Photo Source: Dad's Album
Barwyn was my grandparents home in Kilkivan, Queensland. Grandpa Barney built it in the 60s, for his wife, Nana Elwyn, and their 6 kids - including my dad, Shane. John, my uncle and the eldest Baxter son, then built Calderwood on the hill adjacent, for his family, and these two homes and the space in between contained the type of adventure that made us leap out of bed every morning.
In April 2017, Gemma was interviewed by her old man, Shane.
Apart from the obvious dearth of Architecture jobs, why have you turned to exercise fashion as your possible saviour? Gemma
When I left my most recent architecture job, I knew I needed to match the qualities of that role in order to feel good – because I did love that role, and was deeply in love with architecture. I wanted to be busy, and to feel like I was solving a problem. I wanted a sense of urgency and momentum. I wanted to feel creative and as though I could be a bit eccentric, and then nerd out on tech and details. I wanted autonomy and to feel like I was doing a job that was a good fit for me – so that through the slog I knew was ahead, I might feel a sense of obligation and keep on trucking. I think a lot of people want those qualities in a job but it’s a luxury to be able to choose what you do for a living. I really appreciate being able to take the time to think about it.
When I took a break at the end of 2014, I went on an amazing road trip from Melbourne to Sydney with some mates. We had simple, good fun. We went fishing, camping, riding, adventuring, and those things have always been a big part of my life, and our life with you and mum as kids. While I love dense cities and the daily hustle and bustle, they often lack the kind of adventure I thrive on. I honestly felt that if I could use design to encourage this sense of adventure, primarily through riding a bike around the city, then that would be bloody great. It’s not so much about exercise, as it is about incidental activity that makes you feel free and childlike – and unconsciously doing something good for the brain and the body. I believe that a beautiful and well-designed product can have the power to change the way a person feels and behaves (or misbehaves).
While you’re chasing your ‘fashion passion’, how will your experience from ‘exploring drawing’ help keep the wolves from the door? Gemma
I don’t know if the wolves have been ‘kept from the door’. I am so blessed to have mates around me that have shown insane kindness, support and generosity over the past two years. Grocery drop offs from Rach and Vincent, anti-scurvy boxes from Ana Maria, parcels in the post from you and mum, mates arriving at our place with wine and snax and to fill up my tank with human interaction. What I thought I needed to sustain myself has changed a lot over that time.
During this period of pursuit I found different ways to make money, that sustained me in more than one way. Babysitting and being part of a myriad of local families enabled me to feel valued and connected. Working at Grub in Fitzroy, I was challenged by customer interactions and physical exhaustion, but in feeling like a vital part of a system, and having my hard-work witnessed, I was rewarded with something I was deprived of doing tBAB work at home. Sometimes you need a good back-pat! When I felt completely useless or hopeless in my bedroom/boardroom, which was often, I went to work and had a mental pause. Customers asking ‘how’s it going’, even when I didn’t want to talk about it, buoyed me more than I can describe. I am nothing if not efficient. I like being able to kill multiple birds with one. I wanted to try to make a living doing something I love, that might make other people happy and safe, might contribute to a discussion about bike-ways and commuting, discussions regarding fashion and technology. I wanted to encourage people to value products and strive to understand the production of them, and maybe even challenge other brands to address usability of garments for the modern commuter, to have transparency, and to just influence change for other good shit. I thought I would at least try my best, you know?
At what stage of your life did you become a serial material devotee? Gemma
I love the power of it, how it can affect you after you put it on. I’ve been reading the Patagonia book by Yvon Chouinard, and he’s a dude I could really get along with. A smart, motivated, guy that climbed rocks and looked at the stuff he was using/wearing and had ideas and crafted resolutions. I didn’t study fabric or fashion so I didn’t know much about the stuff when I started this. I tried hard to wrap my head around everything out there, and where fabric production is headed, and it’s so exciting to be learning so much. So I guess I’m a serial devotee now?
You probably remember me helping mum make quilts and costumes, and requesting Lycra twin-sets for jazz class when I was a kid. It was a special creative thing that turned something relatively mundane into something magical. Like a casserole. I think that’s what I’m obsessed with. Using time and thought and experience to turn simple resources into something special. We’ve always been really blessed, but I learned thriftiness from you and mum. The old ‘don’t throw away the pumpkin skin, use it for stock’ idea that Nana Elwyn instilled in you guys as young parents has resonated with me my whole life. I’ve made a few quilts from scraps of fabrics, and I love that one of my manufacturers sends off-cuts to another factory for innards of punching bags. I’m obsessed with working hard, using time, being free of strict process to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s the magic I’m addicted to.
This fashion passion needed something else to focus you on this particular line and genre of clothing. What was it? Gemma
I guess purpose. I desperately wanted to contribute something new and be valued, and I thought it might come from making these clothes. Although I rode bicycles as a kid it wasn’t until I lived in Shanghai that I realised how incredible bikes could be just to get around in. It was such a huge part of my day, feeling so happy each time I jumped on and off a bike. It was such a clear reason to start this stupidly long process.
Your trading name 'to BARWYN and back has definite links to my parents’ cattle farm. What influenced you to use your rural holidays in Kilkivan and your country childhood as an inspiration? Gemma
I guess because those experiences were so pure – so full of goodness for us. And because when you’re a kid things are simpler – you get up, you have to go to school or whatever, but you’re so psyched to see your mates and chat to them. Running around makes you feel buggered but you keep doing it, and you have projects and make up games. I think we all have these special, personal memories of when we were kids. In Kilkivan we would wake up at the crack of dawn and be so eager to see our cousins and play spoons or cricket or go on that adventure into town to get icy poles. We enjoyed the simplicity of the present. We each have our own 'Barywn' I guess, and I would love it I could encourage people to sink into their own nostalgia, and remember the pure goodness of activity and adventure and adrenalin and endorphins of a ride.
How does this and your North Queensland country hometown background, allow you to tell Melbournites what to wear? Gemma
They don’t! I have no right, haha! The fashion industry is so saturated with great ideas, and great art, that the best I can hope for is to bring
something new. The investment of time, energy and money that I’ve made explores the complexities of this specific challenge. My North Queensland country hometown background gifted me the pleasures of walking to school, learning to drive in a stick shift Toyota ute, crab-pot/creek-hut holidays with mates, small scale sports events where participation was encouraged, and knowing most people during each visit to the grocery store. I think one of the greatest things I learned growing up in a tiny-ass town, is accountability. Trying to value everyone I meet, and making the time to try to understand their story because I’ll probably see them again. And that makes you meet and appreciable some incredible types. Dad, you would always wave and acknowledge the dudes out in the sun at roadworks, and that was always a really positive thing for me. Even now I send out that appreciative wave like you and not many wave back, and maybe it’s a small-town thing, but that’s just classic Shane. You knew all these people and they seemed to appreciate you and I think that’s because you gave people your time. I’ve always wanted to be like you and mum in that respect, that valued person people wanted to work with, and acknowledged, and felt appreciated by. My Nth QLD country hometown background gave me the time to get to know everyone around me and feel like I was surrounded by people who cared about me. Thanks for that.
You’re a bit ‘out there’ Gemma – a mixture of glam, pre-loved clothing, functionality and back to basics. Which will you throw at the market? Will people on de-caf not get the point? Gemma
Pretty hilarious to hear what you dad thinks of your style. The label isn’t necessarily a brand for me to be indulgent and create the textile embodiment of myself. I think the things that I love in clothes are function and drama. Not sports luxe – I’m not a huge fan of the over-celebrated yoga-come-café tights. I think it’s nice to say something to people who receive you in your everyday life through what you wear. It’s the simple conversation you have without words. But fashion and the clothing industry can be hugely indulgent, wasteful and has the potential to create a lot of pressure and negativity. Many don’t have access to comfortable and safe garments, let alone garments that express themselves.
Going into fashion was littered with land-mines. But I feel so strongly about functional and beautiful clothing being able to get people riding, and the positive repercussions of that. So I’m willing to live with the negative of consuming energy to create more ‘things’. I hope you like what I’m ‘throwing’ at the market, dad. I think you’ll find it a bit weird haha!
In your previous life you were passionate about architecture that was ‘green’ and styles in which community and space had a symbiotic relationship. How does this human side permeate your designs and intentions? Gemma
You’re right, I was totally stoked on the kind of architecture that created that symbiosis and was super ‘green’. I remember one of my final assignments at uni was a library on the Gold Coast, and I was obsessed with trying to massage the brief to gift and share space with the community. Another project I worked on whilst in Shanghai was a multi-residential housing scheme for a competition, that had myriad configurations in a 6 x 6m space, multi-functionality at its most ridiculous. Architecture is such an expensive form of creation and experimentation. Fashion is definitely more expensive than I realised, but you can have wild ideas on a much smaller scale and make them a reality, more readily than you can architecture.
I think in the same way I wanted the design of a building to be responsive to its environment, the design of these garments are hoping to address contextual issues and create connections and solutions.
Some of the many barriers you’ve encountered have included finding suppliers, specific materials, pattern makers and a factory to produce your garments. How draining and heart breaking were the ‘dead-ends’ and do you think this has sharpened your ability to find Pokemons? Gemma
Haha! There were so many dead ends. And it’s important for me to talk about it because I think that allows people to value the garments for what they are. I was reading through my emails the other day – from two years ago – I had to delete some because I couldn’t afford to upgrade my email storage – but it was so sad reading back at my emails asking for quotes using import acronyms and remembering all those things I had to learn fast so as to not be taken advantage of.
I met with so many factories, and so many pressers and fabric suppliers. And every time I was turned away I went through weird ups and downs. Like highs of ‘woo no-one is doing this, crikey I’m on to something!’ and lows of ‘what the hellll have you gotten yourself into uggghhh’. There were so many ‘no's’ that whenever I got a ‘yes’ the poor consultant had to deal with a barrage of weirdly romantic gratitude emails and texts. I have definitely found ways of getting to the ‘no’ or ‘yes’ faster because I don’t have the energy for those ‘maybe’ relationships. I thought I had good instincts with people, but I’ve definitely trusted people I shouldn’t have, and I’ve also been surprised by loyalty from people I hardly know. So am I sharper – ugh, I bloody hope so!
Lifestyle balance is a fallacy as less people do more of the work leaving less time for exercise and leisure based activity. Well-paid jobs often hide a poor hourly rate. Is your collection of clothing in some way, part of a solution? Gemma
I think because you were both teachers and I saw you devote such a huge chunk of your daily life to that role, I have always just expected my job to be a huge part of who I am. I wanted to find something that made me feel as valued and connected as you were as teachers.
If I can make money to sustain a humble life from making clothing that is conscientious and supports other trades-people, I would be stoked. I didn’t leave my architecture gig because I was underpaid, I left because I felt that I was fighting really hard for something, that just wasn’t achievable.
Your target audience must include a wide range of ages and life circumstances for active people with purpose. If production costs are unavoidably high, has value for money been one of your design criteria? Gemma
Costing has been a re-iterative process. I have many spreadsheets and documents breaking down the cost of garments into every last cent, that I would update meticulously when I got a better price by a few cents for poly webbing or some such. Accessibility was always really important to me. So was sustainability, and so was ethics. In the end things are more expensive than I wanted them to be, but that’s because I’ve paid the right amount for the labour and production of them. If I sold them for less, I couldn’t afford to sustain the business. Value for money is definitely one of my main criteria, but through educating myself to the options of fashion production, my choice to manufacture locally is one I stand by. And I do believe the garments are very good value for money.
When do you think you might be able to get out of the red (not fabric colour) and start keeping your aging parents in a manner to which they are accustomed? Gemma
Haha piss off. Soon, I hope. Love youse.