Change is the only constant in the fashion industry, as Lee Mathews knows from decades of experience in adapting her materials, manufacturing and mindset. By Lucianne Tonti.
The beautiful contradictions of Lee Mathews
After more than two decades in the industry, Lee Mathews is nostalgic for a different time in Australian fashion. A time before manufacturing went offshore, when she bought as much Italian linen, cotton and silk as she could and worked with local makers to create small collections of beautiful things.
“I basically just made what I wanted, put it in store and it sold,” she says. “I know that’s really idealistic because the world’s kind of changed, but it feels like such a simple idea.”
After her success in expanding her business globally – at its height she had 60 international stockists – Mathews watched it contract by almost half through the challenges of the pandemic, not to mention the complications caused by disruptions to supply chains.
Her desire for ease is evident in her spring/summer 2023 collection, which will be delivered to stores in the new year. The shapes and lines are distinctly Lee Mathews. Architectural dresses that sit off the body and float long towards the floor; elastic-waisted wide-leg trousers in thick fabrics accompanied by boxy shirts and blazers.
But within the styles of the dresses, blouses, pants and skirts is a world of contradiction – pretty and masculine, glamorous and art teacher, functional and sexy. It’s fascinating to consider the variety of women who have lived in Mathews’ clothes. They transcend at least four generations; few designers make garments that are passed so easily between mothers and daughters.
This versatility is captured in a burnt-orange dress made from a silk-linen blend with lots of body. It has a vaguely floral orange-and-cream print with flecks of blue, a deep-V neckline and a ruffle along the Empire waist that turns a corner to run vertically down both side seams of the skirt. It is styled with flat, textured fisherman’s sandals that makes it casual despite the grandeur created by the depth of the colour and the ankle-length skirt.
The cut of the dress is replicated in a softer, floatier, bright-orange georgette. The fabric looks like silk but is actually a viscose that hangs close to the body, giving it a more relaxed feel.
The dress is styled with gold, wide-legged pants, in a stiff, shiny material. Mathews explains it is a recycled nylon from China that she is experimenting with because the Japanese cotton she would normally use has become prohibitively expensive – the viscose dress would previously have been a silk georgette, but silk is also going up in price.
Although she is drawn to the modernity of both the viscose and the nylon, she remains unsure. “The temptation is to integrate these new fabrics for a new audience, but I’m yet to find out whether that really is the way to go for me.”
As a veteran of the industry, Mathews has endured several fundamental market shifts. She describes a time at the start of her career when most of the industry was based in Surry Hills, Sydney – the pattern-makers, cutters, fusing companies and garment-makers were streets away from one another. “It was a very thriving garment industry,” she says, “and you spent half your life running up and down those stairs getting things fused or samples made.”
The industry started to change 12–15 years ago as it became more expensive to produce domestically, and Mathews’ peers started to go offshore. She describes it as a manufacturing crush that nearly cost her the business – to compete, she began slowly moving production to China.
“It was a big investment; you were putting up a lot of money for a deposit for a factory in China. The process is really different to the way you work domestically so it was a big learning curve,” she says. The result was dramatic changes to the business that increased the amount of product being made and the visibility of the brand. “But it certainly didn’t make the business more profitable and it was a whole lot more clothing to make,” she says.
Now, she’s thinking about how to adapt to another massive shift in the manufacturing landscape. China has emerged as a global leader in garment and textile manufacturing due to a highly skilled workforce and advanced technology, so the cost of production there is rising. This gives Mathews pause to consider where she is getting things made and why. About 20 per cent of her garments are manufactured locally and, as she reflects on how things used to be and what type of business she’d like to run, she’s contemplating making garments close to the fabric mills, whether they are in Portugal, Italy or Japan.
“I just don’t see the sense in all of this sort of moving large quantities of fabric around the world to end up shipping it back out to the world,” she says. “That’s been bothering me for quite some time.”
The fabric in Mathews’ new collection seems to reflect that sense of nostalgia. The gold pants are also featured in deep green, styled with a high-necked tank top in the collection’s signature brown-and-pink poppy print. The material has undergone a shirring technique that makes it pucker into airy pockets that Mathews describes as popcorn-like. “It kind of reminds me of old-fashioned swimwear,” she says, “remember those ’40s and ’50s swimsuits that looked all bubbly like that?”
The print appears in another lightweight dress, in an oversized silhouette that is synonymous with the brand. The dress is made of large rectangular panels that fall from a rounded shoulder. It has a shallow-V neckline that can be closed with a tie. From the elbow to the wrist the sleeves are bulbous, the shape emphasised by large pink flowers printed on the chocolate-brown background. The fabric is just sheer enough to reveal a simple slip underneath.
Despite being famous for her use of colour and bold shapes like this one, Mathews herself prefers to dress in classic pieces and tonal colours. “I mean, I love any all-white look, or all-black look or all brown. I like a uniform basically, but my creative self loves colours, prints, frills, pleats, cuffs. Give it all to me,” she says.
This personal contradiction may well be the basis of her broad appeal – she will integrate a perfectly cut white shirt and impeccably constructed trousers with traditionally feminine colour palettes and details. She describes it as “tempering the fun” by adding a “sort of pared-back utility”.
This light reflection is the product of a deep internal world: one that is constantly balancing an instinct for business with a desire for the softness of a creative life and the richness of interactions with her collaborators. As she recalibrates yet again to the world shifting beneath her feet, Lee Mathews now has decades of experience on her side.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "She contains multitudes".
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