew older I realised it was the look, costume and theatre that drew me to the idea of being a ballerina, not the dance itself (although I do appreciate dance but is not my skill!). I was constantly making things, dressing up for play and fascinated with how things are constructed; meticulously studying how things were made. Growing up in the Adelaide foothills I built some pretty substantial cubbies too! At school I was the textile and art nerd. I had a natural gift for these areas and Mum was a keen sewer, so it came easy. At lunch I’d hang out in the art or sewing room and make stuff. I was a bit of a loner at school. Given these skills it seemed logical that I should be a fashion designer - I decided this at the age of about 12.  I was a bit embarrassed about my direction as I felt it wasn’t academic enough for the schooling I received. It was the early '80s and fashion designers didn’t have such rock star profiles as they do today. Design wasn’t such a huge focus for my peers, they were more focused on big money, power jobs like law or medicine that were reputable career choices. I had a strong desire to explore the world outside Adelaide so I chose to pursue a BA in Fashion Design at RMIT in 1988, at only 17. After uni I was very lucky to have a wide range of experiences in several areas of fashion as a sample machinist, pattern maker and designer locally and internationally. It made me realise how mainstream focused the world had become and as I gained this experience. I felt all I wanted was to have a shop and just make beautiful special things to escape the rat race and unethical manufacturing approach of the industry. There were many reasons for launching my own label; I had returned from overseas at 25 and just naturally the freelance, pattern making work landed in my lap because of my established contacts. Freelancing allowed me to fund my own business in its early stages. At this time there was a wave of independent designer shops opening up such as Fat52, Alice Euphemia and Milla, which gave me a great kickstart to showcase my designs. There was also the NEIS small business program, which helped my business with a small grant and a year to get my business up and running. Fashion weeks in both Melbourne and Sydney started around that time too, so it was easier to be able to present your design ideas. I must say I was a very ambitious and hard working young woman, none of this happened without me following up opportunities, networking and just working really hard with incredibly long hours!
One of Gwendolynne's current designs on the runway.
You worked for many respected local and international labels including Katharine Hamnett, Top Shop, Oasis, Bettina Liano, and even Sportsgirl and the Sportscraft group as a pattern maker and designer, before launching your signature label in 1997. How did these early career experiences prepare you for the challenges or running your own business?
Nothing prepares you for a small, independent business! I could write a book on the challenges but also the rewards. I am a designer first; it comes naturally, it’s like breathing. I have had to work hard to survive as a business person and I am proud to still be around after 15 years as an independent business. I think the contacts I made working for other people were priceless, and the confidence I gained as an emerging designer within established companies in the early days, where my design aesthetic was respected and well received by my peers definitely gave me the confidence to believe in myself. Definitely learning professional systems, processes and the structure of a business was great while working for others, and also working in places with no systems made me realise how frustrating and ineffective it is to be this way. Alas my business isn’t perfect but I strive to always think about how we can streamline our processes and do things better. I have worked for lots of people who have never worked for anyone and I think as a boss now it makes me a better leader having worked for people as I can see situations from both sides. For instance, small things, like I like to have all the sewing machines facing or near the windows so it is a nice work environment. In fact I have the worst spot in our workroom! I better do something about that! The biggest teething problem originally, going from big business to a tiny one-woman operation, was that I made my ranges too big to start off with.  Trying to fund the production of ranges was a learning curve!  I just never realised or understood the financial side of things. In some ways I think naivety is bliss, and I may not have started my label if I really understood the implications, but despite some painful times I am so happy with where Gwendolynne is now and I am proud of my achievements and growth as a business woman.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Timeless beauty. I love detail but I don’t like to overwork it. My look is soft, romantic and feminine but not in a frothy way; more in a modern romantic way. I like to think of myself as a new romantic. I feel many people who work in my genre of design can produce clothing that verges on costume and the garment wears the client. I like to think I find that middle ground of detail, which flatters and is elegant and allows the individual's personality to shine through. I am passionate about beautiful feeling fabrics and comfort too – I have a practical approach to design.
One of Gwendolynne's staff works on a garment in the Fitzroy studio above the shop.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files
You create bespoke gowns rather than ready to wear collections – what drew you to this approach, and what is it you love about working in this way?
This happened organically when I opened my shop. I had been selling to many small boutiques locally and internationally, including Myer. There were some major changes in their ordering direction, which affected my business cash flow. It was hard times. But I had opened my shop in Kerr Street, Fitzroy and people came to me and asked if I’d craft them something individually. It started slowly and just built up and up. I used to create many different highend bespoke items such as coats, jackets, beautiful tops, skirts and trousers, but as it grew I found it was better business practice to focus on one thing.  I loved being able to put more design and quality into a bridal gown, so that’s when I chose to focus on the contemporary modern bride. I just built it up slowly from there; making everything myself for a while. I love the connection with the client – I meet so many amazing people and I love making girls feel beautiful!
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? Where does a design start, and what steps are involved in then developing and creating each new garment? Could you also let us know the timeframes - how long does each piece take to create, from initial concepts to finished product?
My design process starts so many different ways. Sometimes it is an evolution of an idea. Sometimes I am inspired by a pattern (from nature, architecture, a fence, a flower) and form it across the body. Other times designs are based on feedback of a client's needs and wants, but I always make sure it is in my style. I get a lot of inspiration directly from my customer’s feedback. Having started my career behind the scenes I was quite surprised how inspiring it can be listening to your customers – even the bad things the might say can be very helpful! I even have had inspiration come to me in dreams! Usually my ideas in my dreams are quite avante garde and not suitable for manufacture but I find this part of my creativity fascinating and wish I had an outlet to showcase it. When I’m in full design mode my process involves a lot of editing as I am constantly collecting ideas. I get all my ideas out and logically work through them so that I am putting together a collection that has a cohesive offer for all my different clients.
Gwendolynne on the runway.
How is your business structured – how many do you employ, is everything made in-house or do you outsource any significant tasks?
I am currently employing more people to deal with our growth so we will be a family of about 14 staff soon. We construct all the dresses upstairs from our Fitzroy salon. We do outsource our beading to high end artisan beaders in India. I am privileged to work with them as they do work for big internationals such as Oscar de la Renta and Valentino! My team is made up of sewers, hand finishers, pattern makers, front of house sales and I have an in-house computer pattern layout designer that I creatively direct. As all the beading is designed by us, we take forever to refine the look. My role is so varied I manage my finances, do fittings, design consultations – one minute I’m on the floor marking out a hem, and then at this time of year (fashion week) I can often be found sipping on champagne, networking with clients and the odd celebrity! My love though is just making beautiful things.
Gwendolynne in her Fitzroy studio.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
What have been one or two career highlights for you in recent years?
There have been so many, but having my collection taken to New York, London, Beijing and Singapore over the years to be in a showcases to represent Australian Fashion was a real honour. And on a fun note, going to the Vivienne Westwood after show party on a boat on the river in Seine, Paris is something I always think of fondly. This was when I was working overseas and I was more behind the scenes in those days, so the social thrill of it all was so exciting then!
What does a typical day in the life of Gwendolynne Burkin look like?
My fiancé Paul brings me a coffee in bed at 7:45am (that’s his special job!), I do my social media first thing usually in bed while I wake up. He has a business too so he starts researching and sourcing furniture and also answers his emails in bed too. Bad I know, but it eases us into the day and I have no distractions so I can focus at this time. I am doing this interview in bed in the morning! By the way my bed has a nice leafy green window outlook – not like my office! I have the privilege of walking or cycling to work, as I live so close. I hate commuting long distances unless it’s for a holiday. Usually I arrive around 10.00am to a buzzing studio and lots of questions. I usually attend to my finances first thing and I work closely with my assistant Jane about my schedule for the day. She has many tasks too (as is small business) and so she often has many requests to throw at me during the day and I in turn throw lots of tasks at her. My day is spotted with fittings, and inbetween these I will oversee the making of clients' work as is required, and work on new designs, but I never get huge chunks of time to dedicate to this as it is a long winded process between the goings on of the work-in-progress clients. Every day is different usually, building up to lots of fittings at the end of the week. The earlier part of the week is dedicated to getting the dresses made. I always sit on collaborator and good friend Richard Nylon’s stair at lunch and gasbag while I’m eating too. I usually stay a little later as then I can spread out and get on the sewing machines when the staff have left and focus. Focus is the hardest part of a business’ growth – to really get clarity on your work when there is so much going on. Because I live close it is easy to squeeze extra work time out of the day and Paul is very busy with his furniture business too so I usually leave work around 7.45 ish. We are usually very tired, him from lifting furniture, me from managing a lot of staff! Often we end up having a meal in one of the many great local Fitzroy pubs or I’ll whip up some cuisine! We have a few TV series we like watching currently including Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead or a lovely French film, so we might zone out to that, but usually I have some hand cutting or hand sewing I will do while I watch a show at night.
One of Gwendolynne's talented team in her Fitzroy studio.  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Love a bit of studio mess!  Photo - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Which Australian fashion designers, stylists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Fashion designer Dion Lee is really talented and his style is different but wearable. I will always love Akira Isogawa, his work is timeless and true to himself, he is a beautiful gentle man. I do wear quite a few Aurelio Costorella pieces – I love his leather jackets. I used to live with artist Ricky Swallow and I am so proud of what he has achieved, his work is just incredible. I’ve loved Ghostpatrol for years and his storytelling street art, there are so many incredible street artists in Melbourne it’s hard to know their names though! Tracey who owns The Carlton Club is a real inspiration, such a cool chic who has created so many amazing interior spaces over the years such as Yelza and Builders Arms. It is great to see a woman doing so well in the bar scene, not only is she creative she runs the joint and she is so nice and generous and not overtly noisy about her achievements. Gosh there are just so many great people in Melbourne I could go on forever!
Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in need of a bolt of creative inspiration?
I have a huge range of pattern books I collect and bolt too for inspiration first when I am designing. Pinterest is one of my biggest inspirations, I love it and have found other people seem to love that I love it too, as relatively it’s my highest followed social media! I genuinely use it for inspiration and it’s a bit addictive but so useful when I need to put together my collections and shoots and communicating hair and make-up ideas. I love how I can neatly file my thoughts as this head of mine and all the ideas can get exhausting! I also like that it’s real people collecting what they like so it gives you an understanding of what your customer loves rather than what the fashion media think people should wear. I have always found Italian Vogue, especially the couture issues, an inspiration classic, even the ads are good! I don’t really do blogs; I just don’t have time. I’m aware of them and sometimes I look at websites for fashion trends to know what not to do because if it’s on there you know everyone will be doing it! Everyone looks at; I would rather find a more individual source that not everyone is looking at. I’m an annoying snapper and take lots of photos of building details, which give me inspiration too. But sometimes I just have so many ideas I have to stop filling up my mind with inspiration to get clarity. Many times I am inspired from within, thinking about what I want to wear, what feels right to me or flatters me. I pick things up at flea markets that inspire me too…it is a bit arrogant to say, but I am a bit of my own muse I guess. And then there are the dreams!
What would be your dream creative project?
Before I die I want to do the costumes and creative direct the entire look of a futuristic, vampire psychological thriller with a 1920's aesthetic and a bloody good script. Maybe there will be a bit of time travel involved. French actress Marion Cotillard will be my lead, I hope! Any great script writers and producers out there interested call me!
What are you looking forward to?
Marrying Paul next year, our honeymoon, and making the dress for it! I am also planning a little renovation to my apartment in Fitzroy. It’s been fun planning out the design of it as I love interiors too. I did the interior for my shop when it opened and it was such a exciting process seeing my ideas evolve.
One of Gwendolynne's designs on the runway.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighborhood and why?
Um this is hard! The backstreets of Fitzroy and Collingwood (can I make it one suburb cause I’m ruling out the main streets? Let’s call it 'Fitzwood'?). There are just so many cool things happening on the backstreets and they are filled up with creative local types which is more my scene.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
We develop and design all our own trimmings overseas individually, and many of the laces are from France, Italy or Holland. Generally our trade raw materials are just not from Melbourne. Sad but true, there are just no factories left. But if I was to go personal shopping I might go to the The Fabric Store on Brunswick Street and I do love a hardware store!
What and where was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?
Dare I say as much as I’d love to give one of the many great Melbourne restaurants a plug, my last great meal was a romantic Valentine's Day steak on my patio all dressed up with candles and tablecloths. It was perfection with my love and the most perfect night.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Saturdays I see clients back to back, as most of my clients work during the week, so are only available to see me then. So most Saturdays you'll find me upstairs in my fitting room at Gwendolynne. Saturday for me is like Friday for everyone else and Sundays are my Saturdays. If I can I go to Camberwell Market, or grab a breakfast in a local backstreet 'Fitzwood' café. I love Min Lokal, The Grace, Cibi, Rosamond, Epatant, etc. But often my Sunday breakfast will be on my patio as I am having a love affair with it! Paul and I might go for a bike ride or picnic and I will attempt to play pétanque or badminton badly. Last weekend we played ping pong at Shadow Electric bar which was so much fun. We often sneak a few little work things amongst the day, which we shouldn’t but sometimes Paul might need to go to a furniture auction viewing, which I enjoy too. It’s great that we both understand each other’s obsession with our businesses. Usually the day ends with a wine and some food and or we/I might catch up with some friends or my family, I just love going with the flow on my days off and if I can squeeze a massage in then a good day has been had!
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Merri Creek bike trail. I love the bit through Abbotsford, Clifton Hill, Westgarth, North Fitzroy, Northcote and Thornbury. There’s so many cool nooks and the landscape is amazing, which is rambling and unkempt as opposed to Southside, which is more manicured. I like the reality of it, and then there’s the convent there too… I love it so much that I shot my latest campaign there with this amazing photographer Fiona Storey.
Gwendolynne's latest campaign imagery.

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