It was 2014 and I was trawling eBay for Aje’s Catara Mini Skirt. The sequinned skirt, with cut-outs and zig-zag hemline, had sold out Australia-wide and I was desperate to part of what Aje co-founder Edwina Forest describes as “quite a phenomenon”. “I feel like everyone was kind of wearing one!” she tells me laughing. It’s true. They were. Everyone from Sydney’s it-girl elite to penniless university students desperately trying to save had one of the micro-mini, glitter-drenched skirts. “It was all hand-sequinned…We couldn’t keep up the demand!”
But the Catara Mini has been just one example of Aje’s stranglehold on the fashionable woman’s wardrobe. There was – and still is – the Aje Logo Tee; a simple boyfriend style t-shirt with embellished Aje insignia that has seen over 50 iterations and “which continues to baffle us by how many times we can reinvent it,” says Forest. Then the Shrimpton Mini; a button-up, front-pocketed mini skirt cut from butter-soft leather that has transcended both season and trend to remain a staple in women’s wardrobes for years. It’s these cult pieces, some crafted very early in the Aje story, which have defined the brand, so much they now make up part of a permanent collection called the Aje Signatures; a kind of beautiful fixture that never sells out. But how do you create this kind of cult, and more importantly, sustain it?
“I guess we just try and create things that feel authentic to us at the time and then sometimes, accidentally, you have your finger on the pulse and it’s also what the market is demanding.”
With fashion’s lightning-fast pace and short attention span, time is often the truest measure of success for brands. Today, 11 years on, Aje opens Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, the country’s most prestigious fashion event. For a brand to sustain buzz, remain commercially viable but also stay true to itself for over a decade is testament to the unwavering authenticity and passion of Forest and co-founder Adrian Norris. Just as they did some 11 years ago, they continue to champion their distinct brand of urban resort, their modern army of beautiful bohemian warriors. The Aje woman is still the same, she’s just evolved a little.
Ahead of today’s show, GRAZIA chats to the beautifully eloquent and equally exuberant Robinson about authenticity, why retail is still so important and what the Aje acronym actually stands for (you may be surprised!).
GRAZIA (Chrisanthi): You’re celebrating 11 years of Aje this year and opening Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2019, which is such an incredible feat in Australian fashion. What does this mean to you?
Edwina: It still feels like a milestone – every year counts these days! We feel really proud of where we’re at as a brand. Obviously being asked to be the Mercedes-Benz presents designers for 2019 is a huge honour and one we take very seriously, and I think it is an accolade which really shows the measure of where the brand is at. There is a measure of stress that goes with it but by the same token we feel ready for it and it feels like the right time for the brand.
G: How did the Aje story begin? What have been the highs and lows? And what was your defining moment?
E: The beginning is a bit of long-winded one, but in a nutshell, Adrian became best friends – we always lose track of the date – about 17 years when we’d both left school and not started our careers as such but had studied in our way and were about to launch our careers. I had studied journalism and was about to move to Sydney for RUSSH Magazine, Adrian has studied Fine Arts in Venice in Italy and he was about to open a multi-brand store in Noosa and I guess where the brand came from…we always say there was niche for a high-end brand which bridged the divide between coastal and urban fashion and this was literally 11 years ago; there were a lot of surf brands and a lot of high-end Australian designers doing amazing things for city life, but there was no one that was really doing both, especially in Noosa, because my family are also from the Sunshine Coast. In little towns like that where’s there’s a lot of affluent people who live there but also affluent people who venture there and have holiday houses and streets lined with beautiful restaurants, the vibe is obviously to go from beach to beautiful restaurant for lunch or dinner and be able to keep the kind of same attire, perhaps accessorise slightly differently. But then you want to be able to take those clothes back to your real life. You don’t want to have two totally separate wardrobes and so that was really the very beginning and we’ve very much stayed true to that, I think all our pieces really do have that element of versatility to them. We still very much have these elements; cottons, woven Iinens, silk cottons, all of those quite organic fabrics that breathe really easily in hot resort kind of climates and they’re pared-back with tough leathers or beading or beautiful embroideries. I guess what’s become quite a defining thing for us is now the world has kind of turned that way; everybody is travelling so much there is a need for these pieces, it’s almost like what was our niche at the beginning has almost become an even greater strength because some brands just specialise in either but we have both.
G: Are there any defining pieces that really propelled the brand? For me, the cut-out, Catara mini skirt comes to mind…
E: I think we’ve had many moments. We’ve been lucky, obviously we have an amazing team now that help us with many things, but I think Adrian and I working together on the design and having that contrast has allowed us to really have a lot of kind of really iconic pieces and quite young in the brand’s trajectory. I think to have what we now call signature pieces in every collection, so they are literally on a flow within our stores – so that they never sell out. Without really registering that’s what we were doing, we created a lot of them quite early and obviously they evolve and there’s more than happen. But the Catara Mini that you brought up, very back in the beginning that was quite a phenomena, I feel like everyone was kind of wearing one!
G: It really was. To be completely honest, I actually had to get mine on eBay because you were just constantly sold out!
E: We couldn’t keep up the demand! It was all hand-sequinned, and our beading always has been. I mean, obviously now we’ve had move to different factories that have bigger manpower in order to do things and I think also at that point, we’ve never really adhered to trends, we’ve always just done what we felt was authentic to us at the time of inspiration but I sometimes what happens is you accidentally end up being part of a trend or maybe setting a trend and I think it was quite a big sequin trend. No one was really doing that and I think it started right after that!
G: it also very much changed the wearability of sequins.
E: Totally. We were wearing with an oversized t-shirt or a leather jacket in winter, it was really just street style as oppose to being evening. Then there’s obviously the Aje Logo T-shirts which continue to baffle us by how many times we can reinvent it – but the original still sells more! And the leather mini skirts – the Shrimpton Minis – those as well.
G: So what and who inspires you? Do you have a particular Aje woman in mind when designing?
E: We definitely have an Aje girl that obviously comes every season and we obviously think about who she is, even in an aspirational sense. Obviously for us we’ve now got 17 stores and wholesale so it is a very big consideration of ours to consider who our customer is at the same time because I think there’s always this push and pull, a beautiful dance I guess between who you want your customer to be and perhaps who your customer is. And I think the brands who get it right and have longevity have both, they definitely set this aspirational element because it’s always nice to try and improve and have things to literally aspire to, but by the same token you have to be really realistic about who your customer is because ultimately they are the people who are buying your product and they need to need these pieces and want your pieces in some capacity. But before every collection we definitely reconsider the customer and the Aje girl.
G: Can you tell us about the new collection?
E: The woman we considered was definitely a contemporary, modern woman. We’ve been really specific about the casting this year, but it’s always been in our brand ethos, it’s what we’ve felt really strongly about, too, to really champion diversity. If anyone has ever gone back through our archives on social media and the website, we’ve always used models of different colour and different culture.
G: I recall this with last year’s Resort collaboration with Brett Whiteley’s art, the casting was so culturally varied.
E: So varied, it’s really what we really believe. I think there’s that element of currency at the moment but for us it’s always been ingrained in the brand, it’s just how we feel. We’ve been designing towards a modern woman but also a traveller; somebody who can journey across the entire world and take these pieces with her and wear them wherever she may go. But more than that, we really wanted to celebrate our Australian heritage. We feel really, really proud to be an Australian brand. It’s changing a bit now but there was definitely a time when Australian brands seemed to shy away from their heritage in favour of being viewed as “Parisian”, or “New York” because they were showing there. and I think that’s wonderful but by the same token I think this country has so much to offer and its always has done so much for us and its always been a huge source of inspiration, so definitely this season we wanted to celebrate Australia and a lot of the silhouettes take reference points from Australian landscapes and iconic emblems of Australia. I think it’s nice for the opening to celebrate the country that we’re in, showcasing.
In a time when mass-produced, high street fashion is the norm, Aje is part of a band of Australian designers who continue to champion independent fashion. What’s your take is on this?
E: I think business is hard for everybody, right? But there’s so many considerations and I think we all really have a strong moral obligation to really consider in the world and obviously sustainability is becoming such a big talking point and it’s about time. And I think fast-fashion does have a lot to answer for. As independent brands we also do have moral obligations and we’re not doing everything the right way and there’s certain things that many of us haven’t really understood or known about. I remember us looking into organic dyes and organic fabrications maybe five, six years ago. And it was just beginning you could source and buy organic fabrications, there weren’t many organic dyes around so the moment you dyed your organic fabric it was really no longer considered organic or have the same positive effect, but everything’s changing so much and with that we all need to change. I feel really proud that we are a brand who is really conscious about sustainability; we obviously don’t mass produce anything, we have always used artisans within the company so we have hand-sequined, hand-stitched and hand-beaded things so we’re keeping that culture and that craftsmanship alive because realistically all those hand traditions are taught down by generations so if the demand is not there for them then that doesn’t exist anymore and that is really, really sad. And with that, comes pieces that withstand the test of time that are designed to remain with you for a lifetime and further rather than just seasonal throwaway pieces.
G: You have 17 boutiques, which is kind of reactionary to the way fashion is going now with direct-to-consumer models. Why is this important for you, and what do you believe is the advantage of this?
E: We’re a really, really tactile brand and we always have been. Very early on in our piece Adrian and I discovered the power of retail and the power of people being able to enter your world, so being able to come in and feel the product and actually have a complete sensory experience with your product and also to really connect with the consumer. Only when you feel a hand-embroidery or a broderie do they have a three-dimensional form, otherwise something does just look really 2D and really quite flat. I think the digital space is an amazing one and one we’re really strong in as well and champion, but I definitely think there is such a huge need for stand-alone stores. I think as humans we are tactile creatures and there’s some things photos just can’t show, you can’t even see through a video. We’ve worked really hard to create a brand that has quite a cult following and we’re always striving to innovate and evolve whilst making sure we have commerciality, too, and that’s why we’ve worked so well in retail. There’s an art to not just what you design but what you buy and how you merchandise – gosh, we’ve learnt so much, it’s a beast. A very beautiful beast but one that needs to be tamed. And we’re still perfecting it. With 17 stores customer service is paramount to us and to get our offering right and there really is so many pieces to the puzzle that you have to fine-tune. We’re by no means finished and it’s always being refined.
G: To a consumer, your product is usually first received through a screen. That Sabina Blouse, for example, first seen on an iPhone via Instagram or a website. Do you think about this when designing? How the product looks on a screen? Has the digital shaped your design? And if so, how?
E: Definitely not our design. Digital is a big part of our business and consistently growing but I think we are predominately retailers. We consider very much what it looks like on a hanger, so obviously we would see it on a body and see how it moves and breathes but when someone walks into a store it’s not necessarily going to be on a moving form it will be hanging on a hanger. So the hangers we have made also had really had to be considered because they had more of a stronger shoulder so instead of being quite thin they’re made from leather and it actually looks how a piece would hang off a shoulder.
It’s interesting, though. You’ve given me something else to consider now! Oh, we’ve got to look how it looks on the hanger but also on a phone…we’re just going to look at things in flat lay! You’ve actually taken me back to this moment many years ago when I was freelance styling and I would have to work with that brand, Metalicus, which was basically all that kind of stocking material and trying to shape those pieces into flat lay would do somebody’s head in – especially 400 pieces a day!
G: I see you as one of the cult Australian fashion brands of today. What does ‘cult’ mean to you? How do you believe cult is created? And how do you sustain it?
E: I think it’s very much about authenticity. It’s about remaining true to the brand DNA and for Adrian and I to remain true to who we are as the creators of the brand. One of the elements in our brand statement is “effortless cool”, and it’s such a strange thing because cool and cult are kind of similar in a way, but how do you define that? When newcomers to the brand enter and I try and explain it to them, realistically, for us, it does mean authenticity and it means having a passion innately. If you really believe in what you’re doing and you’re true to it and passionate about it, you will inevitably have a cult following or you will inevitably be cool. I don’t think they’re things you can try to be, it just has to come naturally.
G: Totally, you can’t fake cult.
E: Exactly, you can’t fake cult and you can’t fake cool. It actually has the opposite effect, it’s kind of a repellent!
G: You are a huge social success and have crafted a very clear story on Instagram of what the Aje world looks like. How important is Instagram in moving product, but also the telling of the Aje story?
E: It is wild how powerful Instagram is. There’s been so many conversations within our marketing team time and time again, it’s obviously a space that’s constantly evolving itself and I think there is huge power in the ability for Instagram to sell clothing, so it obviously serves a very commercial purpose, but by the same token it’s also a huge branding tool. So I think the biggest challenge for brands is to find this harmonious balance, if the scale is tipped too far in either direction the brand can go off kilter. It’s about interesting people. We deal with a lot of influencers but more so people we think are really interesting creatively, who have done something amazing in their lives or who have an amazing story to tell. I think having all those elements interweaved throughout social media is what gives your brand huge power. It’s that precarious dance between all aspects.
G: And finally, do you pronounce it AY-JE or AH-JE?!
E: Ay-je because we’re Australian and it’s an acronym for Adrian joins Edwina!
G: Oh, I never knew that, I always thought it was Adrian’s nickname!
E: Well, it was that too in the very beginning! And then when we were pondering over names we liked where that just sat because it was at the top of the alphabet and we had to work out how it made sense for both of us, because Adriana and Eddy, Adrian and Edwina it was just long and everyone was doing that. But you can say it how you want, as long as you know who we are we’re very happy!