Grace Sutherland from Grace Millicent Couture on the art of modern couture

Designer Grace Sutherland from Grace Millicent Couture.

Couture isn’t a word you hear very often when it comes to New Zealand fashion which is something Grace Sutherland from Grace Millicent Couture aims to change. The talented designer honed her skills overseas before setting up her own couture label here at home and started designing incredible gowns for some well-known local women like Gemma McCaw and Jaime Ridge. We came across Sutherland’s winsome designs on Instagram and were curious to know more about the person behind this intriguing new brand and how she feels about the art of modern couture in 2017.

What made you become a designer and how did you go about achieving it?
I was keen on design for as long as I remember. Initially architecture then at about 14 I decided I wanted to do fashion design. When I was 18 my family and I had the trip of a lifetime and travelled around Italy for 6 months. As well as being exposed to all the designer fashion you can imagine while over there, we stumbled across the Valentino A Roma exhibition. It was then I decided I wanted to do Haute Couture. The next year I went to Massey University, and in 2011 I graduated with a Bachelor of Design in Fashion. Not being able to find a job out of uni in NZ, I went over to Melbourne and started working for a bridal designer, as that was one of the only ways I could see myself getting that initial experience in the couture industry. Then I went travelling and landed at Ralph & Russo in London, which was a dream come true. It was my belief that in order for one to become a designer, you need to know how the cloth and the body works first. So I worked as an embroider and seamstress for those first years and built my skill.

Why did you choose London for work and how did you find the fashion industry there?
I chose London because I was born there and had family friends there so it was easy. It was that or Paris or Dubai, so was the easy option really! I don’t feel that I was that exposed to the fashion industry really, as we were the only house doing Haute Couture. You heard things from colleagues that had worked at other houses in London which made you thankful of how we were treated at R&R. I think there was a lot of exploitation among recent graduates and unpaid internships with horrible working conditions. We all treated each other like family, and interns would comment how nice everyone was!

What was your experience like at Ralph & Russo?
It was really a dream come true, especially attending Paris Couture week and working from our Paris atelier. I was put straight into the deep end, and my first weekend there I worked around the clock to finish a gown for Kim Kardashian. I started off with the embroidery team, then after a few months started travelling over to the Middle East as a seamstress, fitting and altering gowns, attending royal weddings and attending client meetings. I loved the travelling aspect, although it usually meant no sleep and working night and day to get a gown finished for a client.

What was the most important thing you learned from working for Ralph & Russo and how do you apply it to your own brand?
The skills I learnt just watching the senior seamstresses and modéliste who had been in the industry for years and worked at some of the biggest houses in Paris. I often say I learnt nothing at uni, and this is where I learnt to sew properly! Also that nothing is impossible, you think there is no way you’ll be able to finish something, but time and time again that was proven wrong!

Grace Millicent Interview

Detail of Gemma McCaw’s Grace Millicent Couture gown (left). Gemma McCaw in her gown with husband Richie McCaw (right). Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz New Zealand.

What was it like returning to NZ and setting up your own label?
I was ready to come home, London did my head in a bit. I also felt that I had learnt enough from my experience that I could apply it to my own label. The hardest thing I found was finding funding. It seems absolutely impossible, so you rely on your parents a lot!

How have you found the fashion industry in NZ and what’s it like being based in Tauranga?
I am now based in Auckland on High Street! The constant travel to Auckland got a bit annoying! I haven’t found myself as such being involved in the NZ fashion industry, but I have found that there is no work for skilled people with experience and also straight out of uni. There is no support for recent graduates, so they end up either studying something else to get a job or go overseas, which is sad.

Who is your muse for your label and how would you describe the Grace Millicent woman?
I’ve never had a muse, but I must say that our strong, successful sportswomen or those involved in the arts are women who I aspire to dress. There is something that all of us can relate to in her, which makes them very likeable. The Grace Millicent woman is quite simply elegant, intelligent and strong.

Describe your personal style and how it does or doesn’t influence your designs?
Most of the time I’m in my black skinny jeans and a white tee! However when I do dress up, it’s often in classic silhouettes and plain colours, black, white, navy, light pink. And I love simple dresses. So I would say it most definitely does not influence my designs! My designs are where I let all the beautiful and pretty things in my head flourish!

Where do you get inspiration from for your designs?
Haute Couture and embroideries through the ages. Flowers. Playing with different materials and placing them together in different ways.

Grace Millicent Interview

Detail of Sophie Pascoe’s Grace Millicent Couture gown (left). Sophie Pascoe in her gown (right). Image courtesy of Sophie Pascoe.

What have been the highlight/s or most memorable moments of your career so far?
Dressing Gemma McCaw for the Chasing Great premiere and Sophie Pascoe for the Laureus Awards in Monaco. Both such beautiful, aspirational women who make you so proud to be a kiwi.

How do you define modern couture and what does it mean to you?
Using different mediums and fabrications, such as laser, plastics etc., but applying with the age old couture methods. I sometimes use modern materials, but prefer the more classic ones.

What is the process like for making couture garments and how long does it take you?
I start by deciding on the time frame and what we can achieve in that time, then go through fabrics, embroidery samples and sketches and decide on a design. We then take measurements and make a calico toile to fit to the client. Then the gown is cut for embroidery, constructed largely by hand and finished after a couple more fittings. It can be very slow, especially when there is a lot of embroidery. Most things can take between 100-400 hours, dependent on the design.

What do you think are the public misconceptions about couture and what do you think is the most important thing people should know about it?
They generally have no idea what couture is, how long something can take and that it’s an extravagant pointless expense. I think it is art, over anything else. Someone who can appreciate couture is someone who can appreciate and look at art for hours! Celebrity culture is definitely helping the cause I think.

What is your advice for anyone who wants to get into making couture?
The opportunity is sadly not here in NZ at the moment, hopefully that can change over the next 10-20 years as there are more social events and galas. Starting out with bridal is always a good introduction. Otherwise, go and have experience overseas in Australia, Asia and Europe. Learn from the best artisans in the world. I watched on repeat documentaries about the big couture houses for years, and I get a lot of inspiration and passion from them.

Grace Millicent Interview

Detail of Jaime Ridge’s Grace Millicent Couture gown (left). Jaime Ridge in her gown with Josh Bloxham. Image courtesy of Holly Sarah Burgess.

Which international couture labels inspire you?
Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Elie Saab, Giambattista Valli, Ralph & Russo.

How do you feel about the slow fashion movement? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this BoF story if you have a moment to read it too:
I hate fast fashion, the exploitation and the waste that comes with mass production. I try to avoid it as much as possible and buy quality designer goods, or make my own clothes. They really do last so many wears and don’t go out of fashion. My wardrobe is so small! I thoroughly enjoyed that article! My favourite quote was “Beautiful things do not always need to be useful. They need to nurture the eye and the soul.” That is the essence of couture. I don’t like how some couture houses are trying to bring in modernity in the way the article describes, I think it can be done tastefully with the same couture ideals and practices. Keep the couture beautiful!

How did you get into making couture bridal gowns and what is it like being involved in someone’s wedding day?
It is a bread and butter thing, as weddings come around more often than a big red carpet event! So it is an opportunity to practice your art more frequently. In saying that, there is a lot more pressure than a red carpet event!

How does it feel when you see your gowns photographed at red carpet events?
Very special. And also, ‘thank god that’s over!’ So there is always champagne popping. I can also find myself being quite critical of what I could have done better.

Do you have a favourite celebrity/person that you would love to see in your gowns in future?
Without a doubt, Lorde! I think we’d have a lot of fun!

What are your plans for your brand and where do you see it in five years, then further down the track?
I’m stepping back a little over the next couple of years so I can raise some capital and figure out how to turn it into a highly profitable business. In the future, I would love to branch into ready-to-wear, have a flagship store and accessory lines.

Images supplied. All close-up images by Grace Millicent Couture.

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