Fashion designer Kym Ellery is one of Australia’s most successful fashion exports.
Raised in Karratha, a rugged mining town in remote Western Australia, Ellery is only the third Australian designer to appear on the official schedule for Paris Fashion Week. She is living evidence that fashion talent can flourish anywhere.
“For the first years of my life my brother and I played in the red dirt at the front of the house and dad worked for Shell driving massive road trains,” says Ellery. “I remember mum making sandwiches for him for his three-day drives from Karratha to Perth – they were as tall as four handbags!” she laughs.
Long haul travel is a big part of Ellery’s life, albeit at the pointy end of a plane as part of a schedule that includes staging twice yearly presentations during Paris Fashion Week, plus additional work trips to China, Hong Kong, Italy, London and the US.
Building a global business isn’t easy, but Ellery’s frequent flyer miles combined with fierce talent and an equally fierce work ethic have resulted in an enviable list of international stockists for her eponymous label.
Net-a-Porter, Dover Street Market in London, China’s Lane Crawford and Galleries Lafayette in Paris are among the international retailers carrying the Ellery brand.
In October 2015, Ellery made its debut on the official schedule at Paris Fashion Week after being accepted by the event’s notoriously controlling gatekeeper, the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. Collette Dinnigan and Martin Grant are the only other Australian designers to have been accepted since the event’s inception. .
The mix of deconstructed suiting, feminine panelled dresses and fluid crepe separates proved worthy of Ellery’s new Parisian peers while staying true to her signature bold, architectural silhouettes and balance of masculine and feminine influences.
“Paris is a huge honour and it’s really validated the brand globally,” says Ellery. “For me to realise that’s where we’re at is exciting, because you can get very stuck into your work and not realise how far you’ve come.”
Just how did Ellery go from playing in the dust in the Australian outback to appearing on the official schedule of Paris Fashion Week? It all began with a frilly skirt at the local shops in Karratha.
“I was a very placid and relaxed child, I hardly talked,” says Ellery. “Mum says the first time I showed any emotion was when we were at the shops and I saw this frilly white skirt with polka dots on it.
“I wanted it and I threw the biggest tantrum ever, so mum bought me the skirt and I wore it every day after that.”
As she grew up Ellery worked in the local bridal boutique before completing a certificate of fashion design in Perth, then a short course in fashion illustration at London’s renowned Central Saint Martins College. When she returned to Australia, she found a job as a receptionist at fashion magazine Russh before launching her label in Sydney in 2007 at the age of 23.
“From a very young age I knew I was going to be a fashion designer and have my own brand,” says Ellery. “It was just a matter of finding the right time.”
Ellery stayed at Russh for another two years, working on her fashion label after hours.
“I kept the job and did both, but as the brand grew it became obvious I couldn’t keep working at the magazine,” she says. “At that point I pulled a team together and it stopped being a hobby and became a business.”
From the start Ellery’s designs had a recognisable style. The bold, exaggerated shapes, often including voluminous flares and bell sleeves, stood out from the sea of more casual Australian street and swimwear labels. Her designs swiftly found a following among fashion-forward women, magazines and stylists.
Equally important to the success of the Ellery brand, which now employs 29 people in the inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale, is Ellery’s own considerable drive and vision.
“We have a really powerful work ethic, a strong team and a global outlook,” she says. “We approach everything from a global point of view and constantly strive to improve and achieve excellence.”
Ellery manufactures mainly in Australia, with a Vietnamese family firm producing most of the brand’s garments in Sydney’s inner west.
“We produce in Australia and we’re really proud of that,” Ellery says. “It’s not easy, when a lot of people are sending production to China, but it’s important we give our customers a quality piece that will be in their lives for a substantial amount of time, not just a throwaway.”
The designer is equally proud of being Australian, which she believes has helped generate overseas sales and opportunities for her brand.
“Being Australian is an important part of who I am and I love meeting people abroad because they love it too,” she says. “Australians have a reputation for being easy going and friendly, but also hardworking and talented. I enjoy receiving the interest that comes from that.”
“The northern hemisphere is now our biggest market, and the best thing for the business is to open an office in Europe, so I’m heading over to Paris to set up a French division of Ellery to help us nurture our global customers,” Ellery says. “I’ll be splitting my time between France and Australia.”
Ellery is also opening a New York office to better service the American market, where red carpets beckon.
Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chloe Sevigny are among Ellery’s celebrity fans. The brand sees a significant lift in interest and sales each time they stride the ruby rug in an Ellery design.
“America is a really big market for us and we need to have an office in the US to support our customers there,” she explains.
The global expansion doesn’t stop there. Before her Paris debut Ellery was in Beijing for a series of special events and trunk shows at one of her relatively new retailers, Lane Crawford, to help build the brand’s presence in Asia.
Canada, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong are growth markets that form part of Ellery’s long term plan to become a truly international brand.
A new Sydney flagship store will open next year as a blueprint for a standalone retail store rollout around the world.
“I’m very proud of being Australian and that’s why we are building a new flagship store in Sydney first before focusing on opening other stores in other countries,” Ellery says.
“Business is really strong and we are going to make it even stronger.”