Emma Mulholland’s new label Holiday returns to the retro beachside style that launched her career. By Alyx Gorman.

Emma Mulholland’s label Holiday

When Emma Mulholland was searching for references for her just-launched label Holiday, there was one thing she kept running into: herself. The Sydney-based designer has been creating clothes under her own name since graduating from Fashion Design Studio in 2011. “When you Google ’80s and ’90s surf fashion … my really early stuff comes up,” she says. Mulholland wasn’t even alive during some of the periods her work references, but her graduate collection – a mix of playful sequins, googly-eye motifs and oceanic ruffles in faded fluoro and tropical lapis lazuli – is still search engine-optimised, and popular on Pinterest. “It was what I started with, then I was trying to move away from it. Now Holiday is keeping that vibe going.”

Though the look has been honed since those early days, Mulholland’s main-line work is still complex – intricate prints, sequins, crochet – all executed with a sense of offbeat humour. Holiday is comparatively simple: tees, hoodies, denim, linen pants, aloha shirts and an elasticised tube top that requires such unadulterated confidence from its wearer, anyone brave enough to try it in the first place will likely pull it off.

The complex cuts and embellishments are gone. “This is a bit more relaxed. [It’s] easier to see how to tie it into your wardrobe. With this brand [every collection] will be a continuation of the Holiday idea,” Mulholland says. Holiday is a rejection of the idea that fashion has to constantly spin through cycles. In previous collections, “I had to worry about all new shapes” every season. The Holiday offering will be more consistent, with staple shapes “so people can start to know how things will fit them, and the sizing”.

The brand is not, however, a basics label. The cuts may be simple, but the palette of cadmium yellow, millennial pink and scarlet, washed-out peach and fern green will frighten away any would-be KonMaris. And that’s before you get to the prints. A yellow hibiscus with a ’90s raver smiley face in its ovary is the brand’s debut motif. Elsewhere, a buxom trout (“She’s pretty seductive”) reclines on a “Holiday Fishing Club” T-shirt – the clubhouse motto is “Off the hook”. There’s no sneering irony to the work Mulholland is doing – it comes from a place of affection.

“I don’t want everything to be funny, but I like an element of just – ‘not normal’ … I start off with an original plan and then tweak everything to make it a little bit off. Because I think, otherwise, anyone could do it.”

Aloha shirts are a case in point. They’ve become very popular again, very quickly, but few brands are actively experimenting with prints. Mulholland’s takes have electric guitars with palm-tree heads. She admits it feels strange to see an aesthetic she’s always mined hit the mainstream. “I’m excited by it. But also, I see what’s going on and it’s a bit hard to feel like you’re behind, when I was doing it before…” She’s quick to acknowledge that she has no particular claim on the relaxed, sun-bleached surfwear, of course. “It’s always been there.” But she has noticed a few less-than-rigorous takes. “It’s cool to see these surf labels come back in ... but you need to get the right people in … It has to be authentic. [Now] it’s not looking like it did when it was originally so cool.”

Holiday sits comfortably within two contemporary fashion movements: the hunger for more laid-back, escapist clothing, but also that for street-driven apparel such as hoodies and T-shirts. The word for labels such as Holiday is “merchy”: the apparel looks like merchandise for a band, not a brand. The first collection even contains a T-shirt for fake band “The Holidays”. Merchy fashion is more affordable than designer label clothing, but it’s much more valuable than high street. The trend has found its zenith in Demna Gvasalia’s Paris-based label Vetements, which sells $4000 dresses, but also inspires young adults to wait in line for many hours at pop-ups, from Los Angeles to Seoul, in order to get their hands on highly limited, much more affordable T-shirts. The assumption is that purchasers have a genuine resonance with, and affection for, the brand they’re buying. This means they need to believe in the label’s artistry and philosophy. It has to seem authentic.

“I like being able to have ‘Holiday’ rather than my name,” Mulholland says. “That’s another reason to do a new brand – because I would never put my name on a T-shirt.”

To launch her brand, Mulholland recruited a small army of her fashionable friends. Some helped her decorate a pop-up shop on the stylish drag of Crown Street, in Sydney’s Surry Hills. For the fashion-week-timed opening, they turned it into “a Barbie Dreamhouse” with pink cardboard walls, a large Hawaiian backdrop and vacation tchotchkes such as snow globes and shells littered throughout the space. Others contributed to an 86-page Holiday photographic zine. The zine took “all the people I work with a lot”, and asked them to “shoot the clothes in their own way”.

“I just made heaps of different sets of the samples, which you can never normally do if it’s big expensive pieces.” Then she sent them around the world. The zine features photographs from Mexico, Los Angeles, Sydney and more, shot by established Australian stylists such as Imogene Barron and promising newcomers such as art photographers Prue Stent and Honey Long. Mulholland designed and assembled the publication herself.

“I think that’s what everyone’s starting to work out – we can do it ourselves. Kym Ellery is shooting her own lookbook. Everyone’s doing their own prints … We’re just all trying to find ways to survive. Doing it yourself is one way to go.” This applies to manufacturing, too. After years of working in Bali for her main line, Mulholland decided to move the entire production process onshore to Australia. “Here everything’s under my control. I’ve got industrial machines back in my studio for the first time in years.”

Often the fashion that is celebrated locally has nothing about it that is obviously Australian. Holiday suffers from no such cultural cringe. Even when she’s making aloha shirts, Mulholland’s imagery owes more to Reg Mombassa and Richard Allen’s work for Mambo than classic Hawaiian brands such as Tori Richard. References to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Seminyak and Miami all melt together into a universal “beachside paradise” look, but it’s Sydney, Surfers Paradise and Mulholland’s childhood haunts of Newcastle and Ulladulla that always win out. “The fadedness of the prints and things like that are kind of reminiscent of my grandparents’ caravan park.”

Locally, independent boutiques are vanishing or defaulting on accounts. It has been e-commerce – particularly from international customers looking to buy a slice of the Australian fantasy – that has sustained Mulholland so far, and for Holiday, online shoppers will be even more important. That Holiday has a sense of place and character – backed by local manufacturing – will, Mulholland hopes, help the brand stand out.

“I like Australian stuff. You’ve just got to remove yourself from the fact that [embarrassment] is what Australian people think. But outside of Australia, people aren’t familiar with it. They just think it’s cool … Like how people from Paris don’t like the Eiffel Tower. It’s still the Eiffel Tower.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2017 as "Mulholland drive".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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