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Karla Spetic's unique design identity was found through indifference to the mainstream influence


The age of the title seems to be well and truly behind us. No longer is a stylist’s remit limited to sourcing and assembling an outfit. No longer does a designer just design a collection. And according to Karla Spetic, the rise of the multi-hyphenate creative-director-stylist-designer-everything is, among other things, a huge source of dissonance for the fashion industry writ large. When we spoke to her, it was just one of various criticisms aimed at the state of Australia’s fashion industry. From the state of collectivism, to staving off globalist influences, here’s what she had to say.

Cameron Stephens wears Karla Spetic

What is the Karla Špetić design origin story?

I have this vivid memory of mum opening a big yellow envelope and pulling out two Australian visas. Two months later, we packed our lives in a couple suitcases, fleeing war torn Croatia, and flew 24 hours to tropical Queensland.

I was eleven years old, observing and absorbing everything around me. Everything was so alien, from the food and warm humid air, to the way people dressed. It seemed as if everyone wore thongs, even to the bank. People were dressed very casually — t-shirts, shorts — it was all very laid-back. The weather was warm, people were friendly, with huge smiles on their faces, and not a care in the world. The beaches were windy and wild with huge waves. Everything was a complete contrast to Dubrovnik, and it took a while to adjust.

I have fond memories of my grandmother, who was a delivery nurse, homemaker and a creative. After she passed, my mum, aunt and I found beautiful embroideries that she made on various cut up pieces of old hessian bags. They were these intricate colourful floral arrangements, so bright and content. She made them post-Yugoslav war and it seemed as if she was dreaming of this utopia. When I look back at them, they were very much her own and nothing like any other handicrafts I had seen. They had this naivety and confidence about them. We also found little bags, belts and dresses that she re-created in her own way by repurposing various fabric panels, embroideries and colours from her old treasured pieces. I draw on these quite often. They are fond memories that I hold dear to my heart.

As a young child, mum made mini clothes and shoes for her dolls, and always dreamt that she would be able to make her own shoes one day. My father is a free diver, but during his spare time, you’ll find him making little terrarium gardens inside large shells, sketching and painting intricate oil paintings that depict his Adriatic surroundings.

I must have inherited this need to express myself creatively. As a young adolescent, I spent a lot of time drawing and immersing myself in creative activities. Making animal sculptures from clay, collages, paintings and anything artsy that involved creating objects from my observations and imagination.

Migrating to Australia and having to assimilate in school and social activities, I felt so different to the other kids. Mum couldn't afford my school uniform, so, for 6 months, what was left of primary school, I wore my regular clothes to school. In the sea of blue pleated skirts and polo shirts there I was, this peach-white-pink colour combo primary schooler. This played on my self-confidence and all I wanted was to fit in and be like everyone else.

Like most teenage girls, being self-conscious and experimenting with fashion, I soon developed an urge to make my own clothing. The fact that I could wear something that I made seemed so gratifying and the possibilities were endless. I realised this was not something that I could get bored of quickly. There was so much to learn and my eagerness only grew stronger.

When I look back, this need to fit in and look like everyone else is something I purposely steer away from in my work. As I grew, I realised the importance of Identity and developed a strong affinity for uniqueness.

Cameron Stephens wears Karla Spetic

What did you think about the fashion industry before you started your business?

I graduated from fashion school in 2005 and I remember being excited about the fashion industry. Australian designers were thriving; there was diversity, excitement and, in comparison to now, a plethora of unique and independent fashion stores. Store owners were hungry to discover emerging labels, and the media loved and supported them. The term “slow fashion” didn’t really exist, but it was precisely what everyone celebrated.

What do you think about it now after running your brand for 13 years?

I’m not as excited about where the fashion industry is now. Since the debut of my label, in 2008, it has changed significantly. Even though there have been some positive changes with sustainability, transparency and ethical practices, there is still so much work that needs to be done. Globalisation and fast-fashion [have] caused the demise of originality and identity in our landscape. It’s as if everybody wanted to look like another version of somebody else. You could see this shift with those who once celebrated print, colour and individuality, to [having a] sudden obsession with wearing white, nude and black. It was, and still is, all too serious, dull and pretentious.

Fashion designers, existing and emerging, who don’t conform to these trends, are the most exciting and inspiring. I very much hope the fashion industry gains fast momentum in coming full circle again.

Cameron Stephens wears archive Karla Spetic and shorts from Qurated

What still surprises you in fashion?

Each season is like a new beginning, the need to tell a new story. The need to reinvent and move forward, learn new things, and develop new processes. To see your ideas come to life and to see some emerging designers who push boundaries in new and innovative ways.

What do you identify as the conversation that continues to keep the Australian fashion industry in the same place?

I feel there has been this repetitive trend of looking elsewhere. What are the international designers doing? Seeing mood boards that had international runway looks as a point of reference. Being asked which international designer inspires you, as if it was something you had to know in order to justify your work. These are just some things that come to mind that I feel ultimately lead to a trend of having to be anyone but yourself.

During AFW, international buyers would often highlight this and it made me wonder why, for a country so far away from the rest of the world, so many Australian designers looked for inspiration elsewhere.

What do you believe are decisions we can make to help change this?

Realising that being isolated from the rest is a gift for creativity. Looking at your environment, surrounding landscape, heritage and identity and carrying that through your work with confidence. I think it’s good to ask yourself what inspires you within so the work remains honest and your own. It’s nice to be inspired by creatives you admire, and sometimes it can be a challenge to break away from that collective consciousness. But that might be the best thing you can do for your work.

Cameron Stephens wears Karla Spetic

Australia once felt different as a creative industry. Could you speak about a time where it felt exciting and motivating to be a part of? What do you recognise as the changes that caused the change of energy of where we have been the last few years?

It was more exciting and motivating pre-fast fashion. Buyers, fashion agents and stylists each seemed more eager to see what designers were working on, discovering emerging labels, and AFW had more energy. They were all buying into the new season collections and ideas and celebrated individual and emerging brands. Australian fashion magazines featured existing and emerging labels and featured editorials and write-ups, and PR was a must. Graphic designers were commissioned for creative print collateral, such as posters and look books that would go in stores, presented alongside new season collections. AFW saw diverse and creative invites being sent out to industry and media and there was strong emphasis on creating interesting print collateral for new collection showings and industry events.

With fast fashion came the pressure of having to produce more collections, conform to trends, reduce prices and sell larger volumes. Small retailers could not compete with department stores. Both started putting pressure on designers to offer exclusive colourways, lowering price points, and dictated design according to their consumer wants. Eventually it became unsustainable, and smaller retailers either closed business or conformed to buying fast fashion brands.

Customers were buying more for less; watered down versions of high fashion and the desire to buy a high-end designer garment was not priority.

The rise of social media meant that designers and creatives alike could promote their own work so PR was no longer required full time. Having your collection displayed in a showroom became a thing of the past. The digital world of fashion was new and exciting, and magazines began collecting dust.

There was a surge of “consultants” who felt the need to guide designers through processes which they once knew so well. It seemed as if anyone could suddenly become a fashion designer and new labels were appearing everywhere. Stylists also weighed in, and there was a mass movement toward this global trend that resulted in everyone looking like everyone else.

Some of these changes are not necessarily negative. Social media allowed personal insight into designers’ worlds, which allowed a different and fresh perspective. Digital media has allowed new and exciting ways to reach customers and create innovative content. The negative impact fast fashion has on our environment forced new conversations and, for many designers, an opportunity to rethink their choice of fabric, to reduce waste and implement ethical practices within their workplace.

In your opinion, what is the change of conversation that needs to exist between stylists and designers in Australia for it to feel like a more genuine connection?

It would be really refreshing to see a shift in the way stylists and designers work together in a more genuine and respectful way. Each has a title for a reason, and there should be no crossover when working together. A genuine connection would mean that you are working with someone whose work you admire and feel confident to share ideas with, and implement new ways for an exciting end result.

What does Australia look like for you as a best result of change for yourself as a designer?

A place where designers are unaffected by outside trends and influences. Where individuality is celebrated and helps pave the way for designers’ creativity beyond the mainstream. Having conversations around innovation, implementing new practices, and supporting and encouraging Australian-made manufacturing. Teaching new skills and preserving existing would mean that designers wouldn’t have to go offshore for development and manufacturing, and have to compromise the quality of their product. Local production of textiles would allow more variety for designers and support of local artists and makers all responsible for the quality and integrity of the end product. Support from government agencies and organisations by initiating independent events, fashion weeks to allow designers easier access and ability to promote their work globally.

Photography Bowen Arico @ Work Agency

Stylist Charlotte Agnew

Hair Kyye Reed @ HM Division

Beauty Joel Babicci @ Assembly Agency

Model Cameron Stephens @ IMG

Thank you Claire Dickens @ IMG

Interview Charlotte Agnew

Editor John Buckley