This week, I sat down the New Zealand designer, Elizabeth Soljak, to talk about her romantic designs and vintage-looking clothes that transcend time.
JB: When did you first realise you had a passion for fashion and wedding couture?
ES: There is a long history in my family of making things, being in the fashion industry and having shops. My grandmother was the small linens buyer at Farmers in CHch, and my grandfather had a workman's clothing store... and that's from both sides of the family! My father would take me to the clothing factory he managed, as a baby, and we would wait at my mum's boutique after school.
I remember my mum cutting out a navy-blue-with-white-polka-dot dress with a ruffled neckline on the living room floor when I was maybe five. I would make doll's clothes, then I made the doll, and then as a teenager I would desperately make something to wear on Saturday afternoon for a party that night!
After finishing school, I completed the two-year design course at what was then called ATI. From then on, I was in the industry, here and overseas, most importantly a lovely, long on-going relationship with Zambesi... from the workroom to the stores both here and in Sydney.
The wedding dresses started when I left Zambesi in 2004 and started my own label, A La Robe, and customers would ask if that comes long and in white! They loved the silk organza, I think, and there was a bit of a limited range of bridal at that time. The wrap skirt became a signature piece, and the idea of separates that you could layer and wear again just seemed right.
JB: Where did the idea of A La Robe experience come from? (A store that offers wedding dress and clothing fittings, and personal washing of the wedding dress after the big day.)
ES: I was upstairs in an old building, with a salon for the brides and a workroom where we could also make a small wholesale collection of daywear and evening garments. Gradually, the brides have taken over, and now we just make a small collection of other special pieces that are only available in our store. The time was right to move downstairs onto the street -- now everyone can see what we were hiding away! We have an affordable hand-washing service, because the wedding pieces can be washed and shortened, but not if they have been dry-cleaned -- too many chemicals. Also, most of the garments are bought and worn washed and lightly crinkled, so there is no need for them to be pressed. Plus, dry-cleaning a wedding dress is expensive.
JB: What inspires your designs, from what I have seen some of your clothes would fit in perfectly in Downton Abbey as they do today?
ES: Inspiration! Well, that's tricky... I love the fabrics, all the different silks and also cottons, so I just want them to be themselves -- nothing too tricky or over-wrought. Dyeing a piece of silk transforms it, and I love how the texture changes once it's washed. Making your own colors is a philosophical dream, and I really try hard for everything to be really beautiful (in my eye) and I find that by striving to achieve this for myself, a certain charm appears. And I have a million ideas and just let them lead one into the next... no seasons or trends or worrying about what people need. So a self-indulgent, ongoing aesthetic journey, maybe! What I love about a cultural phenomenon such as Downton Abbey is that it has made women see how lovely long dresses are, and it reminds them that everything doesn't have to be tight. I enjoy the comparison as it furthers my cause -- just wear silk slips and cashmere and vintage lace and pin on a brooch.
JB: Who are your personal inspirational heroines and how have they influenced your work?
ES: Well, I don't want to sound corny but really the brides are the heroines in this story! They are mostly really interesting people and the weddings are in Ireland, Buenos Aires, South Africa, France... and I get to hear all sorts of amazing stories about their lives. My personal heroines aren't work-related -- more political, probably. I really love World of Interiors magazine, and like to think about how I would dress the people I imagine live in the houses. Old paintings of fabric and dresses are also inspiring, and lately I want to make dresses for One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
JB: How important is the color versus the texture of the fabric for your designs?
ES: What happens with bridal is that you become obsessed with different shades of pale -- white, cream and, especially for me, pink. The same shade on different silks can change completely. When you're dressing someone all in one color then texture becomes crucial -- this is how wearing black becomes part of the story. It's about everything but the color. White outfits need a focal point, the eye must be drawn and the face must be framed -- you're striving to make a picture with her face framed perfectly. I love nude under the layers, or pink under pale lace. I love it when the brides aren't concerned with the layers of their dress being a little see-through.
JB: What advice would you offer young fashionistas who have set their sights on creating their own label?
ES: Do a course and then get some retail experience! Things need to fit and someone has to want to buy them. You also learn to sell -- you'll always be selling. Then, pick someone you admire and stalk them till you get a job. I only employ stalkers!
JB: How has social media helped you to amplify your message?
ES: The big proportion of my brides are 20 to 30, so the Internet is the first place they go for anything. Photos on Facebook are really popular, and I find having prices on my website is the sort of basic information everyone wants straight off. People instagram from the wedding sometimes! And Monday is the biggest day on the website... they're back in the office dreaming of the big day. It makes us approachable, modern and fun. And you can share.
Visit A La Robe online
Photos by Julia Atkinson, Studio Home