The chaotic streets of Dharamsala may seem a long way from the fashionable shopping strips of Paddington, but this is exactly where designer Fleur Wood inadvertently sowed the seeds of a career that has seen her become a household name in Australia.
“I used to work with the Tibetan exile government,” says Wood in her studio in Sydney’s rag trade district of Surry Hills. “I was just doing charity work and ended up working for this company that employed Tibetan refugees, using their traditional arts and crafts to make contemporary products.”
Upon returning to Australia, Wood started up a company in 1999 to import textiles and fabrics from India. Working from her father’s garage on Sydney’s north shore, and with a $10,000 loan from him, the business soon took off. “It grew out of the contacts that I made [in India], and my love of design and fabrics,” says Wood. Within nine months, Wood had her own warehouse and work space, but she soon wanted more than an import company.
“After about two years I decided to launch my own label,” says Wood. “It was very small to begin with, basically four slips in four colours and a few cushions. From there it grew into a fully fledged fashion collection, where we [now] do suiting, evening dresses, sleepwear, swimwear and sometimes denim.”
Those original slips and cushions, plus pashminas and slip dresses made from vintage saris, were first sold at Bondi and Balmain markets; she opened her first store on Paddington’s Oxford Street in 2004.
Interestingly, Wood never trained as a fashion designer. And even after her time in India, “never really considered being a designer – I sort of fell into it”. Having said that, her work experience prior to her time overseas had always been in and around fashion, whether as a visual merchandiser, retail assistant or in public relations. “I had a mixed and varied career, but definitely I always loved fashion.
“It’s got its pros and cons,” says Wood of her lack of formal training. “Sometimes it’s good not to be trained, because you don’t know what you can’t do, so you just do it. But sometimes I think that some technical training would have been advantageous. I’m lucky to have surrounded myself with people with great skills and technical ability.”
While Wood obviously had the support of friends and family in Australia, she acknowledges that it was also a great place to start a fledgling business.
“I do think we’re very blessed in Australia,” says Wood. “Getting things up and running and making things happen in Australia is a lot easier than doing it overseas. If you go to a city like New York or London it’s hard to get seen. It’s easier to get ahead and get a break here, and much easier to get access to editors and journalists here.”
Another bonus of being based here is in regards to the eternal search for work/life balance. This is especially pertinent for Wood at this stage of her life and career, as she now has two young children, to factor in.
“It’s very easy in Australia to get that good work/life balance, and that’s really important to me,” says the 38-year-old designer. As we chat over peppermint tea, her toddler Billy is crawling around with a toy bus, his own creche set up casually in a corner, while Wood’s long-time companion, labrador Skip, takes a nap nearby.
“It’s a real blessing to be able to bring your children to work,” says Wood. “It’s a bit of a travelling circus coming to work every day, with a child on the hip and the dog following. But the girls in here really love having Billy here.”
There have been some concessions to make it all work. “I’ve really simplified things. And I don’t do as many extra projects as I would normally. I am very lucky to have a husband who has a flexible working schedule. We can juggle things so that one of us is with Billy most of the time.”
She met her husband, Nick Bryant, a British journalist and author in Delhi, and he is continually amazed by Wood’s juggling act. “I’ve always been in awe of my wife,” says Bryant, 43. “She’s always had this kind of transnational career and juggled it in a very impressive way.”
During his time as a BBC foreign correspondent, Bryant was often working out of war zones including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. “I think I work in a tough trade, but the fashion business has always struck me as pretty hard core,” he says.
“I think our isolation makes us work harder in some ways, and makes us strive a little bit harder,” says Wood. “And I think we are getting over our own cultural cringe. I think we have our own perspective here – it’s good to have an Australian perspective and Australian voice. I think that voice is becoming louder and clearer in all areas of the arts. It’s so great to see so many Australians in so many artistic fields having incredible international success.”
For Wood, that unique Australian voice attracted multi-brand US retailer Anthropologie at the very beginning of her designing career; she has been working with them for 10 years, which is their longest collaboration with an Australian designer.
“[Anthropologie] was one of my first wholesale accounts,” says Wood, who designs a range under the moniker Lil. “They had 30 stores when I started with them, now they have 157. It’s a substantial part of my business.”
Another large part of her business is her work with Australian retailer Myer, to whom she decamped last year after being with their direct opponent David Jones for six years. In addition to her main Fleur Wood collection, she designs an in-house line called Fleurette by Fleur Wood.
“Fleur has a very different handwriting to the rest of our designers,” says Judy Coomber, Group General Manager of Fashion and Accessories at Myer. “It’s a slightly vintage, soft and very feminine look that’s a nice fit. We love having her as part of the team – and she’s also got a very good business head on her shoulders.”
Wood also has five stand-alone retail stores of her own around Australia, where her nostalgic and feminine designs share space with eclectic gifts and whimsical interior design touches. “I’ve tried to create retail spaces that feel personal and that feel welcoming,” says Wood. “We did some customer surveys once, and someone described shopping in one of our stores as like going through somebody’s wardrobe. And I loved that. That would be exactly what we aspired to, that you wanted to go fossicking and rummaging.”
Depending on which store you go to, you are likely to find everything from ceramic swans and pictures of ballerinas to clusters of vintage colour-tinted photographs. And yet, the overall effect is never saccharine. “There is a nod to nostalgia in our stores. If the clothes are too nostalgic they end up looking costume-like, but in a retail environment you can get away with that.”
Something you will definitely find in her stores, and in those in Anthropologie’s US shopfronts, is her book Food Fashion Friends, which was published in 2010. It’s an entertaining guide, covering different types of themed dinner parties or events, and includes menus and recipes, styling tips and dress codes.
“I love entertaining, I love cooking,” says Wood. “I had this idea that sometimes it’s hard to find inspiration when you are entertaining. I was lucky enough to find a publisher who saw my vision and supported me in that. It was just a real passion project.”
The book has just gone into its second reprint, and according to Australian publishing law, having sold over 10,000 copies it is officially a bestseller. “It was a really nice way to explore the brand in a broader context and to give a broader context to the brand,” says Wood
While another book is in the pipeline, still in the lifestyle realm, the first one has led to an unexpected potential opportunity. “We’ve been approached by a production company in LA to do a TV show,” says Wood. “It’s in talks and the talks could go on for quite some time. We’re exploring the idea.”
And while Wood’s vision for the future hopefully includes a “much more diversified business, a lot more projects and a lot more collaborations” alongside more books and perhaps that TV show, she hasn’t lost sight of why she does all this in the first place.
“You know what, it’s always a great feeling when you see a girl walking down the street in one of your dresses and you think, ‘Wow, she looks really great.’ That always puts a smile on my face.”