Spell and the Gypsy Collective
Isabella Pennefather has fangirls. They approach her through the crowd after watching her sister on stage. Both wear floor-length skirts: one cotton jersey, the other white lace. Both have long, straight hair. Isabella is wearing a floor-length dress, too; a cotton-floral nod to Liberty print, under a khaki coat with glittering golden chevrons and flowers embellished across its arms and back. Pennefather’s hair is long, too; falling in what glossy magazine nomenclature calls “beach waves”. Even in a busy room, she is easy to spot.
When the pair stand next to Pennefather, they look like a Stevie Nicks tribute night. The trio snaps a photograph together, then Pennefather drifts backstage. Though you couldn’t tell it from looking at the women involved, this didn’t happen at a music festival. It was a Business Chicks convention. Pennefather and her sister Elizabeth Abegg are the founders of Byron Bay-based fashion label Spell & the Gypsy Collective.
Devotees of the label, and of Pennefather, know both the brand and the woman as “Spell”. She is the designer, and the quieter of the pair, while Elizabeth runs the label’s small but wickedly effective marketing department.
In location, aesthetic, growth trajectory and audience, Spell bears little in common with any other Australian fashion label. And having now won Telstra’s 2016 Australian Business of the Year Award, the dissimilarities might be recognised as a very good thing for them.
Pennefather and Abegg both cringe at the word “boho” – “it feels very pigeonholey” says Abegg – though it is the closest shorthand for their collections of lace, flowing skirts, embroidery and the occasional lurex jumpsuit.
Spell’s aesthetic, and their success, are built on two core and closely intertwined components: Byron Bay and Instagram.
“It’s certainly the third character,” Abegg says of the rapidly changing town the brand calls home. The story goes that Pennefather, sitting in Melbourne’s Punt Road traffic one day, on her way home from a fashion design job in Melbourne, decided to turn on to the M1, drop out of her nine to five, and tune in to a different kind of life, driving north to Byron Bay. “I drove there with a girlfriend in my crappy Toyota Corolla. I can’t believe we actually made it,” she says.
This was in 2006, “before the whole ‘moving to Byron Bay’ craze started.” Within a year, Pennefather had established a small business selling handmade jewellery to local boutiques and at markets. She’d also met the man who would later become her husband.
Three years later, unsatisfied with her life as a film editor in Sydney, and reeling from a recent break-up, Abegg decided to join her sister. “I never knew the whole ‘entrepreneur’ thing was possible,” she reflects. “She’s the artistic, talented one. I had no idea that my very pragmatic, Latvian brain could contribute something too. I didn’t realise that she would need help, that being a wonderful fashion designer isn’t the only skill in running a fashion label.”
As teenagers, the sisters transformed a spare room in their parents’ Melbourne home into a leatherworking studio. They’d visit leather shops and beg for scraps they could turn into bags and jewellery. It was a project inspired by their father’s past life as “a leather craftsman hippie in the 1970s”.
“He opened a little shop in Brisbane,” Pennefather says. “They had a big vase in the middle of the store filled with incense, and all the smoke would waft into the street, drawing customers in. Then he moved down to Melbourne, got a nine-to-five job, hooked up with my mum, had kids… He had photos of some of the pieces he used to make. It was amazing stuff and I’m pretty devastated he didn’t continue it.”
Their father came to Australia as a refugee from Latvia at the end of World War II. Like many second-generation immigrants, the sisters’ business is built partially on the dreams their parents abandoned. “Part of the inspiration for me and Lizzie was to not do what he did. He didn’t really like his job. We wanted the opposite of that. To never work in a job we didn’t love.”
Spell is a label that feels endemic to Byron. This sense of place is something Abegg also attributes to their father. “There was a scuffle on the harbour when his parents were boarding the boat [out of Latvia]. All their friends got pushed onto a boat boarding for America, while my family ended up on a boat heading to Australia. Because of that, all through their lives, my grandparents were obsessed with America. They thought it was this land of plenty. My dad was the same, he was an American trapped in an Australian’s body... [We were] made aware of where we were all the time. When we moved here to Byron, it certainly felt like coming home.”
Certainly, the town and its surrounds have made a beautiful backdrop to the label’s efforts on social media. Their Instagram feed makes the most of Byron, from an aerial shot of a jet wing over the headlands, to a joyful image of the whole Spell family celebrating a birthday on the beach.
Byron festivals such as Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass are also significant moments on the Spell calendar. The sisters always enjoy attending them together. “[They] are a way of expressing yourself from a fashion point of view,” says Pennefather. “Of course you enjoy the music, you’re free, you have fun, you go with friends and create amazing memories. But it’s always been very fashion oriented for me. It’s full circle for me that we’re now a go-to festival label. This year we opened our new flagship store just as Splendour was happening... It was really busy, happy vibes.”
There are now 659,000 following Spell’s fairytale on Instagram, and the garments they post there are snapped up quickly by eager shoppers. “The dialogue we have with our customers is close,” Abegg says. “To the point that, if we don’t keep them involved in a very intimate way, they get upset.” She recalls the time a minor change in shipping policies resulted in dozens of wounded emails. “It helps that I run our Instagram, so when they’re on there, they know they’re speaking directly to an owner of the label.”
A combination of personal yet judicious social media usage, and celebrity fans who further boost their audience, has allowed Spell to achieve a global stockist portfolio and an extremely healthy e-commerce business relatively quickly. Between 2012 and today, they went from bootstrapped to Business of the Year, and the fashion cycle had nothing to do with it. Until recently, they weren’t even selling on a seasonal basis.
“We don’t design for trends,” Pennefather says. “We make clothes that are classic and make women look beautiful.” Meanwhile, Abegg suggests: “Spelly just designs what she wants to wear.”
It turns out what many women want isn’t to be on trend, but to be on holiday. “Even if they wear a suit every day to work,” Pennefather says, “when they throw on their Spell dress they get transported to somewhere exotic or have the feeling of being on vacation.”
That feeling when you wear one of their dresses, that you can smell the tea-tree lake at Lennox Head, or hear the drums of Bluesfest off in the distance, is why women are drawn to Spell. When asked why they never chose to show at Australian Fashion Week, Abegg admits she’s not even sure when it is. “I think it must be around the same time as Coachella. I always see this juxtaposition on my Instagram feed.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Hot spell". Subscribe here.