“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Joan Didion’s mighty words rang true at Matteau. The greatest strength of their debut show was one of self-respect. No matter what size, what height, what colour you may be, you are worthy. You are beautiful. You are you. Breaking free of the shackles of expectation is difficult for many. Breaking free of the expectation of fashion is particularly difficult. The mould is set, and has been for years. Tall, skinny, flat. Of course, ideal body standards have shifted according to era, but fashion’s preoccupation with “skinny”, more or less, has remained steadfast, this unwavering fixation the fodder of feminists and body advocates the world over. Only now are we seeing an emergence of “real” women down the runway, but this of course comes with a strong sense of tokenism, of merely buckling to societal pressure and filling a kind of quota of “curve”. But despite Matteau’s diverse casting, it did not feel like. It felt real. It felt organic.
In what was a beautiful and unexpected lesson in size, skin and culture, Matteau sent a vast and varied army down their Resort runway. There was actress (and friend of the brand) Phoebe Tonkin; elfin-like, dainty and diminutive. Alongside her walked Robyn Lawley, the 6’2 “curve” model (and we use the term loosely); statuesque, tall and proud. There were girls with big boobs, wobbly thighs and bottoms which jiggled. There was cellulite and stretch marks, dark skin and fair skin, long hair, short hair, buzzed hair. It was was one big beautiful celebration of the every woman, who also turns out to be the Matteau woman.
Only four years ago Matteau first made me waves in swimwear. They didn’t dive right in. Nor did they bomb. And they most certainly didn’t sink. They entered the market with the kind of grace you’d expect from the brand, a gentle wallow by the water’s edge and…she’s under. But fronting the infinite blue of “swim” is challenging, to say the least. It’s a category which has relied heavily on the objectification of women to sell its wares. There’s been a lot of boobs. A lot of bums. A lot of flossy lycra. And that’s all fine and dandy, but for many women, it’s this sexed-up narrative of swim which has made the category so feared amongst women, and designers Ilona Hamer and Peta Heinsen knew this. “Swim has always been an interesting category and one that doesn’t necessarily speak to the majority of women who want to feel confident by the water,” the sisters explain. “We just set out to create an aesthetic for the beach that matched our city style and the way we dress day to day.”
That they did. Just seven pieces made up the collection in 2015; three styles of briefs, three styles of bather tops and one malliot, which would become their signature, sell-out piece. Contemporary, clean and minimalistic; it was almost an antithesis to the gaudy, skimpy, tricked-up swimwear we’d become so well-versed in. “When we started four years ago, there was a gap in representing a different point of view and style for the beach,” opines Hamer. Matteau – a portmanteau of the words “matte” and “eau” – had redefined the way we think about swimwear. It filled this gap.
Yesterday, Matteau’s modern relationship with swim continued with resort-ready pieces made for stylish vagabonds. Tiered sun-dresses. Simple straw baskets. 70s paisley print. Rust linen. Dusty pinks and rich chocolate. Soft gathering and Japanese cotton. Tiffany & Co. gold and A. Emery slides. There was even long-line, lightweight coat; perhaps Matteau’s inspired and stylish take on beach-to-bar.
Models seemingly danced through the concrete slab of Baker Street Studios, sheer swathes billowing at their feet. It was the Matteau fantasy come to life; languid, ethereal, unperturbed, forever a sense of permanent vacation and good times.
At the end of the show, GRAZIA’s Fashion Director Aileen Marr turned to me and said, “they just remind me of these beautiful women I saw on the Greek Islands once, who seem like they don’t have a care in the world.” And that’s just it. The Matteau woman is blissfully, beautifully carefree. Raw linen against her skin. That pink glow from happy holidays. Joy. And what a way to be.
Here, a deep dive with Matteau designers Ilona Hamer and Peta Heinsen.
Can you tell us about the new collection?
This season is an evolution of the Matteau woman and the ideal summer wardrobe. It’s always about trying to create pieces that fill a void in the travel wardrobe. We thought about the ideal vacation and what we want to take with us and how that wardrobe can be as versatile, effortless yet sophisticated, as possible.
What inspired you / inspires you?
As with every season and everything we do, we go back to the Matteau woman and what motivates her. What does she need? Where is she going? We are always looking at images of women in the 70s – Jackie Onassis, Lauren Hutton, Catherine Deneuve, Verushka. There is always a touch of nostalgia to the way we look at the collection because it’s a time that feels close to us and inspired a lot by our mother’s style while she was living in Spain.
How important is showing at MBFWA to you, and the Matteau brand?
We thought it was time for the brand to have a time and space to show more of our world and the things we stand for. To give the Matteau woman life through movement, music, casting and energy – all the elements that come from a show. We are definitely not a fashion brand per se, so it’s about showing the women and world we love in our own way.
As sisters, what does the design dynamic look? Who does what in the brand?
The division of responsibilities is very clear, our strengths really lie in different areas. Essentially, Ilona is the Creative Director taking care of visuals and Peta is Managing Director taking care of everything else with the support of our wonderful team. We consult daily on the things that need to be discussed and are always planning and working together on the direction and projection of the business. Ilona inevitably drives the inspiration behind our collections as a result of her styling work and constant exposure to imagery and garments, but we work closely together on pulling the collection together in the way of colour, print and designs.
How do you work as sisters, and as women? Is this challenging at all?
Being sisters and business partners is the easiest and hardest thing at the same time. Back at the start, finding our groove together was really hard, most because of the geographic distance and time zone barrier. But we’ve found our balance and it works really well now (most of the time, anyway). The dynamic is actually great between us, but we are VERY different people. Being sisters, we do have our moments and tell each other exactly what we think, but the flip side is that we don’t dwell on it and move on quickly.
You have crafted a very clear story on Instagram of what the Matteau world looks like. How important is Instagram in moving product, but also the telling of the Matteau story?
Instagram was always the tool we wanted to use to convey the message of the Matteau world. For us it has always been about inspiring our customers and followers as much as it using it as a tool to market and sell our pieces. I think people know what we do and what our product is, but it’s the point of view and inspiration they come for.
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?
We believe in what we do and how we do it and we think that’s why people connect with us. We don’t really pay attention to perception in that way, it’s more about always working to do better and sustain quality and a certain aesthetic.
In a time when mass-produced, high street fashion is the norm, Matteau is made in Sydney with an emphasis on quality. Can you give us a little bit of insight into this, and why you chose this path?
We always set out to make a product that was carefully considered from the ground up. Producing in Australia is something that is important to us from a quality control perspective and also in a way of supporting local business.
You’ve kind of reshaped the traditional, sexed-up narrative of swimwear – ‘boobs and bums’ – with a refined, pared-back aesthetic. Was this intentional from the outset? And why do you believe this is important? And how would you describe your approach to swimwear?
Swim has always been an interesting category and one that doesn’t necessarily speak to the majority of women who want to feel confident by the water. We just set out to create an aesthetic for the beach that matched our city style and the way we dress day to day.
I feel you’ve redefined the Australian summer landscape with a streamlined sophistication often lost in the ‘swimwear’ category. How important is ‘Resort’ to Australia, and how do you think it’s changed?
Australia is the ultimate summer destination and when we started 4 years ago, there was a gap in representing a different point of view and style for the beach. Now more than ever we are far more connected to the rest of the world and its influence and Australian style should be evolving to reflect that, but at the time it just wasn’t there. We hope we have changed the direction and perception of what that looks like and we are excited for the future.
You began with just seven pieces of swimwear. You’ve now migrated to resort wear. Was this a goal from the start, or has it happened organically? And why?
It has happened really organically and was the logical next step for us. It’s been fun working on creating the ideal pieces that we want to pack when we go somewhere warm and we think our customer has also enjoyed the progression.
What are your tips for accessorising beautiful classic swimwear and resort pieces?
We love pairing our swim and resort wear with heirloom jewellery, a great pair of handmade sandals, a classic market basket and of course great friends and a beautiful location.
You have a strong band of celebrity and influencer fans, who seem organic. How did this come about? What is the roll-on effect, for example, when Giorgio Tordini wears the Side Split dress?
We think Matteau appeals to a certain kind of woman and through that there is a natural word of mouth through friends and social media. In the age of influence, there are women who people look up to and want to emulate and someone like Georgia, Phoebe, Coco.
Do you think about creating a buzz, when you design? Or do you just design, and the buzz comes after?
We don’t pay too much attention to anything other than trying to improve from one season to the next. We are also mindful of not over producing, so you will always see a lot of evolution from one season to the next. There are styles that work well for us and our customer, so we carry them over and evolve them slightly to move them in a new direction. We don’t believe in newness for newness sake.