As the world continues to feel less and less safe, there has been an increase in searches for, and sales of, fashion items that bring a sense of comfort. Nostalgia for the times ‘before’, the golden ages of previous centuries when anything seemed possible, is popping up all over the place.
Whether it was the 1910s, or the 1970s, the desire for a light, pretty dress made of fine fabrics with lace and floral details is a trend that has come full circle in 2020. Concepts like #cottagecore, handcrafts, handmade, natural materials, floral prints, delicate detailing and classical, forgiving silhouettes can be seen in many designers’ work.
The Strawberry Midi Dress by Lirika Matoshi is perhaps the most famous dress of the year; so famous that popular social media influencers are making their own. The search for ‘prairie dress’ gets you 55,200,000 results on Google.
What’s really interesting is that the bulk of these results are not for major fashion brands, but from small independent designers, or even home sewists, who are looking to create clothes that are not only pretty, but comforting and designed for real women to wear. Clothing that is a bulwark against the stresses of a world pandemic and all that it brings.
All of this means that designers who have always created seasonless, trendless, slow fashion clothing are coming into their own. One of these is Australian designer Lucy Blair with her brand Ankoa.
Based in rural Australia, Lucy studied fashion at RMIT TAFE and worked in the commercial side of the fashion industry for a number of years, learning what she needed to know about how the market and industry operates in Australia. She also ran her own small, independent brand at the same time “making plenty of mistakes in what was a very different landscape, online shopping was only just starting out at that point”.
Lucy admits that while she loved what she was doing, she also started to see the cracks in the industry’s walls. “This was a time where I was very much captivated by the glamour of the industry and at this point ethical fashion wasn’t something that was really spoken about and was not something that was ever part of my curriculum studying,” explains Lucy.
Eventually she moved back to the country, drawn to a slower pace of life and a more considered way of producing fashion.
“Ankoa was something that I gradually started, around six years ago working part time and then once I had children found a whole new drive and passion to create,” says Lucy.
“The initial concept for Ankoa came from a love for hand blocked Indian cotton fabric. The fabric is created by carving wooden blocks and then dipping them in dye to create a unique print by hand.”
“I fell in love with the beauty of this ancient art and wanted to find a way to support and celebrate it. Initially I was going to make men’s shirts but ended up crossing over to women’s wear as that was my real passion.
“Once that happened it became about ‘celebrating life and all it has to offer’, making pieces that pull you further into moments so in terms of slow I guess that was always an underlying component but has developed further, as has the aesthetic.”
Lucy’s style is a mix of romanticism, traditional femininity, and a sense of womanhood. Motherhood made a major impact not only on Lucy’s thoughts about creating slower, more sustainable fashion, but also on her designs. Many of her dresses and tops are designed to make breastfeeding easier, for example.
Rich colours and delicate prints on cotton mix with soft fabrics like velvet in her Winter collection; shapes are flattering with added volume for easy movement. These are very pretty clothes, with details like ruffles and lace that hark back to either the 70s hippie dresses or the floaty shirtwaists of the Edwardian era.
Each garment is a little bit different due to the use of hand printing using blocks in the traditional Indian style. The production runs are also small ensuring there is little to no waste, creating garments that are meant to last, and be handed down like heirlooms.
The battle for Sustainability
These days words like ‘sustainability’, ‘ethical consumerism’, ‘slow fashion’ etc are thrown around with abandon, and in many cases with little understanding. ‘Everyone knows’ that the fashion industry has to become more ‘sustainable’, but few brands understand what this actually means, let alone know how to implement the required changes.
For a small, independent brand like Ankoa, the issue of sustainability is multilayered; a battle to continuously improve.
“In terms of sustainability, so much has changed in the last six years and it is something to celebrate but has also been a battle,” explains Lucy. “When I say battle, I grew up believing that we could do anything, be anything but suddenly what I wanted to do seemed so damaging and for a long time I felt really lost and unsure of what to do.
“So yes, [sustainability] has always been a focus because I made the decision to do it, but do it in a way that I felt comfortable, so that the people who I work with are paid properly, making very small quantities of pieces with a focus on quality and natural fibres, and hoping that the Ankoa woman chooses one dress over 20 cheap throw away dresses to last.
“The focus on sustainability is something that continues to change, I am not perfect and there are still so many improvements to be made but it is something that I feel strongly about as the brand grows.”
While admitting that being a sustainable and ethical fashion brand is always a work in progress, Lucy does feel positive about the future of the industry.
“Given that even ten/fifteen years ago, sustainability was not really something that was much of a consideration, I am excited and hopeful for the future. I think that there have been lots of positive changes in the last five years in particular, so I can only imagine how many great things might happen in the next five to come,” says Lucy.
“I also hope that people’s thinking is slowly changing and people want to know what the story is behind the clothes and also making conscious choices opting for pieces to wear for years rather than once or twice and throw away. I am also really excited about the future of recycled fashion/fabric and feel this is an area that has huge potential for growth.”
Positivity in the Pandemic
It has to be said that the retail industry, particularly the fashion retail space, has been massively impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. While a few items like sweatpants and masks might be doing huge sales online, for creative fashion brands things have been less rosy. After all, who needs a ballgown right now?
However, smaller, more nimble brands like Ankoa have been able to react quickly to market changes, and have also seen customers’ behaviour change as well.
“I believe the pandemic has highlighted a few different things. It has caused many of us to slow down and focus on what’s important and how little we need, I hope this also fuels the desire to choose quality over quantity,” says Lucy.
“I would also love to see some more manufacturing options here in Australia, I love supporting and working with my team in India who I hope to continue to work with but I would also very much love to do some more work here too.”
Ankoa was naturally impacted by the arrival of Covid19, says Lucy: “When things first started I went from being consistent to absolute crickets.” However she also saw a slow return to sales with fluctuations based on newly released items. She says that she remains nervous – Lucy had thought she might have to close the brand earlier on – but now hopes that things will continue to get better.
Onwards and upwards …
While Lucy remains passionate about continuing Ankoa, particularly in relation to supporting her current team and continuing her love of traditional Indian hand block printing, she would also like to be able to produce her garments in Australia too.
“… Before children I was making a lot myself but for now it is near impossible having little people around. Once my littlies are off to school then I hope I am able to get back to making in some way and to potentially find a way to produce within my local community, in a way that has a positive impact,” says Lucy.
“I would like to keep the brand relatively small, it’s a business of heart and not something that I want to become huge and unmanageable, I would like to find a way to just live a relatively quiet life with family and enjoy creating in a way that is helpful and sustainable.”