Lis is the woman behind Australian underwear, basics and swimwear brand, NICO.
What led you to work in the garment industry and what influenced you to create a business model built on such ethical foundations?
My background is actually in photography. I studied photography at university, and I think it was this education that founded my appreciation for the visual and the basic principles of design. When I finished studying I travelled for a while and began working as a photographer, but found I was craving a career with more creative control. The idea of building something from scratch really appealed to me. I toyed around with a few different ideas, but when I came upon the idea for NICO it felt instinctual, and very ‘right’.
In the beginning, NICO wasn't about being an ethical or sustainable brand. It was more about offering an alternative aesthetic in the underwear market: something simple and focused on comfort, featuring modern, minimalist cuts made with beautiful fabrics. It wasn't until the business got rolling and I started to set up our supply chain that I realised the current state of the industry. My personal ethics kicked in and working ethically became a priority.
How have your personal values shaped your work?
It was my personal values that led NICO down the path of ethical production. From the outset NICO wasn't a business that concentrated solely on making money; I wanted a project that was creatively fulfilling, and something I could be proud of. To aspire to have this kind of project and then base it in a system of exploiting vulnerable workers would have defeated the purpose of the project in the first place.
Everything is personal when you are a small business, so every decision I make for NICO feels similarly personal. When I realised how significant the issue of unethical manufacturing was in the fashion industry, I had no doubt in my mind that if I was going to be in the game, I had to do things the right way.
In some ways, I think I'm lucky that I came into the industry at a time when change was beginning to happen. I was able to access great resources to educate myself, and I had invaluable advice from people along the way who were pioneering change. I also found an amazing group of customers who really care about these issues and and understood what I was trying to do.
" I believe that when people truly understand what has gone into making a garment, they are less likely to be so careless."
“At the core of everything we do at NICO is a strong respect for the people we work with, and the environment we work within.” At the end of the day that’s what this is all about isn’t it—a display of respect for fellow humans and the world in which we coexist. What are your thoughts on ethics and sustainability being used as a selling point?
I think the issue of using ethics and sustainability as a selling point is a real balancing act. To be honest, my feelings regarding which way that balancing act should tip is constantly changing. Firstly, I'll say that I believe good design needs to come first. And generally speaking, that's at the forefront of how we usually communicate our ranges at NICO.
At the same time however, transparency and discussing the ethics and sustainability credentials of a garment is incredibly important—if no one is talking about it, nothing is going to change. So I think those elements need to be really well communicated as well. But absolutely good design comes first!
I do hope we reach a point where respectful fashion becomes the norm, and that these conversations won't be so necessary. That time is a long way off so for now, it's important that we do our best to raise awareness around these issues.
During your time in the industry, what have been the biggest struggles for you / NICO?
Being such a personal experience, it can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows. A lot of work and long hours go into building a brand like NICO. That said, the industry overall here in Australia is actually wonderfully supportive. Having that support helps a great deal.
What does slow fashion mean to you, and how does NICO engage in this movement?
To me, slow fashion is respecting your clothes, and truly appreciating all of the people who have been involved in their creation. The era of fast fashion has created some terrible habits—it feels way too easy to discard clothing, or merely fail to look after clothing properly, based on how cheap it was to buy. I believe that when people truly understand what has gone into making a garment, they are less likely to be so careless.
Again, this comes back to transparency and communication around supply chains, which is something we're really conscious of at NICO. I'm aware of the need to educate our customers about how to properly care for their products. All of our underwear is sent out with lingerie wash bags, and these make a huge difference in extending the life of the garments.
How would you describe your personal relationship with fashion / clothing?
I'm a pretty practical dresser—perhaps unsurprisingly, I prioritise comfort and function. As I get older I’m more conscious of buying less. Instead, I invest in beautiful, well made pieces that will last, and that I can wear again and again. I generally prefer to have less possessions—having a lot of ‘things’ feels like it weighs me down, and this definitely applies to clothing. I believe in owning a well-edited wardrobe that doesn't rely on trends.
"When I realised how significant the issue of unethical manufacturing was in the fashion industry, I had no doubt in my mind that if I was going to be in the game, I had to do things the right way. "
Looking at the fashion system itself, is there something in particular that you feel needs to change?
So many things! I think what's really important though, is a shift away from our addiction to cheap, throwaway clothing. That’s the root of so many of the industry’s problems—both socially and environmentally. I get that it's all so easy and convenient, and that we love the thrill of a new purchase. That said, in my experience the joy that comes from investing in a beautiful, well-made garment—that you know was made ethically—is a far better feeling in the long run!
Accountability is still a huge issue; how do you think we can best influence brands to take responsibility for their supply chains?
I believe the only way real change is going to occur is if it's led by consumers. The power of consumers and how they spend their dollars is enormous, and it provides a huge opportunity for conscious people to influence the change we need. While that change isn't going to be instantaneous, over time we will get there.
Which initiatives / organisations / individuals in the fashion industry do you feel are making significant waves, and why?
I am loving what Well Made Clothes are doing. They've curated a beautiful range of clothing that also happens to be ethically and sustainably focused, and that’s such an achievement. It's so important that the message being sent out to consumers is that they don't need to compromise on style, or on ethics; that there are many amazing options out there that tick both boxes.
When you look to the future of fashion, what do you see? What daunts / excites you?
Everyone's saying it, but I really do believe technology and innovation are going to be big players in the future of fashion, and will play a big role in cleaning up the industry. We're already seeing some amazing things happening. For instance, we were stoked to discover some great guys in Bangladesh, who recently found a way to recycle cotton waste from the huge manufacturing industry over there—they are now using that ‘waste’ to make our NICO socks. It's definitely an exciting time, although it might be daunting. As a designer, there's a lot to keep up with!