Amid the creative buzz engulfing Brisbane after the World Expo 88, a mutual friend introduced Pamela Easton to Lydia Pearson. The pair instantly bonded over their shared love of op-shopping (which wasn’t exactly the norm in 1989!), traditional making, and elements from costume and tribal dress. Living in a tropical environment, they also loved colour and texture.
The label they launched in 1989, Easton Pearson, went on to produce wearable fashion ranges that shirked seasonal trends and embraced all things eclectic and handcrafted. At their height, they stocked their collections in high-end department stores around the world and had two Australian flagship stores.
For 28 years, Pamela and Lydia were at the forefront of slow style and ethical manufacture, as they worked closely with artists and artisans both locally and across India and Vietnam. ‘Their unique approach referenced art, travel, film, literature and music to create a bold aesthetic characterised by daring patterns, innovative materials, meticulous techniques, and a sustainable ethos,’ tells Museum of Brisbane Director Renai Grace.
I was lucky enough to speak with Lydia Pearson to gain more insight into this iconic Australian brand on the eve of the exhibition opening…
What were the key influences that informed the Easton Pearson style?
We both loved easy comfort but exuberant decoration. We did not have a strong affinity for seasonal trends, but liked to be a bit outside the mainstream. The women who related to that way of dressing found it hard to buy, and so they were very loyal.
Once established, what did a year in the life of EP come to look like?
At the start, life was local and relaxed, with the business running between our two houses in Brisbane. By 1998 we were traveling enormously: India for two to three weeks at a time (at least three times a year), Paris twice,and then Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the States sporadically.
How frequently were you producing new ranges?
We worked on three collections a year. Once we started the Diffusion label, in 2010, this increased to five or six. We worked together on everything, obsessing over details of fabric and surface decoration, managing the workload of our own workroom, the team in India, and the specialist artisans making in Vietnam. The Indian production team, whilst managed independently, was numerous and worked only for us, so the responsibility to keep them busy all year was an added logistical complication.
As your business evolved what helped you explore your ideas and guide your choices? And how did you see the role of fashion in relation to art, craft, design, and culture?
Our work was so close and first-hand with all the people we worked with. Mainly our team was in the Brisbane workroom, but the team in Mumbai was also an integral part of our daily life. Thanks to Sudha Patel, who organised and sourced many of our raw materials and the artisans who used them, we knew everyone from the artist who drew our screens for printing, to the weavers, to the man who cut the sequins. In such close proximity, ethical practice is almost a default position. It is lack of connection that makes it easier to avoid those issues.
‘Fashion’ is a multi-faceted term, which encompasses everything from the one-million-of-a-style mass-produced garments, to the small independent makers, and everything in between. At its worst, fashion is an aesthetic predator, but at best, it can form a symbiotic relationship with other design and cultural practices, each nurturing the other. We felt a part of our art and cultural community and worked with many local practitioners in our collections.
What are you most proud of achieving together?
It seems like a miracle that we kept the label going for 28 years, stayed relatively sane, and did it from Brisbane. The world changed so much in that time. We are proud of having remained relevant, and true to our vision at the same time.
The Easton Pearson archive ended up comprising more than 3300 garments. Over the years, how did you approach storing and organising this?
We started consciously keeping garments from about 1996, when a conservation-minded friend suggested it. It became an automatic habit. Eventually, it got so big that we had to extend our workroom to house it. We referred to the garments constantly for our new collections, and came to understand what a valuable resource it was. We stored them by season, with our linesheets to refer to when we wanted something.
The Museum of Brisbane seems a wonderfully fitting home for the archive?
When Dr Paul Eliadis acquired the garments from us and subsequently donated them to the museum, we had discussed potential institutions, but MoB was a perfect choice. It means the collection stays in Brisbane, is still accessible to refer to, and there are opportunities to use it as a teaching tool. Pam and I have donated an additional 5,000 objects, accessories, ephemera, media clippings, photographs and other bits and pieces that help tell the story of the garments’ design and production, and offer insight into running a fashion business.
This first exhibition showcases the ‘most daring’ technical innovations, fabric and embellishment choices of Easton Pearson over its 28 years (1989-2016).
Is there a stand out garment for either of you that embodies the idea particularly well?
Yes, a different one every time we think about it! If daring means difficult to achieve, then perhaps the work we did with the Node women in Kachchh, India. After driving into the desert, with no roads, to visit their remote tribal community, we were only able to sporadically receive the vivid mirror embroidered braids they made. We had to join them together in small pieces to make each garment. It was like a jigsaw, but so satisfying.
The exhibition explores the way that Easton Pearson has impacted Australia’s fashion history – what do you hope is your legacy?
Hopefully, we have made it seem possible to run a business on your own terms, stay local, and reach the world.
As we move into a new conscious era, what are your thoughts about the fashion industry?
This is a wonderfully exciting time to be an independent designer. It feels like the 80s again, with little brands popping up everywhere. Instagram, Etsy, and Shopify have revolutionised this end of the industry.
What do you suggest up-and-coming designers and fashion enthusiasts should keep front of mind?
Buy less, buy better, keep longer, think more.
After years working so closely, do you miss working in the business now? And each other?
Pam is still working in the business with her own brand Pamela Easton, living the dream. I’m teaching fashion at QUT, so living in a future fashion universe. We see each other pretty often, but not for long enough! The exhibition has been a great catalyst.
The Designers’ Guide: Easton Pearson Archive
November 23rd to April 22nd
Museum of Brisbane
City Hall, 64 Adelaide Street,
Brisbane City, Queensland
Tickets $12/$9, children under 12 free.
Follow @museumofbrisbane for updates. There is a wonderful program of events for kids and adults alike over the school holiday period, including daily kids’ making sessions, and Drawing the Body workshops!.