On a beautiful sun-drenched day as I walked down William Street, I came across a store with interesting garments. I could tell immediately they were beautifully made and would attract a certain segment of the market. By the time I left I realised the importance of story. Ruth Fairbairn talked to me about her vision, fabrics, and design elements. I could see there was a romantic and passionate side to this business owner.
Ruth is happy to remain small and to implement the old handcrafted techniques she learnt from her mother. It’s something we have been missing in fashion retail for a while. For Ruth, it’s not about the size of the business, but how she can make an impact on a human being without making an impact on the environment. Let’s chat with Ruth Fairbairn from Fairbairn Man & Woman.
Ruth, can you tell me a little bit about the story behind Fairbairn?
I earned a fashion degree at the University of Technology, Sydney fifteen years ago. Prior to that, my life growing up in New Zealand had been with a mother who always had fabric galore around with her sewing. She has a dressmaker certificate and I used to watch her do beading for the Farmers Trading Company, so I have a wealth of history with my mother and with my grandmother as well. We used to do incredible patternmaking out of newspaper on the floor, so that is how I started on this path.
I eventually honed down the look to the type of person I wanted to design clothes for. I used to walk down William Street all the time, and then this shop came up for sale and we bought the building. It’s a family run business, and that’s the key to our success.
I get support for the handcrafting on garments from my mother and sister. There are two areas that I focus on within the history of fashion. One is probably the Italian Renaissance period. I have a great fixation with some of the artists of that time, like Pieter Bruegal, the Flemish artist who represented peasantry and simplicity in his colours as well as his use of natural fibre.
So there’s always a masculine and feminine androgynous aspect to what I do. That’s why it’s called Fairbairn Man & Woman—there’s a yin and a yang. The other era I focus on is Coco Chanel’s early work—when she first started to deconstruct men’s shirts and tailoring by cutting off a neck tie and making a cravat, or a bow to a shirt and adding and taking away proportions from pyjamas. I loved her wool jersey era, when she did tabs, which I represent as a design element and is a trademark of my clothing.
I’m aware of fashion, and I take from what is the fad element of fashion and make it my own. My ultimate goal is to make smaller ranges, as we must be sensitive to how we impact the planet. There are so many options that fashion retailing has become overwhelming. I would like to create a parallel to the slow food movement. We don’t have to mass produce clothes in a limited time. I am always looking at taking my handwork to another level and always to running the stitch method. Nothing is new in fashion. It’s your own interpretation and your own essence that makes the package.
Is the hand stitching a signature of your work?
Yes, it is. I try to do it subtlely. Sometimes if I get carried away with the hand stitching, I think, “Oh, my God. No one’s going to buy that.” But they do. People said that fashion or any type of design shouldn’t be trial and error, but I think that’s the best type of design. I think you don’t need too many rules. I think getting the design degree gave me the basic tools to know how to break those rules, and that’s a bit sad in our industry—that no one uses others as mentors. I don’t know why that’s happening, but it’s not just within fashion. It’s within architecture and industrial designs. There are so-called guilds or people with knowledge, so things are getting lost a little bit along the path. Mixing old and new is really important for me as a design person rather than having everything contemporary.
Your products are based on natural fibres, handcrafted designs, and wear-ability. Can you please expand on this philosophy?
I’m a living designer. You live and like clothing like a pair of jeans, so my philosophy is basically about being comfortable first. I do simple shapes that should fit with all day simple pieces like t-shirts, singlets, or pants that shouldn’t be too difficult to fit in other concepts that we wear every day. I have regular patrons who will buy the total package, but I don’t wish to push that on everyone. I think that would be boring.
The handwork is what I would like to be known for. I’m a natural fibre designer. Natural fibres are the key. I don’t really look at synthetics.
Are your learnings also based on the people coming in and what their needs are and what they want?
No. I can look at a woman’s form or the way she’s dressed, and know immediately what to add or take away. But the risk of it is you might not have the colour or fabric. It’s not easy for them to understand the concepts around the designs. As we go in to summer, I will make the range a bit simpler. People are used to the plain, so you need to watch that you don’t keep your garments heavily embellished or too beautiful. There is such a fine line and it’s a real awkward balance.
Ruth, I think that your model is very simple, and it’s the story behind it that makes you so successful. Can you expand on this statement?
People should identify with the retailer’s story and what they do. For me it’s the beautiful natural fibre. It’s not really what you designed; it’s the fabric. Sadly, we don’t have a very good textile technology here in Australia, so a lot of cloth is imported. If you spread yourself thinly, and do a bit of everything, you do not have a focus. I think that focusing becomes really specific with one design element, which for me is my handwork. It will never exhaust itself, so that’s what I’ve chosen rather than making fabric or printing fabric. My handwork is my signature element.
Every designer and retailer should really have a strong story. It’s what we’ve been taught from being a young child once upon a time. At the moment I am creating a story and range of ticking and stripes. It’s coming soon, and it’s not a nautical theme. The clothes might have an Italian reference with the cloth. It is still a work in progress, so I haven’t finished my story. I find it’s not just about the clothing. It’s about the props and the presentation and the one day to make that story. Every time I do a window, it has to have a story. It’s not just fashion—design encompasses all.
In design it’s okay to be extreme. You get people loving what you do or hating. You don’t need the middle; but sometimes you’ve got to come back to the middle. That means that you have to come back to playing the game occasionally. If I didn’t I just wouldn’t be here anymore. We’re not in New York. We’re not in a melting pot culture. I’ve been here long enough to look at the demographics of the eastern suburbs and the type of man and woman that’s here. You have to love that romance and take it on. That’s coming back to the middle because there’s a look they represent here, and luckily it’s natural fibres.
Australia is a young country. We’re learning. We’re like a sponge. We take from the overseas culture and fashion industry and are ruled by what’s happening on the catwalk in Europe. Most designers who go overseas want to make their mark or be accepted in that world, and that’s what I notice is happening with a few up and coming designers in our industry.
So in a nut shell I’m aware of fashion, but I don’t follow. I try not to follow too much, which is great.
Do you have a referral-based business?
I’m old fashioned. I have a word-of-mouth business. I’m on Instagram and I have a website, and for the technology aspect I’ve chosen to be minimal because that is also part of my branding, and philosophically I’m more focussed on physical intelligence. I’m into doing things by hand. So you’ve got to work out where your focus is, and also have the time to look after your family.
There are many retailers who want to have extended hours. You only trade Wednesday through Sunday. What sort of feedback do you get from your customers?
You have to be sensitive and work up to that slowly. I’ve been here fifteen years. I’ve worked seven days a week for two years. I dropped to six days and then I dropped to five days and then I dropped to four days, so over that time I slowly weaned the client to accept that I trade four days a week. That’s what a true boutique is anyway. Times are reflected and are clearly specified.
I had a full time staff in the shop, and that didn’t work, though I didn’t know that at the time. I like to look at man and woman and what they’re wearing and this is my world. Other designers may like to travel to Italy, though this is how I live my life. I know exactly who I am designing for.
I learnt early on to bring in others to help; otherwise I’d still be working so hard. I’ve got three other designers: Karen Plumpton, who is my equal and lives in Newtown where she makes her garments at home; a Japanese label that I’ve taken on, because their garments are great for our climate; and Sarah Puccini and an Italian label. That stops me from working so hard.
What do you think makes a successful retail business?
Being true to yourself. That’s the first thing. You got to be truthful to yourself and to others about what you’re doing. Second, you have to love what you do. Third, you want the money. That requires our bartering system to buy more fabric, to get our business successful on a level that we think is successful. It’s no else’s business but your own to see how much money you would like for your product. You want to make a profit. Our society is based on money as a first priority. Mine is not. It’s truth and love, and then the money will come.
Who’s your target market and are your designs based on specific needs?
I think it’s changeable. Our world is just going very fast, so I think you have to be quick to change. Demographics are not the same anymore. We have a fast life, so we have to keep it intuitive, even more so now than ever. So I can’t answer that clearly. I think it used to be clear cut. But the good designers have to be the ones who are intuitive and changing a little bit with the times.
I’m very lucky. I’m getting the next generation purchasing, and that’s a good designer. So the age demographics are across the board because of the type style that I’m doing. Usually my clients are self-employed. They’re professional; they like to intellectualise clothing, and that’s old ages and the next young artists.
Written and photographed by Penny Votzourakis.