Gorman’s Geology collection
You can spot her in the distance, with her comfortable silhouette and fearless use of colour. This season, she’s wearing a rainbow of illustrated crystals, perhaps on a pale lavender background. Last summer it was wavy pink squid tentacles. The year before that, there were curling pastel snakes across navy blue cotton. She’s probably wearing sensible shoes – flats or a block heel – and may well have her hair pulled back in a bun, to better show off her big earrings. She’s a Gorman girl – no relation – and she is legion.
“I’m sure there are other brands that are worn much more than Gorman,” says Lisa Gorman, the woman responsible for the casual, cheerfully independent aesthetic that is increasingly shaping Australian street and business-casual wear, “but because of the prints, we’re very recognisable. [Elsewhere] there’s a lot of grey melange, black and white in fashion.
“I’ll have friends say to me, ‘That’s classic Gorman’, and sometimes I feel that they know better than I do. It’s print, definitely, and I do like things to be practical, not just for special occasions. I suppose I’m so far into the thick of it, that it’s more easily recognised by others.”
After 17 years in the business, Gorman has 29 retail stores across Australia, one in New Zealand, and a thriving online business. Gorman fans don’t just buy the brand, they collect it. Women will eagerly swap and resell Gorman clothes online. One private Facebook group, “Gorman clothing fans buy and sell”, has just under 8000 members.
“Who isn’t a fan of Gorman? Every human is. I love her aesthetic,” says Elke Kramer, a Sydney-based designer, jeweller and recent Gorman collaborator. “I found a piece of paper with a list of people I wanted to collaborate with written on it. I’d written that list five years ago, and Gorman was on the top of that list.”
The starting point for Kramer’s jewellery is always custom-made resin. She uses marbling effects, shavings of copper, crushed shells, and whatever else might work to create finishes that look close to organic. “I always try and make my resins look like faux-stones.”
“As we were developing the Geology collection, we liked the idea of having a collaborating artist working with us...” Gorman says, of Kramer. “She was the first person who came to mind... She doesn’t just go out and buy resins. She sits there and creates them.”
A year ago, after running into each other at The Big Design Market in Melbourne, the pair set about a “fast and furious” creative process. Kramer developed resin chips to complement the Geology collection; Gorman whittled the offering down and then Kramer created the jewellery, making sure to keep the pricing accessible for Gorman’s more-than-high-street, not-quite-designer-label customer base. The result was a simplified take on some of Kramer’s classic pieces: spheres of resin married to long tassels to become drop earrings and pendants, little faux-gems set against bars of rose gold. For the first time, Kramer also placed her resin jewels on shoes.
“Our aesthetic marries so seamlessly with theirs, so it was very easy. It allowed us to go a bit crazy,” Kramer says. “Often we’ll say to ourselves, ‘Let’s do this in grey because it will sell.’ But with this we could say, ‘Let’s do it in pink.’ Their customer likes the kind of loud eccentric jewellery that we love to produce but find hard to sell. Everything they suggested worked. We produced it, delivered it, and it sold out really quickly.”
Typically, Gorman’s collaborations are one-offs, but both parties had such success with the range that Kramer is doing another, smaller jewellery collection exclusively for Gorman later this month.
The success was not surprising to Kramer, but it was a pleasant break from her typical wholesaling experiences. “It’s not that healthy,” she says. “People will tell you, ‘I love that, but can you make it really, really tiny and in silver?’
“I’ve always done the same thing, and for a while what I wanted to do was very on-trend. Then suddenly… it wasn’t. Bowing to trends only makes sense if you’re trying to work with retail. I tried to bend and twist to fit into [new styles], but I’ve realised it’s better to have a direct relationship with our customers.”
Gorman came to a very similar conclusion with her label. As more and more stores opened, wholesaling became “a distraction”. As she explains: “When you have your own stores, it gives you a much stronger base to work from.”
While customers appreciate Gorman and Elke Kramer for the independence of their aesthetics, both women’s careers have been shaped by collaboration. For Kramer, it was her partnership with Kate Hurst, a designer and business consultant with whom she now runs both Studio Elke and the design solutions firm Common Knowledge. “One of the biggest successes I’ve ever had is letting someone else come on board. When you run your own business, you get used to being a control freak, and having everything satisfy your own criteria. Opening yourself up – that is really hard, you have to let go and relinquish. Then things turn around, and … you end up being so much more fruitful.”
Kramer’s background is academic, and she tends to do things “the long, hard way”. She says that to be satisfied she has to “make myself a riddle, then solve it”. This tendency towards extreme detail made Hurst’s long-term perspective very valuable. “I was sinking without that big-scale direction.”
Gorman found similar relief in teaming up with a major retail partner. “It gave me space, and sanity.”
Collaboration is also key to Gorman’s creative process. This season’s range involves work not just with Kramer, but with fine artist Fred Fowler, who produced a series of prints, and the Melbourne Museum. There, she found “the way the colours of the crystals worked with the museum-green lockers, in this washed but colourful way, very inspiring. It felt quite feminine and almost floral.”
Gorman not only scoured the museum for inspiration, she also shot two campaigns with the institution. “It was a lot of work, but it’s fallen together perfectly,” she says.
Kramer was still sporting the grandest articulation of this tripartite process when we visited her studio: a white canvas bag, with gold foil printing that says “Gorman x Melbourne Museum”. It’s a vestige from the huge runway show Gorman held at the museum last month. The whole show was open to the public and free.
Doing something so egalitarian, with so many hands involved, is rare in fashion. But it’s this joyful, unpretentious openness – this tendency to do things because they feel right for her, rather than tying into some larger zeitgeist – that has won Gorman so many devotees.
“I heard an amazing interview with Vivienne Westwood where she said you have to do the same thing every day for seven years for the world to accept you as a brand,” says Kramer. “That’s something I’ve always aimed to do, to stay true to my voice repeatedly. That’s why Gorman was so fantastic. They have a cult.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Resins to be cheerful". Subscribe here.