“I came over here with $500 and my portable sewing machine and found a flat which I rented for forty dollars a week. It had a garage which became my empire (laughs) and one power point and on that I ran the sewing machine: the iron, the heater, the light and used to juggle the power plugs and pretty much furnished the apartment from hard rubbish. Quite impressive hard rubbish in South Yarra!” Lisa Barron.
Australian fashion designer Lisa Barron has lasted more than three decades in the fickle world of Australian fashion – an extraordinary achievement – but after meeting Lisa I think I know how she’s pulled it off.
1/ Embracing her staff and customers as part of the family
2/ Staying authentic
Photographer Changwei and I visited her studio above Melbourne’s High St, we met her husband and business partner Max, daughter, young staff and even her skilled Italian machinist!
See for yourself…
Photo – Changwei Dean
Martine Harte: Lisa can you take us back to the start of your career, you moved to Melbourne from Perth in the early 80’s?
Lisa Barron: Yes I came over here with $500 and my portable sewing machine and found a flat which I rented for forty dollars a week. It had a garage which became my empire (laughs) and one power point and on that I ran the sewing machine: the iron, the heater, the light and used to juggle the power plugs and pretty much furnished the apartment from hard rubbish. Quite impressive hard rubbish in South Yarra!
Was there a time after you moved to Melbourne when everything started to come together for you?
Lisa Barron: After I arrived here I made up about ten outfits in my garage and I walked down Chapel St visiting several boutiques to see if they’d like to buy my clothes and they mostly said no. My mother – a great inspiration to me – said, “it’s always good to get a no because a yes is following.”
I finally got to Joe Sillitoe’s shops (in the early 80’s had five shops all in a row) he was very cheeky and he said, “sure love leave them on the rack, if they sell come back next week and I’ll give you the money.”
I was so excited to have my clothes in a shop on Chapel St and they sold and I went back got the money, got more fabric, made more dresses. That was probably the key moment.
You experienced the whole 90’s supermodel era… Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer it must have been a mad time?
Lisa Barron: Oh look, it was fantastic. The beautiful supermodels were becoming celebrities and we were fortunate to have a lot of the major girls coming out: Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christenson, Naomi Campbell.
Some were very sociable lots of fun some were a little difficult, I’m sure I don’t need to name who the difficult ones were! Linda Evangelista asked if she could take my outfit home and I was really thrilled about that.
You have had front row seat to watch all the changes over the years.
Lisa Barron: I’ve seen so many great Australian fashion designers talents come and go, some of them maybe should have gone and some should have stayed.
It’s a tough industry; it does come down to connecting with people, knowing what they want. You’ve still got to add that creative element to it but you really have to know who you’re designing for and that’s not just growing old with the customer, it’s keeping it fresh and keeping it new.
We have seen the demise of many labels (Willow for one) how have you survived?
Lisa Barron: I’m very proud of keeping a niche manufacturing base in Australia and I know we can’t compete with China on the mass production level but like Germany and even Italy, there is still a strong manufacturing base but it’s a niche one.
Some of the changes are: cheaper, faster fashion coming from Asia but there is still (thank goodness) enough of us out there who love a well cooked meal and the same with garments. Most of my customers appreciate the fact that it’s original, we don’t copy anything, we put our own feel into the collections, our own style and made in Australia which I’m very proud of.
How do you see the modern era in Australian fashion, where are we headed?
Lisa Barron: We have some great young talent coming out of the fashion schools and it has an individuality. Australian designers have a unique style, a unique outlook and they’re really not influenced too much by what’s happening in Europe, which I love to see because the big chain stores are totally influenced, they just copy straight off the catwalk.
You’ve named your mum as an inspiration why’s that?
Lisa Barron: Yes, she’s an amazing business woman, very strong and practical woman. She was the first female car salesman in Perth in the 60’s or 70’s. She’s this kind of gutsy woman whose done very well for herself and never takes no for an answer and just has succeeded very well.
Lastly, two beautiful daughters how have you travelled the road with work and motherhood?
Lisa Barron: The cutting table was great because the clip on high chairs were invented when my kids were born (laughs) Max my husband works in the business and we’ve always had the kids here with us so it can be a juggle but they became a part of it and they understand. We try to always be there when they need us.
I think it’s a good thing for girls in particular to see their mother work and there is a life outside being at their beck n call the whole time,.
They don’t mind sitting front row at a few fashion shows! (laughs)
One of Lisa’s machinists found these drawers in an old haberdashery shop, they are full of treasures. Gold zips, trinkets, beads, and even the studs Lisa used when she started making her collections. Photo – Changwei Dean
Sketch by Melbourne based designer and illustrator Angie Rehe, find her amazing work here.
“It’s really wonderful to see fashion illustrating become another option in the fashion world. Photography has dominated for so long. Her work is just beautiful I love it. It captures exactly what the designer feels,” says Lisa. Photo – Changwei Dean
Sample machinist Ippolita Raschilla has been with the Barron’s for 18 years. “She’s funny, feisty and cheeky. She certainly has magic hands and makes the collections come alive, because they’re made beautifully. I’m so appreciative every day of having her as part of our team,” says Lisa. Photo – Changwei Dean
“I certainly do have half a dozen favourite dresses that I’ve kept throughout the history and it could be because someone well-known wore it or it just really hit the mark.” Photo – Changwei Dean
Her mum’s Singer sewing machine sits proudly in the High St Armadale shop front. Photo – Changwei Dean
Marilyn, screen printed on silk, gifted by an Italian manufacturer. Website of Changwei Dean here
An exquisite portrait of Lisa’s daughters Elsa & Isabella ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by artist and friend Vincent Fantauzzo
HOOK UP WITH: LISA BARRON
Curious about her designs? find here
Lisa is also part of founding chapter of International Women’s Forum pop across here