A Conversation on Fashion with Sara Bailes

Sara Bailes

There’s something so inspiring about watching people carve out their career paths; watching them learn and grow and experiment over time until one day, when the lessons of their life align, they finally realise their truth and step out into the great unknown. They begin again with a legacy of their own…

Meet Sara Bailes…

I first met Sara Bailes when I was modelling for Karen Walker back in 2010. When I saw that she’d launched her own label, Sara Bailes, I wasn’t surprised – this woman has drive, ambition and the kind of work ethic that success is made of. That much was obvious from the start. Even as a design assistant, she “got it”. Fashion is about so much more than just design and creativity, it’s a business and if you want to succeed you have to play the numbers game, and Sara certainly has the smarts to do the math…

Having worked for two powerhouse brands, Karen Walker and Gorman, Sara has over a decade of knowledge in the fashion industry, and what better foundation from which to build her eponymous label than on the wisdom of that lived experience.

I caught up with Sara to chat about the launch of her new label, how she got there and what she’s learned along the way. Read on and enjoy!

On your work

Tell us a little about who you are and what you do…

I have just launched my own label Sara Bailes in July this year after having worked in the industry for close to 10 years. I am lucky enough to split my time between Melbourne where I live, and Bali where I manufacture my clothing. There is never a dull moment – between designing, marketing, photo shoots and riding around Denpasar on a scooter, I am always busy!

Talk us through your career… how did you end up here?

I actually studied Business before I switched to fashion design – I managed to finish three years before I made the decision to leave. I had no art/design/drawing background, but I was determined, and took a course to help me create a portfolio to get into fashion school. It worked.

After graduating, I interned for Melbourne labels Kuwaii and Alpha60 before I went to New Zealand to do the same for Karen Walker. Not long after my internship, Karen rang me and offered me a job as her design assistant. Two weeks later, I was living in Auckland and part of the Karen Walker design team. I was there for three and a half years, and became the accessory, jewellery and knitwear designer. An amazing opportunity and position that also saw me travel to New York to assist with the runway shows twice a year for fashion week.

I decided to return to Melbourne and do some freelance work, where I designed a collection of costume jewellery pieces for Melbourne label Gorman. A month later, Lisa offered me the role of footwear, accessories and swimwear designer. I stayed at Gorman for three years. It was in this role that I was able to explore not only new areas of design, but learn about the production side of a fashion label – which is something I had never done before.

Sara Bailes

How did your love of fashion begin?

I would actually say I hold my mum accountable for my early love of fashion and style. She would talk about her days in the 70s in England, describing clothes she used to wear during the Biba years – the chocolate brown maxi dress, or the sheepskin coat, and the bright red lipstick she used to cover in Vaseline for extra shine before coloured lipglosses were invented. She also taught me how to sew, so once I had mastered her sewing machine, there was no stopping me in making my creations (most of which were probably horrendous).  My first part-time job was at a fabric store, so I was surrounded by beautiful material and customers keen to discuss things they were making and brainstorm ideas. I think it was inevitable that I was going to make this my life.

Beginning your eponymous label, Sara Bailes, was that always your vision? To have a label of your own?  

I think ultimately YES. I always thought that starting my own label would be like having a baby, so I was very cautious not to do it too early, but always knew I would. It was very important to me to go and work for other people once I finished studying before I did anything on my own. I wanted to absorb as much information as I could from established fashion houses and designers I admired. I think now I am ready to take on the challenges of running my own business, and feel like I have made the right decision at the right time of my life.

You’ve just launched your debut collection… What’s it all about? What was the inspiration?

I really wanted to create a collection that was wearable, comfortable and feminine. I wanted to create a label that could evolve over time and not be too “designed”. I really wanted to keep the focus on clean, uncluttered lines, and make sure the fit is impeccable. It’s really important to me that the quality of the garments and fabrics used are of the highest standard. This is my vision for the label. Clothing that can grow and change season after season, but stay consistent in wearability, quality and femininity.

Sara Bailes

Tell us about the Sara Bailes girl… Who is she? What’s is she like?

I’ve been conscious about how my label is portrayed and what kind of girl will wear my clothing since creating my brand. It is important to me to create garments with a strong identity for an audacious girl. The Sara Bailes girl has an active side, but likes to remain feminine. She is aware of fashion and creativity and wants to look her best. She is strong, independent and sexy.

How has your experience working for Karen Walker and Gorman prepared you for starting your own label? What have you learned along the way?

Karen Walker is an amazing business woman and I am so grateful to have been able to work underneath her for such a long time. Karen Walker not only as an individual, but as a company, is successful because they have a clear direction and aesthetic and they have a great team. All sampling is done in house with an amazing team of patternmakers and machinists who work hard to get the collections out on time. When I began at Karen Walker, we were doing most of our production in New Zealand. Due to the economy, over my years there we started to produce things more and more off shore. For me, along with everyone else, this was new and it was all a learning experience. I learnt a lot about sourcing and dealing with new suppliers in Asia and the sampling process generally.

Gorman also has a very strong brand identity, and working there was an equally educational experience. Both labels are very different in their structure, but that has definitely been a good thing for me to experience a diversity of practices. Gorman is owned by a larger company called Factory X, so there are a lot of departments that work across the multiple brands. They work on more of a high street retail model, rather than a high end fashion label. I was definitely more involved in sales figures, analysis of product, customer feedback, orders and dollars in general during my time at Gorman, which I think has been invaluable starting my own venture!

Sara Bailes

Both brands have such a distinctly playful style, especially with their bold colours and prints. How has this influenced your design aesthetic?

Designing for labels with such distinct styles made it easier to design a product that adhered to their aesthetic. As with all design, it is a combination of the individual designer’s interpretation of the product, and the customer or brand identity.  I think as I have aged a little, I have paired back my style. I am definitely on board with both brand’s love of bold colours, and bold prints, but I am less illustrative and graphic in my style for Sara Bailes. With that in mind, I definitely think the playful element of both brands has stuck with me and will continue to show through in my collections.

We’re curious, what’s your opinion on the fashion industry in Australia versus New Zealand? How do they compare?

I think New Zealand has an amazing fashion scene and creative scene generally! When I first moved there, New Zealand had a strong reputation in Melbourne as a being a creative city – Pavement and Black Magazine definitely helped! A lot of New Zealand designers had opened stores in Melbourne as well, and labels such as Nom*d and Zambesi were getting a lot of attention. During my time in New Zealand I became friendly with the designers from Miss Crabb, Penny Sage, Hailwood, and Pardon My French who are all doing amazing things right now. The opening of the Department Store in Takapuna, Auckland, also helped solidify the creative hub and fashion scene happening in New Zealand.

Australia also has a lot of excellent brands creating interesting and world class product. Kuwaii, Kloke, Pageant and Dress Up are some of my favourite smaller labels in Melbourne that continue to kick goals. I think Melbourne definitely has it’s own fashion bubble, it is a strong scene and the followers are very dedicated!

It is hard for both Australian and New Zealand designers to compete on a global scale – first and foremost, the hemisphere difference and the opposite seasons. I think both countries are rad and I’m proud to be associated with both!

Sara Bailes

Complete this sentence…

Fashion is… Individual

What advice do you have for aspiring designers with dreams of having their own fashion label one day?

Be smart. Be strong. Have a clear sense of your label’s direction and aesthetic. Learn as much as you can from others before venturing out on your own – other people’s successes and failures are what will form your knowledge base. Have fun and don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

If at first you don’t succeed, hide all evidence.

Where to next? 

I’m actually just developing a new “objects” shop for my webstore – I have so many talented friends who make beautiful things, so I am going to be selling some of their products on my online store.

I’m also organising an artist series collaboration of t-shirt prints to bring out before Christmas – a selection of artists and designers who will each develop a print for both men’s and women’s t-shirts – I can’t tell you who is involved yet, but it is very exciting!

As for everything else, I will now be splitting my time between here and Bali equally for the next 12 months as the label grows, I will be stocking both here, Indonesia and hopefully in the US! It’s hard to plan anything too far ahead these days, as I feel like every day a new opportunity presents itself and plans get disrupted!

Sara Bailes SS15

On you…

Describe yourself in three words…

Funny. Determined. Hungry.

Talk me through a typical weekend. What do love to do? 

I’m obsessed with cooking, so my typical weekend involves visiting my favourite specialty supermarkets to find rare ingredients – depending on what I’m cooking, this could mean Minh Phat near my house in Abbotsford for amazing Asian treats, or Sonsa in Collingwood if I’m feeling Middle Eastern inspired, or Casa Iberica for South American (best tortillas in Melbourne)…I’m also pretty active so there will be exercise – bike rides or long walks, coffees, brunch dates and of course Sundays I spend in the kitchen, blissing out with a glass of Pinot Noir and usually cooking a banquet for friends.

What are your favourite places to eat and drink in Melbourne?

Oh god there are so many – Melbourne really is an amazing place to eat and drink. If I had to do an extreme shortlist I would say:

  • Banh Mi rolls from Phuoc Thanh on Victoria St – $4 for the greatest tasting baguette you’ll ever eat!
  • Alimentari on Smith Street – Such good salads – perfect for brunch with an Aperol Spritz.
  • Gill’s Diner – I fell in love with this place years ago, and it remains my go-to for an excellent dinner in a great space.
  • Rita’s on Johnston Street – Around the corner from my house for AMAZING pizza and good wine!
  • Drinks on a Summers on the Siglo rooftop above the European – Prosecco accompanied with polenta fries…
  • The Toff in Town for a night cap, and a cosy spot in one of their carriages.
  • Bomba rooftop – Great rooftop for late night drinks – food here is also amazing in the restaurant downstairs, sentimental for two reasons – I had my first ever lambs brains here and it was where I had my first date with my boyfriend Tom.

What’s your perfect Saturday outfit? What about a lazy Sunday?

I’m definitely obsessed with jeans, I must own at least 20 pairs, so Saturday’s definitely involve denim, a white t-shirt and a pair of sneakers – I will no doubt put on one of my many bomber jackets to venture outside as I have a slight addiction. #imayalsohaveasunglassaddiction

Lazy Sundays with Netflix will definitely involve grey marle of some description. Depending on the season, it will be a chunky knit or something jersey – If I leave the house, I will no doubt be wearing a jumpsuit.

And lastly, what are your words to live by?

Create your own opportunities. Success is a result of hard work and determination. You only live once, so take some risks and don’t worry if things don’t go to plan, mistakes are what we learn from.

Sara Bailes, SS15

*Note: All images are from the Sara Bailes SS15 collection – purchase them hereYou can also follow Sara Bailes on Facebook and Instagram.

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