The name Amanda Briskin-Rettig is a memorable one, and that’s as it should be. This woman is a powerhouse, with serious entrepreneurial kudos.
Born in Melbourne, Amanda spent some of her formative childhood years living in London and Israel, an experience that has stayed with her forever. It was during this time that she was exposed to the hustle and bustle of life, culture, art, theatre, and most significantly, fashion. Decades later, she recalls the simple of act of walking to the bus stop, and being in awe of every shop window. And so a fascination with fashion, and particularly accessories, began. ‘I think I spent more time in my wardrobe, than wearing my wardrobe,’ she admits.
After returning to Australia as teenager, Amanda went on to study business at Monash University. She ended up working at an IT company in her early twenties, but by the time her mid-twenties rolled around, she had started dreaming up a business of her own.
Amanda designed a few leather bags and took them, herself and her savings overseas, with no real strategic plan other than giving it a go and living by her motto: Whatever it becomes, it is. That company ended up being Mimco. The business started modestly, with Amanda selling her designs to gift and department stores, and eventually opening her first boutique, to having 25 boutiques nationally. She sold the business in 2007.
In 2012, after some downtime, Amanda opened a new chapter with the launch of A-ESQUE, a luxury leather accessories label. ‘I didn’t actually think I would return to accessories,’ she says. ‘I came to the realisation that no one really needs anything, so if I was going to make something, it would need to be honest and come from a place of desire.’
These two pillars guide the A-ESQUE aesthetic, which is simple, classic, and thoughtfully playful, with the addition of quirky applique details – faces, lips, stars and other jazzy nuances. When starting the new business, Amanda was keen to keep everything local, and four years on the brand continues to design and make everything out of their Richmond atelier.
A-ESQUE now have three boutiques, Chapel St and Collins St in Melbourne, and a third store in Sydney’s the Strand.
Tell us a little bit about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?
I was born in Melbourne but when I was little my mother took me and my siblings overseas to live abroad for a few years. She was a young mother, and decided she needed to get out of this city and experience the world beyond Melbourne. We lived in London for four years and Israel for one, and I think it was really defining in how we grew up because we didn’t stay too sheltered, we got out into the world. She gave us some incredible life experiences.
I still think about my early years overseas, even small things like walking to the bus stop in London and looking in the shop windows. Being surrounded by the culture of art, fashion and theatre at that young age had a really profound influence on me and impact on what I ended up doing as an adult.
We came back to Australia in my early teenage years, and after high school I ended up going to Monash University to do a double degree in business, marketing and human resource management. I wisely or unwisely decided to leave uni early because I was worried I wouldn’t get a job. I ended up working for an IT company, doing marketing and management. Surprisingly this job gave me a lot of insight for my future businesses, and especially A-ESQUE, as I was involved in the production and operations side of things.
Style, fashion and accessories were my passion growing up. What I wore every single day was something that I was always into. I spent more time in my wardrobe then wearing my wardrobe I think. My bedroom was forever a mess, and I was forever pacing my Grandmother’s and Mum’s wardrobe and bribing them to take me shopping. I just loved fashion from the beginning, but I think, funnily enough, my life experience, upbringing and career gave me a balance in terms of what I became exposed to, and what’s come out at the other end.
What eventually led you to starting Mimco?
I don’t think I ever made the assessment to start Mimco, I kind of just did it. I was young and didn’t have a lot of commitments in terms of a mortgage, or children, or school fees, so I think it was just a very personal leap of faith. I don’t even know if it was a leap of faith as I just did it, there was no real risk assessment.
I think I still do things this way. I like to say: ‘whatever it becomes, it is’. Mimco started with a cheesy beginning, I couldn’t find a bag I liked, so I thought maybe I will make them. I saved some money, designed some bags, and took myself overseas to start production and find some small family factories to work with (some of which I ended up working with for my entire time at Mimco!).
It was a very organic, natural process of just trying something. It wasn’t really streamlined or thought out in the beginning, I just worked really hard. Along the way I really engaged with the right people, we had a great team and I think in the end it’s about picking the right people to work with, as much as it is working hard and backing yourself.
You now are at the helm of one our favourite Australian accessories labels, A-ESQUE. How did you conceive this new brand, and what motivated you to start the business after a break from the fashion industry?
After Mimco I had some downtime, and did some consulting work for a little while. There wasn’t really a ‘light bulb moment’ when I thought I will go back into accessories, in fact I didn’t think I would, as I felt a little anti-consumption at the time. The crux of it is that no one really needs anything, so if I was going to make something I wanted it to be fueled by a desire and something that was honest.
I finally found a way to start something that felt real to me, and that was the beginnings of A-ESQUE. For this business to work, I really wanted to explore opportunities to have everything locally made, from buying machines to investigating ways to make things in a very bespoke way. With Mimco we were building a brand, style and identity, but I like to think of A-ESQUE as the antithesis of this, as it is more about the integrity of the product, and where the product comes from. I wanted it to be about quality, in terms of workmanship, craftsmanship and what that represents.
A-ESQUE is well known for its high quality leather accessories that combine classic designs with a little fun and frivolity. How would you describe your own personal style?
My own person style is very dependent on my mood and how I am feeling inside. I think style comes from within, and my within is always changing! I like when something is simple, but when there is something more to it, I like to explore and be playful. I think that’s where accessories come into play, as they impact how you feel, and what you know about yourself while wearing them.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of A-ESQUE? What’s your creative process? How is the business structured, how do you translate your ideas from concept to a tangible item on the shop floor?
It’s a very artisanal approach to making. Each concept starts from a paper pattern. We have an idea of what we want to make, and then everything evolves from the pattern. We cut everything out of paper, then cardboard, then we use the cardboard to make leather prototypes. We then construct everything in our atelier in Richmond.
We have a very reasonable sized team, it’s very structured in terms of our production process. You can’t be putting pieces out at the prices we do without ensuring you have consistency and quality on your side. We have a senior making team, and also have a junior team that we are mentoring up the ranks so that they can grow with the business.
The designs themselves are collaborative within the workplace. My view on design has changed, it comes as much from IP of how to make things, as much as it comes from how I want things to look. I may have a vision, but it takes the team to bring it to life.
A-ESQUE has recently launched the Initials Bureau – can you tell us a little bit about this range and what inspired it?
We’ve always been on the more ‘personalised’ side of making things, but I think the Initials Bureau has taken the personalisation aspect to the next level. It’s not just about stamping people’s initials onto a product, but making the piece for them from scratch. We like the idea of intertwining their initials into the process of making the bag, they are all made to order. I always laugh because generally if there is a hard way to do something, that is the way I choose to do it!
This is a harder way to do it, but there’s something really special about it. We’ve got some new making methods that we are going to develop with the Initials Bureau too later in the year. The offering is in its early days, but we are excited to see where it will go.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Don McQualter of Meacham Nockles McQualter. I always like his interiors work, and have always been inspired by how he applies colour, mid century furniture and then the detail of the work he does. I love the form, it’s very soft and not super obvious. They’ve done the Scanlan Theordore stores and Bills in Bondi to name a few, which are both delights to visit.
Georgina Weir of Le Louvre. I think she is a real icon in Australian fashion. She has been doing the multi-label boutique thing for a long time. Her approach to how she dresses, what she buys, how the store is designed to how she caters an event is really inventive, there is a lot of thought behind everything she does. I am really inspired by that uncompromising approach, it’s really about a love of design. I’m really excited to also announce A-ESQUE will be working with Le Louvre later this year!
David Flack of Flack Studio. I loved working with him on our A-ESQUE Strand store in Sydney. He is spot on and gets it. I think he is going to do big things.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
I am inspired when my mind is open, and this is usually when I travel. The best aspect of travel to me is that I am open to absorbing everything, and inspired by everything around me – from people to books, art, buildings and experiences.
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
I think it would be doing what I am doing now, especially when it is going against the retail tide. I think I will look back on this period fondly and it will definitely be something I am proud of in years to come. There’s something about the meaningfulness of where things comes from, and how people are driven by desire, and I hope with A-ESQUE we can contribute to this sentiment.
What would be your dream creative project?
I really love interiors and I think there might be an interiors project in me one day. I have done our stores and our home. I think working on some form of collaboration or project with a really big business, where I was able to infuse it with my aesthetic and creative beliefs is something I would love to explore.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I am loving where we are in Richmond. There is this amalgamation of design and cafes and proximity to the city and home to me that is really beautiful. I have been calling Richmond the city atelier, as there’s this mix of making and selling and design and people. I think it has a great vibe.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
I can’t go past Japanese at Kenzan, after all for these years nothing beats it. The carpet, the timber, it hasn’t changed in a long time and that’s part of its charm. They are closed on Sundays because they don’t get fresh fish, that’s how real the place is, and I love it!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
First thing Saturday morning is personal training and yoga. Pre-8am for two hours I am doing exercise. The secret to my exercise regime is to do it before everyone wakes up! From 8am I am with my three boys who are 19, 12 and 5, and my husband. We do all the typical Saturday family things, which could be anything from watching my kids play football to having lunch together.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Melbourne has some really good kids’ parks and playgrounds. There is a beautiful wood park near Albert Park and another in St Kilda, I take my 5-year-old there and have taken all of my kids there growing up.