Charlotte Hicks draws inspiration from the moment in a woman’s day when she looks into her wardrobe and decides what to wear. The designer and founder of Esse Studios thinks a lot about the instincts that drive that decision, the first impulse to take a garment and put it on. She describes it as extremely personal.
She knows in that moment she’s considering the tactile experience of wearing something, weighing up the balance of function and form. She’s considering the lightness of the cotton against her skin. She’s considering how a dress can make a person feel more like themselves.
Each piece in Hicks’s collection is crafted with this in mind. How will the fabric feel? How will the cut be to move in?
Hicks’s collections evolve in rolling editions, each one a tight capsule of wardrobe staples designed to complement the one before. Her latest is Edition Five. She has made everything in Australia since launching in 2018 and uses fabrics imported from Europe and Japan, except for a thick-ribbed viscose that was knitted in Melbourne.
The ribbed viscose runs vertically along the waist between the lower ribs and the top of the hip bones of a strapless cotton dress. The rest of the fabric is loosely gathered on either side, to create an ankle-length skirt with a soft A-line and a loose fit around the bust. The thickness of the rib anchors the piece, flattering and holding the waist. It contrasts with a crisp, billowy cotton that is so airy it promises to offer respite from the sun’s heat.
Hicks describes the ribbed viscose as having a compression-like quality. She has used it in an identical way in the waist of another dress and skirt. The styles are all part of the same story and come in the various colours of the collection: black, brown, red, cream and white. The second style of dress is more covered.
The top of it sits wide across the shoulders and spans the width of the collarbones to finish in a deep, narrow V that manages to be both modest and revealing. This balance is one Hicks strikes over and over again in her designs. Between beauty and function, structure and freedom, glamour and form. Her clothes are for the wearer as opposed to the gaze, for the woman as opposed to the man. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her styling.
Slouchy, satin pants with an elastic waistband are paired with an oversized shirt in the same, sumptuous acetate blend. The pants have a flat-front and deep pockets. They fall wide through the legs. The fabric is so soft and smooth the waist is the only point of contact that would be felt against the skin, and it sits comfortably high. The details of the shirt are perfectly executed and so subtle that only the keenest eye would notice the angle of the collar or the depth of the cuff.
In other looks, the pants are styled with nothing but an enormous chocolate brown cloak, wrapped around the model’s bare torso, emphasising how lush it would be to spend a day in only this and satin, soft-waisted trousers. The same pants, in another pairing, are worn with an oversized cashmere sweater that has been cut to emulate a man’s. There is nothing underneath it, its neckline dives to a low, wide V and it is split at the sides to reveal the line of the hip. The combination of the fabrics and shapes create a relaxed femininity.
The double-breasted overcoat, with its narrow lapel and slight swing at the hem, wears like the true companion a good coat can be. This is a coat to see you through travel and bad weather, to steady strained nerves, to keep your secrets well hidden. In its smallest details, the coat is just for the person inside it. The sleeves are finished with a split at the elbow to allow easy movement through the forearms. Its lining is perfectly matched to its fabrication. In a nod to her formal training, Hicks says, “the inside of every piece should look as good as the outside”.
This careful and measured attention to detail allows her to structure garments with an artfulness informed by her love of architecture and interiors. In a two-piece series made from black Japanese satin, she constructs the sexiest garments of the collection. The first is a backless, cowl halter-neck floor-length dress with minimal seams. Darts at the bust and the lower back ensure its clean lines follow the body without gripping to it. The second is a top in the same fabric, a low-cut halter-neck that wraps around the waist, styled with a tailored pant and low bun. It sits perfectly in the space Hicks continually carves out for a woman, between strength and softness, discretion and exposure, productivity and poise.
She believes performance is crucial. She considers how the construction of a dress will determine the accompanying bra, how fabric wears over the course of a busy day. She says it’s about creating pieces that allow a woman to be present in her daily life. Pieces that are reliable and comfortable. Even the dresses have pockets. Hicks says, “I want her to feel herself, I want her to be able to be everything she wants and needs to be in those pieces.”
This sentiment reminds me of something the late Alber Elbaz was often quoted as saying: he was not interested in designing the dress that made a man fall in love with the woman who wears it; he was interested in designing the dress that a woman wears when she falls in love with herself.
Hicks’s genius is that she centres the experience of the woman who wears her clothes and focuses on how that woman feels within herself. How her imagination is sparked by the hidden details that improve her life. How freely she can move. How much she gives away. How the rib knit feels around her waist. How self-assured she is in her overcoat. How often she decides to wear the satin trousers.
This is her secret power: how the clothes make her feel. How quickly can they make her fall in love with herself?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Regions of thick-ribbed viscose".
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