Fashion

With the launch of Worn’s latest collection, the duo behind the label intend to make their mark on the fashion world – while leaving a minimal trace on the environment. By Lucianne Tonti.

Fashion label Worn

A model in the lace Lani shirt and Lupin trousers.
Credit: Jess Ruby James

It started when they were living in Indonesia. The sticky humidity demanded clothes that allowed the body to breathe, but the only things on the market were made of polyester or nylon. So Lia-Belle King and Lotte Barnes, a former PR agent and creative director respectively, enlisted local seamstresses to make them loose shirts and dresses in natural fibres. In 2016, they launched their first collection in Australia, a mini capsule of five styles in three fabrics. They sold it from the store they’d opened together in Bangalow, in northern New South Wales, under the name of the furniture line they’d launched the year before, Worn. King says they had a desire “to create something as raw and simple as we possibly could” that emphasised the beauty of natural materials.

Five years later, Worn’s operations span two countries. King handles design and Barnes is the director of the business. The latest collection, Resort 2022, is called Elemental. It is drawn from King’s dedication to fabrics such as cotton, linen, silk and wool, and the four elements of the natural world: fire, earth, water and air.

In the first look of the collection, a girl runs across a field of golden native grasses in Kosciuszko National Park. Her arms are covered by the long sleeves of her white dress. They swing at her sides as the dress moves freely around her legs. It is a raw silk–linen blend and has an open neckline that could be made more modest by tying the drawstrings on either side of the collarbone. It falls to the ankle from a line of gathered pleats below the bust and sits entirely off the body. King says the raw silk and linen hasn’t gone through a true refinement process, so it is as close to nature as possible. “We wanted to really bring a very visceral experience of the land to the clothes because I feel like fashion can become so disconnected from the origin of the materials,” she says.

In another look, a model curls up on a rock at the water’s edge. The dark green of her dress mirrors the riverbed, the stone, the distant mountains. It’s made of organic cotton and silk voile, with pleats at the shoulders that allow the fabric to fan out from this narrow point, across the shoulder and down the arm, creating a neckline that widens into a deep V. Each sleeve is finished with a hand-dyed Japanese lace trim. The dress is loose and shapeless, the fabric so airy it allows the wearer to feel that they are in their body. It is paired with brown leather sandals and comes in a blouse with identical details.

King believes every garment causes a “butterfly effect” on the environment and people. As designers or consumers, she feels we should take responsibility for these impacts. While we are talking, I keep thinking about a line from the poem “Invitation”, by Mary Oliver: “it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world.” It’s been two weeks since Melburnians were abruptly ejected from the world’s longest lockdown, into nonstop coverage of a global climate summit and inundated with ever-ominous predictions about the warming of the planet. Sustainability feels as if it has never been more important, but since we’re weary, so too are beauty and comfort.

The Worn ethos is relatively simple: create high-quality garments, designed to look beautiful and feel luxurious, from natural fibres that have been farmed using sustainable techniques. She sources organic fabrics, made with highly efficient water-use and non-toxic dyes. These include cotton from Australian Super Cotton in Queensland, which is considered one of the most efficient cotton farms in the world. Everything is made by small-scale producers who are paid well and treated fairly. They have kept approximately a third of their production in Indonesia to continue to support the families and community with whom they launched.

In another look, the model stands with her hands in her pockets in front of the remains of a tree, its grey-brown trunk lit by the low light of the afternoon. She is wearing black trousers and a softly tailored blazer in merino wool. King tells me it is imbued with invisible details, so subtle only the wearer would know they are there. The lining is eco-silk in a contrast colour, the buttons are magnetic, the seams are hidden. She describes the details as “intimate gestures between yourself and the garment”.

She believes this feeling is important because enjoyment can strengthen the connection between a garment and its owner and this connection might result in less consumption. Another dress with short sleeves and lace details has a small, glass button at the back of the neck that is made by hand in England. King describes it as “an experience just for the person that can wear it”.

The pieces are expensive – dresses start at $390 and range up to $995, pants are $290, blazers are $689 – but they are designed to last forever, to be loved and worn and passed on. The use of natural fibres theoretically means each piece can return to the earth, which is important to King. She says of synthetics: “If something cannot end up in the ground, it’s probably not a sustainable material.”

A cream lace twinset with a short-sleeve shirt and matching pants contains 2 per cent nylon and comes with a note requesting it be returned to Worn for recycling at the end of its life. Kings feels that, because of the synthetic component, she must take “100 per cent responsibility for that garment”.

This speaks to her commitment to sustainability. “We didn’t want it to feel superficial,” she says. Especially since the word has become so overused in fashion marketing that it has begun to lose its meaning. Her hope is that this collection and the integrity of its relationship to fabric, to the land, to the makers, might inspire people to buy fewer things, to consider the beauty of the world around them.

The Oliver poem begins by asking “Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while /… for the goldfinches / that have gathered / in a field of thistles”.

As we finish our call, King responds to a noise at her end. “Oh,” she says, “there’s a kookaburra outside.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Worn for effect".

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Lucianne Tonti is a writer based in Melbourne.