Stepping back from the traditional model of ever-expanding business has allowed Melbourne designer Ingrid Verner to create a boutique label that is a labour of love. By Alyx Gorman.

Verner’s small print

Ingrid Verner’s collaborations with Lisa Waup based on the artist’s original work, ‘Homeward Boundaries’.
Ingrid Verner’s collaborations with Lisa Waup based on the artist’s original work, ‘Homeward Boundaries’.

“There’s an interesting new paradigm that I think is going to play out in a weird way,” says Ingrid Verner, the fashion designer behind Melbourne-based label Verner. “We are getting to the point where people are wanting to buy less. They’re not shopping with the same ferocity. But the thing is, we have more products [for those people] available. It’s fierce! I feel like I see a new well-mannered, transparently manufactured, ethical, organic fabric brand … every week.”

Verner’s own ethically certified creations tick many of those boxes. Though after more than a decade in the industry, her works aren’t nearly as polite as the simple linen blouses and organic cotton trousers with which she finds herself sharing a niche. Verner’s career as a name-on-the-label designer began straight out of university, when she launched a label with fellow RMIT graduate Monika Tywanek. Tywanek had contributed to Verner’s honours-year collection, which they entered into the designer award at Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2006. To their surprise, they won, and the $10,000 prizemoney underwrote the brand’s first collection under the name TV. Despite having a label name that was actively hostile to search engines, the brand survived until 2011, garnering international attention from stockists such as Henri Bendel and Topshop. After disbanding TV, Verner spent some time recomposing, working for Brisbane-based Easton Pearson, before launching Verner in 2012.

Five years on, she’s “restructured my whole set of expectations around what I can really achieve with my business. I’m not … trying to grow my business anymore. I’m happy to just see it as an aspect of my working life.”

Verner also teaches fashion design. In that capacity, she encourages her students to “really reflect on who they are … where they’re from, how they see the world, what they’re interested in. Not only that, but also what they’re really good at, what they’re not so good at and how they want to live their life.” While a few years ago most fashion design students dreamed of launching their own brand, now most of Verner’s pupils see that pathway for what it is – a hard slog riddled with potential dead-ends.

“That’s a new way of thinking. They get that it is a really hard industry. And that’s why I think that approach to practice – thinking outside of the box in terms of what you enjoy and what’s unique to your approach – is really important. There’s new brands popping up all the time. The ones that do well are the ones where people have really worked out what they’re about. That’s heavily tied into who they are as people and their approach to life and lifestyle.”

Verner is adept at practising what she teaches. In fact, that’s how she refers to her work as a designer – as “a practice”. Rather than “range-planning” – a largely administrative process whereby designers ensure they have x amount of sellable basics to y portions of trend-driven dresses, to z quantity of avant-garde, image-defining runway looks – Verner is taking things one garment at a time. “It’s just not as focused on the range as a whole, but more on the integrity of the individual pieces.”

This means she invests her finite time in meticulous pattern cutting and realistic injections of novelty. “If I can find that magic – easy to wear but not conservative, quite interesting and a bit special, so when people do see it and when it’s worn out on the streets, another person is going to say, ‘Oh my God, where did you get that from?’ – that’s just a little bit of an in.”

Her aim to make a small number of pieces, each so special strangers will literally stop each other in the street for wearing them, begins with print. The ultimate example is a capsule collection Verner designed with artist Lisa Waup which was curated by Craft Victoria’s retail, commissions and development manager, Sarah Weston. The collaboration first showed on Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Global Indigenous Runway, and will soon be available for purchase through Craft Victoria.

Waup is primarily known for her weaving, but this collaboration made use of her printmaking skills. “Most of the drawings were only A4 in size,” says Waup, who supplied several sketchbooks for Verner to work with. “We talked about how we could mirror the designs to create a continued pattern.”

“We worked together with scale,” says Verner. “I didn’t want to do too much internal cutting or to splice up those prints, or make them too small or repeated... it was about showcasing the print and the placement of that print on the body, rather than any tricky cutting or over-the-top design elements.”

The resulting collection is striking – giving absolute primacy to the prints, while allowing the body space to breathe within the garment. “The idea of having an open collection was a massive goal for me. I wanted the pieces to have a gender-inclusive nature. I thought, why should it be restricted to one sex, why not allow all to celebrate these beautiful designs?” Waup says. “I hope that anyone feels that they can wear this collection.”

This pair of decisions – big prints, generous fits – gives the collection a futuristic edge. One large print – Homeward Boundaries – has been placed thoughtfully on a voluminous short-sleeved jumpsuit. Its central, circular motif sits curved around the side of the body, its striated edges radiating out until the pattern begins to repeat itself right at the sternum and inner thighs. More than anything, the piece recalls Kansai Yamamoto’s work with David Bowie in the 1970s, but it is imbued with Waup’s highly personal investigations of her own recovered heritage.

“I originally created a series of prints incorporating documents that I had been given through the Freedom of Information Act about family. Through this came a series of shields that metaphorically acted as a protection to this information. They were layered on top of the documents –protecting its content, protecting the information and the stories of the family included.  The shield design has since grown into simple line drawing, going down into the grain of the shield’s wood – yet still having that protection element ingrained.”

The kind of pattern-matching required of Verner and Waup, to ensure Waup’s work acted as it was intended to – as an encasing, protective layer – was intricate. “A great deal of this connection came when the sewing was done, and was extremely time-consuming,” Waup says. Fortunately, when completed, “it was totally flawless”.

“What a moment that was, seeing the finished pieces on the beautiful Indigenous models,” Waup recalls of the runway show. “I felt that the pieces came alive. For so long I viewed them in 2D – once worn they became 3D, almost animated as they moved.”

Though the collection will be for sale, its commissioning by Craft Victoria, with funding from Creative Victoria, was a financial model far more common in art than fashion.

“Everything sold goes directly to the artist, which is great,” Verner says. She adds that she’s as sceptical of social enterprises as she is of the glut of ethical basics. “It’s like, ‘Great, if you make a profit, then it goes back to the community.’ But we all know how hard it is to actually make a profit. Lisa gets paid whether I make any money or not, which is great for me.”

That observation marks another difference in the way Verner now approaches fashion: an unwillingness to rely on interns. “With TV, we used to operate on having a lot of interns and that sort of thing. It’s just something I would never do now. To have unpaid labour in my studio ... Big brands still operate on this level where they’ve got the four or five unpaid interns working around the clock before Fashion Week. The reality of the situation is even if you’re – seemingly from the outside – a highly successful, well-recognised young brand internationally, you’re still struggling financially. It’s just such a hard game in that way.”

That’s where fashion as practice, not entrepreneurship, comes in. “The appeal to stay really small is great. I can go into my studio and maybe work with one person for a few hours who I pay to do a specific job. I’m not managing two or three interns every day. I’ve got space to think and to do my work at my own pace. Yes, my output isn’t prolific, but at least I am enjoying the process a lot more.”

Taking the pressure off has given Verner the freedom to be truly intimate, and creative, in the way she works. Large “collections” in the typical, plotted sense aren’t necessary. “The way I’m approaching my practice as a designer, the people I collaborate with, their prints – that is, in itself, the narrative now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Verner heart slog".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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