On a chilly winter’s day in Paris, Beth and Tessa MaGraw walked into the Palais de Tokyo for the meeting of a lifetime. Fashion designer Victoria Beckham, British Fashion Council chair Natalie Massenet, Lanvin creative director Bouchra Jarrar and Harvey Nichols group fashion buying director Anita Barr were among a who’s who of the international fashion industry assembled in a room waiting for the MacGraw sisters to present their new fashion collection as part of the International Woolmark Prize (IWP) global final.
“Walking into that room was a very surreal moment because every single judge was an amazing individual and here they all were together,” says Tessa MacGraw.
Held during Paris Haute Couture week, the IWP is the world’s most prestigious award for rising fashion stars. The designers compete for an A$100,000 prize awarded for design excellence using Australian merino wool.
macgraw was one of just six finalists, having beaten hundreds of fashion designers from more than 60 countries to secure a highly coveted and prestigious finals berth.
“It was a very proud moment to represent Australia and New Zealand in the global final,” says Tessa. “We wanted to make sure we did our country proud. We put in everything we could, to do something nobody had ever done before.”
macgraw opening look at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2016. Photographer: Luca Dawson
A new way with lace
What nobody had ever done was to create a fine guipure lace from Australian merino wool rather than cotton or polyester.
macgraw worked closely with a Swiss guipure manufacturer – a leading lace supplier to fashion houses including Gucci – to create the world’s first lace made from superfine Australian merino wool.
“It took some convincing but they finally agreed to work with us,” says Tessa.
“They had to pull aside a Schiffli machine from their regular order run to test different weights and thicknesses of wool because they usually use cotton, silk and polyester yarns.”
Success was finally achieved with a superfine 2/80 yarn that was used to create a lace that doesn’t crease, has a unique drape, and the warmth and comfort of merino.
“To our knowledge this has never been done before and the supplier was so impressed with the results of our project that they will now be offering this merino yarn in their regular product offering to customers worldwide,” says Tessa.
The judging panel were impressed with the sheer innovation and aesthetic appeal of macgraw’s six-look IWP capsule collection.
“They developed an entirely new way of producing wool,” said IWP judge Natalie Massenet, later telling Vogue.com, “thanks to macgraw, we’ll be able to wear lace in winter and still be warm. To a girl, that’s a dream come true.”
Winning praise in Paris from the likes of Massenet is a world away from the MacGraw sisters’ upbringing in suburban Sydney.
From childhood dress-ups to a contemporary fashion brand
“It was always the dream growing up that we would be fashion designers,” says Beth. “We used to play dress-ups together, do little fashion shows for mum and dad and make clothes for our Barbies,” she laughs.
Formal training came when Tessa studied fashion design at the Karl von Busse Institute of Design in Sydney, before working as a buyer for Paul & Joe, the Belinda boutique and the Corner Shop. Meanwhile, Beth pursued a career in public relations and marketing.
“Our backgrounds meshed really well because PR and marketing is incredibly important in fashion,” says Beth.
The pair launched their eponymous label in 2012.
“The macgraw woman is a millennial who appreciates good quality and has a personality,” says Tessa. “She is not afraid to wear a fun daisy print or a silk pyjama set with beetles all over it. She appreciates fine details with an irreverent sense of femininity.”
macgraw flannel. Photographer Edward Mulvihill, stylist Kelly Hume.
In just five years macgraw has garnered a celebrity fan base including Karlie Kloss, Lorde, Coco Rocha and Lou Doillon, who described their work as “beautiful” when she was judging the IWP.
Luxury e-tailers Farfetch and Moda Operandi, London’s Avenue 32, Boutique One in Paris and Lane Crawford in mainland China and Hong Kong are among the enviable list of international stockists that macgraw has painstakingly built based on quality rather than quantity.
Europe is calling
Since macgraw made its runway debut at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia in 2014, the duo’s focus has shifted overseas. They regularly show their collections in New York and London and in September 2016 took part in the Australian Fashion Chamber’s (AFC) Australian Designers Abroad showroom in Paris.
“You just have to be in Paris,” says Beth. “It transforms your profile and brand awareness. We were in the showroom and [international Vogue editor] Suzy Menkes came over to our rack and asked us questions about the collection.”
AFC General Manager Courtney Miller says: “To do well on the global stage, you need your point of difference, your signature, and macgraw has found that.”
Backstage with the macgraw. Photographer: Beth MacGraw
The Australian difference
Despite the overseas expansion, macgraw maintains a proudly Australian attitude that the sisters believe gives them a global advantage when it comes to professionalism and personality.
“Australians in general are positive people with a strong work ethic; people overseas really gravitate to that,” says Beth.
“In a design context, there is a sense of ease in our silhouettes that also comes from being Australian. We love detail but we never want it to feel uncomfortable or so fussy that you want to take it off.”
The duo is also proud to manufacture entirely in Australia.
“We are very hands-on people, so in terms of quality control, it’s easier for us to manufacture here in Sydney,” says Beth.
Beth and Tessa MacGraw. Credit: Cara O'Dowd
macgraw will continue to court customers worldwide as part of its global expansion plan, with the sisters taking their new range to New York and Paris in 2017.
“2016 was all about raising the profile of the business, in 2017 we want to focus on the business itself,” says Beth.
“We don’t want it to be ‘oh, we had a wonderful year’ and then let it all stagnate. We have to get everything in place so we can keep taking orders and keep growing, because we want to be around for a long time.”
Find out more about macgraw.