Making shirts, pants and jackets tailored to real bodies is Emily Nolan’s calling. By Lucianne Tonti.
E Nolan’s strong suit
It’s raining when I arrive at Emily Nolan’s unconventional studio in Hawthorn East, Melbourne. There is a tall fence of horizontal wooden slats, with an open gate that reveals a green, expansive garden. From behind the fence, I hear her deep, Lauren Bacall-ish voice: “Welcome!”
If you’ve read anything about her made-to-measure women’s and LGBTQIA+ tailoring brand, E Nolan, you’ll know she takes client appointments in a shipping container in the backyard of her business partner’s family home – the workshop is in the lounge room. What’s often left out is how beautiful the setting is.
The garden is lush and overgrown with enormous trees and flowerbeds full of soft pink and yellow blooms, reminding me that despite the unseasonably heavy rain, it’s springtime. Before she shepherds me inside the shipping container, she announces, gesturing around, “Well, I love Alice in Wonderland.”
Inside the container, things feel more orderly. A neat rack of shirts, blazers, knitwear and pants runs down the left-hand wall and a large square mirror faces the door. The walls are painted in a warm cream that matches the oversized knitted vest Nolan is wearing with her signature trousers – the Heidi – in navy with a faint white pinstripe. She tells me she’s had them since 2019 and although she wears them at least once a week, they are in near-perfect condition.
The Heidi pants are high-waisted with a flat front, and pockets tucked away on either hip. What’s special about them is the curve through the leg. Nolan describes them as “crooked” and explains how she has altered the fit to remove most of the fabric from the inner leg, so the pant is straight but the silhouette is balanced to allow for women’s hips.
Nolan has been sewing since she was 13. She studied at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, worked in retail at Scanlan Theodore and apprenticed at the suitmaker P Johnson. In 2016, she founded E Nolan as a ready-to-wear business before transitioning to bespoke tailoring in 2019. The brand has experienced such rapid growth that it will relocate to a three-storey space in Fitzroy before the end of the year.
Offering a bespoke service has allowed Nolan to develop a multi-dimensional understanding of her clients, from the variances and nuances particular to women’s bodies that are often overlooked by the fashion industry, to providing emotional support for people who find shopping confronting.
“Coming out of retail and out of uni you think the size curve is 8-10,” she says, referring to the sizes fashion businesses tend to order the most stock in, “but the curve is 14-16.” This is backed up by data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Nolan – whose mind seems to operate at electric speed – is also thinking about how a woman or non-binary person’s body can fluctuate over the course of the day or even weeks. She says, “How do I make a made-to-measure trouser that is going to fit you every week of the month? Whether that’s period, endo[metriosis], food intolerance, pregnancy [or] menopause.”
The time spent under her focus feels precious, whether it’s her swift movement over your body with a tape measure, gently announcing where she’ll touch you next, or the thoughtful expertise she’s applying as she flips through one of her many books of swatches, to figure out which fabric is most appropriate to your needs. She manages to align psychology, practicality, comfort and style – all within the design of a suit.
She pulls a pair of sample pants used for fitting off-the-rack and turns them inside out to show me the inner waist band. “We’ve pinched this from fancy boys-school uniforms. The best product development you’ll ever find is in menswear,” she says. “School uniforms are particularly amazing because how do you account for that growth?”
She points to a piece of elastic with a textured surface and explains how it grips to the skin if the pants become too loose. Each pair of pants contains enough fabric to allow for two sizes up and down within the seams, so clients are able to bring them back to be altered if they lose or gain weight. In addition to the Heidi trousers, she has more-traditional pants styles that can also be adjusted and altered.
As she moves energetically around the room (it’s very easy to forget it’s a shipping container) – she pulls jackets off the right-hand wall. They are from her own wardrobe and are in an assortment of colours from pale yellow to deep green, chocolate brown and powder blue. One is a particularly soft and luxurious tweed, which she bought from a mill that had made it for the French luxury house Dior. They didn’t use all of it, so she was able to order from what was left over.
Most of her fabrics are from Europe, and she recently visited mills in Biella, an Italian region famous for its luxurious woollen suiting. She shows me a book of swatches of a light, springy fresco fabric and says, “I call this your roll-around-in-the-gutter suit.” She scrunches the wool into a ball and releases it. It bounces back, unwrinkled.
She finds room to play with the shapes of the jackets: the width and angles of the lapels, whether they are single- or double-breasted, the number of buttons, the nip at the waist, the length. She explains how important it is when fitting a woman’s shape to “honour the body”. From the slope across the bust to the curve of the back, too much fabric will betray the fit and upset the line of the silhouette.
Her shirts are always available in white and black cotton twill. They have a deep collar, a covered placket, and the cuff has an accentuated length. But the most interesting detail is the split along the side seams that run from the bottom of the shirt to above the hip. Nolan explains that this is essential to ensure that women with a bust still look like they have a waist. As she’s explaining this to me, she cuffs her hand around her mouth towards my phone that is recording on the coffee table and stage-whispers, “my little trade secrets”.
The shirts are also offered in seasonal colours, including striped cotton as well as a pale beige that is made from a soft linen blend. Nolan recently travelled to a Portuguese mill that can create the shirting fabric exactly as she wants it – from the stripe, to the weave, to the feel and how it washes.
She designed the shirts during lockdown, along with a line of knitted vests. The vests have a V-neck and a thick rib along the bottom. Revealing once again her intimate understanding of her clientele – as well as the intensity of the monologue running through her head – Nolan explains why they were a hit when we were all stuck working from home: “Am I too hot? Am I too cold? I don’t know. I’m just restless.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Emily Nolan’s strong suit ".
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