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The designer behind women’s clothing label E Nolan talks VAMFF cancellations, keeping the fashion industry afloat and adjusting to life at home.
When I call Emily Nolan, she’s on a solo walk in the park near her house, eating a donut and contemplating ways to keep her business afloat during the next few months. She’s grateful that she still has work and considers herself lucky, but she also knows that navigating the future will require a lot of adjustment and lateral thinking.
“At the moment, I’m not entirely sure how E Nolan is going to survive. But I know that we have to focus on product development, getting as much stock as we can online, pushing things onto socials and trying to keep people involved,” she says. “I’m not certain what the best moves are. I don’t have all the answers yet and I’m not sure anyone does.”
Despite closures and heaps of uncertainty, Nolan says the next few months could be a great opportunity for boutique fashion labels – if they’re able to pull through.
“I think bigger fashion companies are going to have a harder time than really small, boutique labels. People are going to start buying locally again, buying things that mean something to them. So I think this can be an awesome opportunity for boutique businesses if they can get through it,” she says. “We’re getting a lot of people reaching out and buying gift vouchers, others are paying for a suit up front and saying I can just sort them out when this has all blown over. The loyalty people are showing now is amazing.”
Like a lot of Australians, Nolan admits she didn’t realise how serious the Covid-19 pandemic was until it began to affect her work. Her Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) runway show was cancelled at the last minute and she’s no longer able to provide fittings to clients – though she’s switching to consultations over FaceTime.
“The VAMFF cancellation was so heartbreaking at the time, but now I realise that of course it had to happen,” she says. “Quite a few of my friends had actually pulled out on the day as well. They were telling me they were a bit worried about big crowds and things like that. At the time it seemed ridiculous to me, but in hindsight it all makes sense.”
Nolan says designers were devastated with the festival’s cancellation largely because of all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting a runway collection together. Because of the Covid-19 outbreak, Nolan was unable to contact a workshop in China they use for partial garment production. E Nolan sources all its fabric from Italy, and the coronavirus situation there meant Nolan couldn’t get materials either.
“Three weeks before VAMFF, we still hadn’t received these suits that we’d ordered, then I managed to get in contact with our friends in China and they told us everything had completely shut down. We were totally freaking out at this point and I was a bit cross,” she says. “To be completely frank, I had no idea how severe Covid-19 was at that stage. I was so ignorant, looking back on it.”
Nolan says the solution was to adapt on the fly and put together a new collection in the three weeks they had left before VAMFF. She bought fabric from Stitches To Style, where she works one day a week.
“We just figured we’d make everything from scratch and put it on the runway,” she says. “We normally work in a shipping container on my business partner’s grandparents’ property. Sometimes it gets a bit cold sewing out there, so we brought all our machines inside to the dining room table and sewed the entire collection there.
Nolan describes the products of her dining room garment factory as “ginormous, 1980s, Julia Roberts at the airport-inspired coats that could be worn by Ned Flanders or the late Katharine Hepburn.”
“It was so much fun, we had a ball,” she says. “I mean, we actually cried a lot and pulled our hair out, but we were sewing and knowing that by the end it would all be worth it when we saw everything on the runway.”
The garments never made it to the runway, but once the dust settled, Nolan realised it was for the best.
“We were sitting at dress rehearsal the day of the show. The music had started and models were walking out, then everything got turned off. The festival manager [Yolanda Finch] called everyone into a room and she was crying hysterically,” she says. “She had a microphone and was reading a document on why the festival couldn’t go ahead – she was so upset, she couldn’t even look at us. Everyone was crying.”
Nolan says running a small business has made her resilient, and by the weekend, she was already thinking about her next move.
“I had a beer with my family, a big cry and I was ready to move onto the next thing.”
The next thing was throwing a makeshift runway show together in a backyard and showcasing her VAMFF garments online.
“It was just myself, four models and a photographer, Claudia Smith. I had just redone the floor of the shipping container with this tacky checkerboard Lino floor and I had an offcut that was shaped like a runway, so it made sense to use that,” says Nolan. “The models were walking in a row with no audience, just so Claudia could shoot it. We turned the images around really quickly and put them online as a collection diary. It was nice for people to be able to sit at home and flick through it all while we’re staying at home.”
We’re all getting used to interacting with our favourite brands at home and trying to stay productive while we work at the kitchen table. Nolan shares a few tips on how she’d like to work from home.
“Try to get up, have a shower and put on something fab to make yourself feel more productive. Because we’re all working from home, there’s no ‘switch off’ button,” says Nolan. “It would be nice to have a shower and get into your pyjamas at the end of the day just to give yourself a mental break and know that you’re transitioning from work to rest mode.”
But Nolan admits that she hasn’t always been sticking to her ideal routine.
“That being said, I’ve just been living in pyjamas and getting absolutely nothing done, it’s driving me nuts. When I’m not in pyjamas, I’ve been treating this like a breakup,” she says. “When I’m heartbroken, I just wear all my favourite clothes at the same time to feel better.”
Nolan also tells us how she’ll be spending some spare time at home.
“I want to learn how to tie-dye, and maybe whistle with my hands. I’ve never known how to do that,” she says. “I’m lucky that my hobbies and my job are really creative. I can isolate myself and sew for hours on end and not get bored. My sewing machine has been my saving grace so far, and I’m looking forward to sewing for myself and not always for work.”
Images: Emily Nolan