A few months back now I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to the launch of local Brisbane label WARHOF – a collaboration between two up and coming Brisbane designers Ruth Birtwell and Dominique Watson. These girls has already grabbed my attention on Instagram with their mysterious elephant emblem and penchant for embellishments, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. Seeing the full launch collection (The Withington Collection) up close, it was immediately clear that these girls were doing things differently. Whilst some pieces in the line were all about clean lines and natural fibres, other pieces favoured heavy beading or prints. Intrigued by it all, I caught up with Ruth and Domm to discover how WARHOF started and where it’s all going.
Firstly congratulations on the launch of WARHOF! What made you decide to launch your own fashion label?
The initial thought to start a label together came to us in June, 2013, after drinking one too many margaritas at Chilliwow…and it really was just a thought. Before that night we’d only met up three or four times previously through mutual friends, despite having both studied Fashion Diplomas in Brisbane.
Domm: It was only by chance that Ruth changed into my classes for our final year of study. Even then we didn’t really hang out! At the end of the year, I completed the advanced Diploma while Ruth moved to New York to work.
Ruth: Domm was always really interesting to me. I was pretty in awe of how effortless she could draw. When I was in NYC I would watch Instagram to see what she was up to. She just had cool vibes, so when I got back from NYC we made plans to hang out. As it turns out, we both wanted to start our own thing and from that WARHOF was born!
Can you tell me more about your backgrounds? Was it always fashion for you both?
Domm: I started out studying Art/Illustration and then lived in London for a while.
Ruth: Before fashion I actually studied International Studies and spent time in Germany on exchange.
In one sentence how would you describe WARHOF?
A brand and label with global ambitions.
Is there significance in the name and logo?
Ruth: The elephant logo was a lucky happen stance. It was in the first print that Domm showed me that inspired our first sample collection. But mostly, they happen to be my favourite animal. I grew up with Elephant icons in my grandparents and parents homes. Now, we both collect elephant figurines where ever we travel. Best of all elephants posses worthy traits to be represented by; they are leaders, gentle, playful and reliable. They’re survivors, we will be too.
Also a little known fact that many don’t know, WARHOF is actually an acronym – “We Are Rich House Of Fashion”.
You’ve just launched your first collection “The Withington Collection” what were your key influences?
Three words – Feminine. Street. Wear. This collection is the merging of our styles. This was particularly evident when it came to our photo shoot.
Where do you get most of your inspiration? What inspires you/what excites you?
We both draw significant inspiration from our travels (around Australia and abroad), artists we admire, metals from the earth, and culture. From this we aspire to craft designs that depict elements from each of these. We seem to be torn between the “cleanness” of nature and the extravagance of eccentric originality.
How long did it take to put your first collection together? From inspiration to production to launching to the public?
From start to finish, in total, it took us 11 months, October 2013 to September 2014 to launch our first WARHOF collection. The designs, colour palette and fabrics were decided on before Christmas last year and the 9 months after that were consumed with the semantics of how to make our drawings into garments.
I understand you’re passionate about using natural fibres and materials – does this heavily impact your designs?
This greatly impacts our designs in achieving our garments final aesthetic look, but also the experience of the buyer and wearer from a visual and tactile approach. Silks look delicate and valuable and feel luxurious. Cotton is effortless and falls easily on the body and Linen is a fabric almost instantly recognisable and long associated with casual respectability. Although more expensive than manmade textiles, we wanted to provide our clientele garments worthy of their investment.
Can you tell me more about the process behind design and production? Are all your clothes locally produced?
All WARHOF garments are designed locally in Brisbane with our trims and embellishments purchased through Australian suppliers and our fabrics made and purchased overseas. The unprinted silks, cottons and linens used in the latest collection were purchased in Cambodia. The majority of this fabric is hand loomed, and whilst we ordered our printed fabrics from the USA the origins vary. Pattern making, grading, toiling, sampling and a quantity of sewing is outsourced to local Brisbane contractors. However, we attach the trims, embellishments and complete a portion of the sewing as well.
WARHOF is committed to two causes; Australian Made and Social Enterprise. As well as establishing and expanding WARHOF locally, we will continue to invest in the development of a program that will educate, empower, skill, and fairly remunerate workers in the Cambodian TCF industry.
It’s so wonderful to see designers and creatives staying in their home cities and helping facilitate a real creative culture. Did you always plan on launching in Brisbane?
It was a conscious and calculated decision, made early on, to remain here. We both feel that Brisbane society has developed to a time where The Arts, Culture, and Creativity are not only being noticed, but valued and embraced. We see Brisbane blossoming culturally and we want to not only be a part of that, but contribute to it also.
How have you found the industry thus far? Is it a lot of test and learn?
Creating WARHOF has been both the most rewarding and refining path we have taken. The fashion/retail/manufacturing industry is a tough gig, especially for a small business. To make WARHOF work we have two rules we live by; 1) 100% honesty, 2) don’t take offence. We’ve learnt that the only people we can rely on are each other and our families, so where possible, don’t mix business with pleasure and stand up for you.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt in launching your own label?
Humility. The alternative will seal your fall.
Do you have an idol or someone whose successes or approach to life inspires you? Who would that be? Who have you learnt the most from throughout this journey?
Together we both admire Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani. What a cool lady.
You’re both Brisbane born and bred – what area did you grow up in? What do you love most about Brisbane?
We’re both South Side girls, from inner city suburbs. We love how Brisbane is geographically big, but residentially intimate.
Do you think it has seen lot more creative growth in the past three years?
Brisbane’s development is brazenly obvious, even in the last three years. The number of shopping precincts that have been built, renovated or rediscovered in this short time is a great indictor for our cities future progress.
Where are your top spots in Brisbane for:
- Coffee: Brown Dog Cafe in Woolloongabba.
- Breakfast: Sourced Grocer in Teneriffe or Little Paw Paw in Kedron.
- Shopping: Depends what you’re looking to buy, but if your look for hidden treasure troves go to; Winn Lane in the Valley, the RSPCA thrift shop at Graceville, and any shop in the James St Precinct.
- Design inspiration: At the moment we’re drawing on all things street culture and looking at commercial development, GOMA and other local galleries, whilst generally speaking our constant muses are global street style, Lina Viktor, anything Gold, Le Louvre and all it contains, our iPhone Photo Collage App and of course Instagram.
Where in the world is your ultimate destination for design inspiration?
Dominique: Le Louvre in Paris OR anywhere the sun is shining in Italy.
Ruth: The Middle East, specifically Turkey and Iran.
Where in the world is your ultimate fashion/shopping destination?
Dominique: The fabric markets of India
Ruth: The Kashgar Market in West China
Do you have a favourite piece in The Withington Collection?
Dominique: Dip dyed Boyfriend Jacket
Ruth: WARHOF Acid Singlet
What can we expect next from WARHOF?
Lots and LOTS of beads.
Finally, what motto do you live by?
Interview by Mimi Hyll