#2: SERPENT AND THE SWAN
Serpent And The Swan is a Sydney-based label with a distinctively dark aesthetic and a creative approach to design that focuses on attention-to-detail; think hand-carved buttons, luscious textures and one-off pieces that fuse jewellery and textile design.
We visited the Serpent And The Swan studio in St Peters, Sydney, to have a chat to sister-duo Hayley and Lauri Smith about making locally, the changing Australian fashion industry and the evolution of their own label since they started in 2009.
Annie: Hi ladies! First things first, what training and education did you do, did you study fashion?
Hayley: I did a four-year degree at UTS in fashion design, and then worked in the industry for about 10 years.
Lauri: I had no fashion training at all. I was in the film and television industry, but we started in a different place, doing knitwear and my special trimmings.
Jess: How did you get into design from there?
Hayley + Lauri: We're sisters!
Lauri: We wanted to do something together and realised we have a similar aesthetic. We started brainstorming stuff and realised we were on a similar page. It wasn't so much about the clothes; Hayley's got that side, it was more, ‘what can we make that's different?’ My background is fine arts -
Hayley: Lauri's a sculptor
Lauri: But after being in the industry now...
Hayley: She's bitter and twisted!
Annie: Do you guys still make everything in Australia?
Annie: Where else do you make?
Hayley: We've got a friend's factory in China. We did everything here, and then obviously all the other things came, like H&M and Zara, and nobody would pay the prices that we were needing to make here, especially for the basics. We still get our really beautiful fancy things done here, but the basics like all our mesh range had to move offshore because the cost wasn't possible.
Jess: Were people paying those prices before?
Lauri: Definitely. They were paying the Australian price for years, it wasn't an issue. It's completely different now to when we started.
Hayley: The landscape has totally changed. It's got to do with rent being so expensive for boutiques, the shift to online, everything.
Lauri: And then people finding the clothes online at more competitive prices.
Annie: Do you think it's because online sales picked up in general, or because big brands moved here?
Hayley: I think it's both. People are just shopping differently and spending habits are different as well. I think with every piece of clothing there should be a backstory, so people know where it came from, and then people would go, 'Man, I don't want to be employing children in India, you know? I'll pay a little bit more'.
Lauri: And a lot of these stores do designer rip-offs. So what people see, well, it might not look as good, but it's close and it's so cheap.
Hayley: That's what we found. We'd always done mesh and then mesh came ‘in’, so we thought, ‘Sweet! We should be riding this wave!’ But instead we were walking past all this stuff that’s exactly the same as ours, all for $20.
Jess: Have you noticed a shift in how people consume fashion since you guys started in 2009?
Hayley: When we first started we used to do massive collections and every category. We did jackets, knits - we did really well. People loved the unique quality of it and buyers would pay for it, because they had the customer for it.
Lauri: You'd grow every season, you'd build. It was all about the boutiques, there were boutiques all over Australia and New Zealand. And then all of a sudden, all the boutiques were closing down - we'd email them and they'd bounce back.
Annie: When was that?
Lauri: Within the last two and a half years it's been going that way. All of a sudden they can’t accept stock, because they're struggling themselves.
Hayley: We'd send them a new collection and they'd love it but they'd say, ‘to be honest, we don't know if we'll be around in 6 months for it to even be delivered.’ When Alice Euphemia in Melbourne closed, that was big, because that's like an institution.
Lauri: Now it's all department stores and cafes. All the flagship stores are gone. So where we relied on boutique wholesale as our main business, we've had to change completely.
Annie: When you first started, how easy was it to find local makers?
Hayley: Very difficult.
Jess: Because there are not many of them?
Hayley: Yep. And all the factories we started with - we used to make knitwear in Australia - they're all closed.
Lauri: The woman we work with now, she used to work in that factory and now that it's closed she works from home in Campsie. We wouldn't have just found her.
Jess: We keep hearing that a lot of makers are an older generation who are ready to retire and there’s no one else coming through to replace them. Is your maker retiring age?
Hayley: Yeah she is. And when they die off it's over!
Lauri: Our knitwear maker, I don't know how old she was! I don't know what happens after them, because it doesn't get passed down the generations. And they're competing with overseas. The only advantage they have here is that they can do small quantities.
Hayley: We liked being Australian-made but looked to see what was offshore, but it was never worth it. By the time it comes here, with freight, US dollars, everything else, it's only a little bit cheaper and we'd rather support the Australian industry. And you can't control it if you go offshore. We drive up to Campsie, it's a 15 minute drive and go ‘oh hang on, we forgot to give you this!’
Lauri: And she cares. She'll call us if something looks wrong and then she'll fix it!
Annie: How did you find the factory in China?
Hayley: I used to teach at UTS and it was one of my students' parent’s factories - she opened it herself and she lives between here and China. But now we're changing the way we're doing things and making a shift from clothing to accessories.
Lauri: Yeah, like belts, fine jewellery. And a lot of that stuff is made here.
Jess: Why are you doing that?
Hayley: Like we said before, anyone can rip anyone off. But we're trying to make things that are harder to rip off. So Lauri has been making belt buckles herself and we get them poured up in Marrickville. We attach beautiful leather belts to them. We're going to see how that goes. And I'm doing bespoke jewellery.
Lauri: We started to think, what's the point? There's so much clothing everywhere, and if we don't love what we're doing and it's not special any more, then why?
Annie: I think people assume things are now made by machines or robots. But almost everything we wear was sewn at a sewing machine, by a human.
Hayley: Even as a fashion designer, I didn't understand how jeans were made. But when I was head designer at various labels, we'd go to the denim factory in Hong Kong, and every hole somebody is unpicking with an unpicker. It's not a machine, it's someone sitting there. Every hole, every crinkle, everything. When you have frayed pants, someone has cut that and is brushing it. Sandwash, it's sand! Stonewash, it's stone! People are doing it all.
Annie: It's like food, everyone needs clothing. People should know how it works.
Hayley: It's horrible, this culture of ‘buy it and throw it away’. All the landfill, and no one cares.
Lauri: It's all just cheap trends.
Hayley: Back in the day people used to make things to order and it would last a lifetime. And there'd be beauty in upcycling, making a new thing, embroidering over a hole. That's beautiful and there's a story in it. But no one has time either, I guess.
Jess: Only because that option is available to us now, to have really cheap, easily replaceable, wear-it-once stuff.
Lauri: And get your biggest bargain, that's the best you can do.
Jess: If you can get 20 things for the price of one, why wouldn't you go for 20?
Lauri: Yeah, why would you get an expensive jacket if you can get a rip-off from Topshop for $50. We’ve had people ask us if we can use cheaper fabrics so we can make cheaper garments, and we say, ‘no, we don't want rubbish quality.’ They say, ‘customers don't care about that, they care about the price’.
Hayley: People can tell. They'll feel it, it's scratchy. But they ask for it... Sad times. We just feel if we can do something that's special and different, they can't just go to Topshop and buy it cheaper. But people are starting to get a bit more aware than they were a year ago even, it feels like it's changing.
Jess: Do you think the discourse around sustainable fashion is becoming more mainstream? And not like our parents' generation where environmentalists were “feral hippies”?
Lauri: People are caring what they're putting in their bodies, buying organic. Recycling habits have changed.
Annie: I think there is a growing movement towards ethical fashion, it's just a question of whether or not the local industry can cater for it.
Laurie: People are caring more about the environment generally, so they'll understand about clothing, cause they'll connect the dots. Especially the younger generation.