Aje co-founders and designers Edwina Forest (left) and Adrian Norris (right). Image supplied.
Leading Australian fashion brand Aje opened their first New Zealand store at the shiny new Westfield Newmarket shopping mall this past week, with the Auckland boutique the brand’s 19th retail store since launching in 2008. Co-founders and designers, Adrian Norris and Edwina Forest, are the visionaries and best friends behind the brand whose distinctive, adventurous style has garnered Aje many loyal fans. That fanbase definitely extends to New Zealand where the Australian brand has found favour with local shoppers who love the brand’s confident and appealing take on womenswear.
Adrian and Edwina made a trip to New Zealand earlier in the year when the store was announced to share the news with local media and friends of the brand, and to celebrate what Aje is about. The designer duo were casually but stylishly dressed when we sat down to chat about Aje’s retail arrival in New Zealand, how their business has evolved in the past eleven years and the sustainability journey that they’re on as a brand. The two friends met many years ago in their home state of Queensland and it’s clear from their playful rapport and genuine affection for each other that the brand is a wonderful extension of their joyful and artistic friendship.
Aje has been busily developing the retail side of their business over the past few years and has opened an impressive 18 stores in Australia. The new Auckland store is the brand’s first international store and made sense as the next step in their plan for overseas expansion. “It was definitely a natural progression for us, we feel like we have such an affinity with New Zealand being Australians,” says Adrian Norris. “We’ve also had a lot of online shopping coming from NZ and we felt that we could handle the international expansion more easily with NZ being closer to us than a lot of other places. We really just wanted to offer the New Zealand customers what they were wanting too.”
Just a few short years ago Aje were running their business mostly as a wholesale model with only one retail store but Adrian and Edwina felt that their clothes were kind of getting lost in other people’s stores and they weren’t shown the way that the designers wanted them to be. They decided they wanted to give the customer the full experience, especially as they’re a brand that has many facets to it. While they’re well known for their high fashion runway pieces, Aje also do denim and tshirts (in adorable children’s sizes too) and have a range of popular leather pieces as well. “We have such a broad spectrum of clothing and we found that in our own stores we were really able to tell our own story and really service our customers well,” adds Adrian. “So that was the path that we went on and it’s been really successful. That this will be our nineteenth store that we’re opening here is really exciting for us.”
Nineteen stores in just a few years is certainly a huge achievement and one that can also be attributed to the wide appeal of Aje’s collections. Their dedication to producing high quality pieces often inspired by nature and the flattering cuts and styles of their garments mean that women of all ages love their designs. When pressed on who the Aje woman is, the designers agree that she isn’t easy to define. “I think it’s more of a feeling that she has,” says Edwina Forest. “She’s confident and she’s kind of unconventional in her style in that she likes unique pieces. She’s not trend obsessed but definitely trend aware and I think she’s got a really spirited soul and a love for adventure which I think she finds in Australia as it’s such an outdoor environment, the same as it is in New Zealand.”
For the designers it feels quite surreal that it’s been eleven years of Aje already with the brand having achieved a lot in that time but the ethos of Aje has remained the same. Adrian and Edwina have continued to focus on utilising traditional artisanal techniques in their work, sharing their mutual love of the arts and appreciation for the raw beauty of nature through their collections. While the business has gotten bigger and evolved into a sophisticated operation they still see the hallmarks from the beginnings of Aje in their collections today. “I think we’ve evolved as a brand but it’s funny though when we look back on some of our earliest collections, even the first collection that Ed and I did, there’s still elements that we have today in our stores,” adds Adrian. “There’s still really beautiful natural textiles, as we’ve always loved linens and silks, as well as hand detailing, hand beading and leather. In that sense all the elements that were in that first collection are still coming through every time we drop something. I think as an evolution we’re just listening to our customers more and we’re also able to be a little bit more creative with our beautiful, show-stopping pieces while still offering our customers what they want.”
One of Aje’s 18 Australian stores. Image by David Chatfield.
Understanding what the customers want is a big part of being successful in business and something Adrian and Edwina admit they’ve greatly improved on as their business has grown. While the two have a much bigger team these days to help them manage everything, at the end of the day the creative and business decisions stop with them. Running a successful and rapidly growing business is a challenge in itself but when you throw in designing seasonal collections, doing large scale runway shows and other collaborations it’s a lot to manage. But the designers have become more pragmatic in their approach and find their balance of skills and their solid partnership makes it easier for them.
“Fashion by nature is probably in many people’s minds more of a creative pursuit but realistically it is servicing a need for people to wear clothing and to feel beautiful,” adds Edwina. “It’s an evolution to balance the commercial side and the aspirational side and sometimes the seesaw shifts to one side and then the other. I think we’re lucky that we both have commercial and creative skills, and we’re lucky that we’ve always had each other to bounce off and that there has always been that balance that flows through to every aspect of our business.”
Adrian is quick to add that people’s perceptions of fashion can also be inaccurate and don’t reflect how much work and business nous it takes to succeed. “Everyone always assumes that fashion is just one thing, that we sit here and we draw pretty dresses and then we make those dresses and fingers crossed they sell,” he adds. “The reality is so different, there’s definitely magic involved, but I always say that there’s real beauty in creative people learning to be business minded because you can think creatively in a business sense. I think that being creatives we’ve always taken risks and always look at things a bit differently to other people. I always tell people that they should learn how business works because it sets you free and you can still be creative. I think Eddie and I are in a really beautiful place where we are able to more creative because we’ve become more commercially successful.”
Aje’s success was recognised earlier this year when the designers were asked to open Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2019 as the prestigious ‘Mercedes-Benz Presents’ designers. The honour has previously been bestowed upon Camilla & Marc (2018), Dion Lee (2017) and Toni Maticevski (2016), and was an indicator of Aje’s arrival as a powerhouse Australian fashion brand. MBFWA happens once a year in Sydney with many leading and emerging Australian fashion labels presenting their Resort collections to a local and global audience with many international media and buyers in attendance. It was a thrilling accolade for Adrian and Edwina who were excited to showcase their beautiful brand on an even bigger stage.
“The reality is that that week kind of opens the Resort schedule around the world,” says Edwina. “It’s the major moment when globally everyone is watching Australia so there was an added pressure to do our country proud really and so it felt very fitting to celebrate Australia through the collection that we created as well. We took inspiration from the iconic floral emblems of our country and it was really a nostalgic take on Adrian’s and my version of Australia and what it means to us.”
Adrian enthuses on how they wanted to elevate Australia in the eyes of the global fashion press and for other Australians too. “Where in the past we’ve culturally cringed at being Australian and felt that we were a bit backwards, there were so many elements that we wanted to turn around as we’re really proud of being Australian,” he adds. “We really love all the idiosyncrasies that make us Australian so we kind of played on icons of Australia but we removed all the kitsch. Everyone else kind of plays up Australia as this kitsch Crocodile Dundee thing but what is it to us? It has some really cool elements so we took things like heritage bush signs, such as the kangaroo signs when you’re driving through the bush and we thought we can make these cool and interpret them in ways that we would want to wear it.”
Aje’s Bloomscape collection on the runway at MBFWA 2019. Images by Lucas Dawson.
The collection itself is called Bloomscape (which is arriving in stores and online now) and received a rapturous reception when it debuted at MBFWA alongside a row of heritage buildings on Sydney’s stunning harbour side. The designer’s use of charming wattle flowers and gum leaves on balloon sleeved dresses and sweet tops were a clever juxtaposition to the classic Australian road signs on more utilitarian style shirts and pants. The suitably Australiana inspired colour palette of eucalyptus green, golden wattle yellow, scorched earth red and salt pan pink was a delight and Aje’s homegrown collection was a definite success. No doubt it will be a hit with the brand’s many fans who will be excited to shop the range from this month onwards.
While the designers are excited to see Kiwi’s reactions to the new store and their sublime Bloomscape collection, Adrian and Edwina are already working on next year’s collections and the bigger picture planning that comes with growing Aje into an even bigger brand. It’s certainly come a long way from the business that the duo dreamed up in their twenties but even with all the ups and downs along the way, Adrian and Edwina’s friendship is still at the heart of the brand. Their support of each other as friends and business partners has enabled them to succeed in business and they attribute some of their success to learning to communicate well with each other and respecting each other as people.
“They say that any business relationship is like a good marriage in that you can never be complacent and you always have to respect each other first and foremost. I think honesty is also important and always being forthcoming with anything that’s bothering you,” says Edwina.
“We always talk about things and we’re both really aligned in what we want but we speak about it in completely different terms,” adds Adrian. “Some people ask if we’re on completely different pages but no, we’re saying the same thing just in different ways. We’re always on the same page which is important and I think that and respect for each other and each other’s skillsets are really important things. We also really like each other, we’re still best friends and that makes it a whole lot easier.”
The designers respect for each other and the world around them comes through in everything that Aje does, from the diverse and inclusive casting of the MBFWA show they presented to their considered use of natural fabrics and artisanal techniques. Their magnificent runway show began with a traditional Welcome to Country (which is a ritual intended to highlight the cultural significance of the surrounding area to a particular Aboriginal clan) and was the first time it’s been done at Australian Fashion Week but was an obvious and important part of opening the week to the designers. “People were blown away by it but it’s kind of like it should have just always been there and been a regular thing but the fact that we’re making good headway now is super important,” says Edwina.
“I know that from our combined point of view we were always about diversity and inclusivity it’s just great that it’s become a really positive thing now,” adds Adrian. “At least we have a voice and we can say something and promote the right things hopefully.”
Aje’s Bloomscape collection on the runway at MBFWA 2019. Images by Lucas Dawson.
Their awareness of the issues in the fashion industry and the world has seen Aje look at the sustainability of their business and evaluate what they’re doing well while looking at what they can do better to help the planet and its people. It’s not an easy or straight forward process for any well-established business but with new sustainable technologies being developed all the time and a desire to do the best they can for their customers and the environment Aje are on the way to achieving their sustainability goals one step at a time.
“I think it definitely is a journey,” adds Edwina. “When we started the business eleven years ago I remember us looking into organic fabrications and processes and to be honest eleven years ago they just didn’t exist or the process existed but the dye didn’t and the moment you used the dye the process wasn’t organic anymore. So I think the world has developed a lot in those spheres but the company is a different size now and we’re definitely making changes but it doesn’t happen instantly. We feel very strongly about the situation and about the planet in general and all the reference points for nearly every collection we do go back to the environment in some way so it’s definitely at the heart of the brand. It’s just step by step what we can do from here.”
Adrian concurs that Aje are moving forward step by step with their sustainability journey, “We’re looking into all the sustainable ways forward with our factories and that’s a big step in the right direction. I was just in China recently at one of our factories and the advancement they are making as a country is really positive, they’re going to leave us all behind. I went there thinking I’d have to teach them about sustainability but they were about twenty steps ahead of me already. The amazing thing is every single person around the world is talking about sustainability and so all these manufacturers are all onboard already because they know that that’s the future. No one is going to be 100% sustainable in a day but it’s definitely something that is right at the forefront of our minds and I think it’s one everyone’s minds which is important.”
For the designers sustainability also comes back to making beautiful and unique pieces that are carefully made and designed to last so that they aren’t thrown away. Aje’s focus on art (Adrian formally studied art and Edwina has had a life-long interest in it) means that aside from creating artistic pieces themselves they’ve also collaborated with celebrated Australian artists.
“I think collaborations with an artist or collaborations between two brands are a part of sustainability because you are making pieces that touch a wider audience and that there’s more reason to keep them,” says Edwina. “We’ve done two really major collaborations with artists Brett Whiteley and Minnie Pwerle, which I think was just so incredibly powerful because we touched markets that we’ve never really touched before. We had people coming into the stores wanting to buy clothing that was literally an art piece that they could hang in their wardrobe and own for a lifetime. I think there are amazing things like that that we can all be thinking about doing where clothing really does become an art form.”
It’s clear that fashion is about a lot more than just pretty clothes to Adrian and Edwina, with Aje reflecting their values as designers and as humans who care deeply about the world around them. Fashion is their medium and they know that the messages they send can be powerful. “I think at this time brands can really say so much to the world,” adds Edwina. “I think that it’s really important if you have things that you believe in and that you want to say and stand up for that we’re in a place now where you can.”
Edwina (left) and Adrian (right) at MBFWA with models wearing looks from their Spring/Summer 2019 collection.