When we meet fashion designer Andrea Nicholson she is pinning up a toile, a calico prototype, of a Japanese inspired Aragato Duster jacket. She talks to us about how she is revisiting some earlier influences, of Japanese costumery prevalent in the Kabuki theatre, and the work of Kenzo Takada during the sixties and seventies.
‘I’m behind again,’ she says. ‘Johanna has already finished her collection’, referring to long time friend and fellow Dispensary 219 resident, Johanna Preston. I know how she feels. I was always the kid still frantically finishing my assignment on the school bus on the morning it was due.
You can easily whittle time in her company. The Fitzroy based designer, known for creating often dramatic, and unconventional pieces that fuse fashion and art, has the rag trade in her blood. As a young girl of 7, Andrea tells of a childhood spent with her father amongst the largely Jewish run fashion and fabric trade on ‘The Lane’.
‘After the war my father returned to his job in Flinders Lane at Lustre Hosiery. It was the early 50’s – he was working as a manufacturer’s rep, selling mens- and womenswear that was all produced and warehoused right there on Flinders Lane,’ she recalls. ‘The hustle and bustle of the Lane fascinated me. I would go with my father most weekends to select and collect stock, and for extra pocket money I would help sort it all into sizes or styles.’
Her mother, a home-based dressmaker, would be the one to impart the basics of sewing to an inquisitive Andrea, who was already making her own outfits by 16. The family home, often wall to wall with her father’s stock, Andrea would rifle through the unsaleable items and textiles from businesses that had recently closed down, which she would then re-fashion into garments of her own designing.
The sixties era clearly had a lasting impact – the sculptural shapes, bold patternry and linework still giving her recent collections a timeless, eclectic quality. ‘The sixties were a blast’ she recalls. ‘So many possibilities opened up for young adults. Suddenly they had a voice, a look, a sound, and an opinion. It was a fabulous time. And the music and the fashion explosion as a result, was incredible.’
'I bought Queen Magazine religiously and copied the garments that being worn by Twiggy, or designs by the likes of Mary Quant, and wore them to the local Jazz Dances of a weekend.’
Andrea shown with one of her Dutch Wax Print Maxi Skirts.
While treading the career path as an Art and Craft teacher, the lure of the trade prevailed. ‘I was studying secondary teaching at Melbourne Teachers College. As a poverty struck student I would create weird and wonderful garments to sell at the Regent Theatre Market. It was a little bit of Carnaby Street right here in Melbourne.’ she recalls. Though throughout her teaching career, Andrea was still closely involved in the rag trade, and went on to work for pioneers of the industry, such as the House of Merivale, Mr John, Jag, and even the first importers of ready-to-wear fashion, Masons on Toorak Road. It was a turning point. ‘I was exposed to so many great designers,’ she says. ‘It was hugely influential’.
Years later, while running a textile importing and wholesale business with her then partner, Andrea started a label using their own fabrics, inspired by trends witnessed on extensive travels through the USA, Europe and the UK. Thriving on the challenge, she also continued to work as a freelance agent and designer for other local manufacturers whilst running her own business. ‘Looking back, I was pretty lucky,’ she says. ‘These days, so much is done online and the need to do this sort of travel is no longer essential.’
After a brief stint working on a streetwear label with her son, and then running the children’s label Club Kid out of a Chapel Street store in the area’s heyday, Andrea began working exclusively on her own, Andrea Nicholson womenswear label some 20 years ago.
Concentrating on quality fabrication and points of difference like hand printing, Andrea Nicholson garments celebrate the essence of all women by offering easy-fit often oversize pieces, flattering to a range of body types. ‘My style has evolved and morphed over time,’ she says. ‘What I do now started out as custom, client-driven work. Many of my customers were aged 40 plus, or looking for plus-sized clothes that still had an edge.’
‘I still do a great deal of customised work, and have developed a very loyal following.’ she says, humbly. Though counting stylist and influencer Estelle Michaelides (of the Estelle Report), champion of fashion mavericks and independent design, as a loyal follower is an accolade with some bragging rights. The Melbourne fashionista and Spring Fashion Week VIP often stepping out in an Andrea Nicholson, hand-crafted polka dot dress or iconic duster coat.
A recent foray into social media is also helping garner her following and customer base both interstate and overseas. As women are increasingly turning away from fast fashion, the appeal of Andrea’s label lies not only in its quality, but its potential to transform the wearer and in turn, be transformed, rather than just wear out and be discarded.
Working out of her Smith Street studio and showroom space among the likes of couturier Anastasia La Fey, extreme faux-fur label Gun Shy and studio founder Johanna Preston of Preston Zly, Andrea enjoys the buzz of being surrounded by like minded fashionistas and artisans. ‘Johanna and her partner Petr have run the studio for many years. I have known them for a long time’ she says. ‘When I closed my shop on Gertrude Street back in 2006, Johanna took it over as her retail space for the newly created Signet Bureau. Years later I went back and stocked her shop and here I am now, back at the studio’.
Although she doesn’t stick to clear cut seasons -- they just seem to roll into each other here in Melbourne -- Andrea is currently working on some new ideas for winter that evoke some of her favoured 60’s references. ‘My thinking is a bit Biba-esque at the moment. Exaggerated maxi skirts, oversized coats, wide pants, jumpsuits.. Whilst at the same time keeping my signature in there somewhere,’ she explains.
'I love Dutch wax print cottons, and have been importing them from Holland for a number of years. They will still have a presence, along with my trademark hand-printed spots. It’s still a work in progress.'
Andrea is humble about her success, but acknowledges reinvention as being vital to longevity as an artist. ‘I have had to reinvent myself many times but I always turn to the trade I know. There are so many avenues to explore and more influences than one could be inspired by in two lifetimes.’ she says. ‘I couldn’t imagine not doing what I do. Despite the many dips and turns. A regular job is an absolute anathema to me’.
Written by Casey Rafferty. Photography by Jay Donohue.
Andrea Nicholson garments can be purchased from her studio showroom space on Smith Street, Fitzroy, or from the Tiffany Treloar Boutique at the Gertrude Street or Flinders Lane locations.