We talk to the maker herself about the beauty of hand-made, the limitations of conventional fashion and how older women should embrace the opportunity to shape their lives and build their own idiosyncratic wardrobes, and inspire younger women to do so in the process.
Leonie, you always had a creative interest in textiles, did you have any early influences that helped foster this interest?
I was always happily oriented to the outdoor world growing up in Mt Gambier and spent a lot of time exploring the bush and making mischief outside school with my brothers, so perhaps not the obvious things that you might expect for a designer!
In retrospect, I can appreciate that my mother is very creative in her own quite traditional way, and that probably underpins my enormous respect for the thrift and ingenuity of mending, knitting, embroidery and other daily textile-based skills. That cultural knowledge transmitted through the domestic arts and crafts has always fascinated me wherever I travel, and is something I’m drawn to in Japanese culture in particular. The endless ingenuity of makers, especially as it’s shown in private display and utility, is something I find really inspiring, and sometimes quite moving.
Textiles, but also other handmade objects, can say so much about making-do; striving for beauty where it’s not strictly required, showing off your craftsmanship – if I wasn’t a designer I think I’d have to open a private museum, I have so many hand-mended textiles and old dressmakers’ tools.
Tell us about your background, the journey to creating your own womenswear label, lj struthers?
I spent many years travelling, then lived and worked in Sapporo, Japan. Around that time I began collecting textiles, as well as sewing modest experimental things at night. The sensitivity to colour that’s displayed in Japanese textiles, the complex engagement with seasonal change and the restraint and economy in design of all kinds, made a deep impression on me.
I would find myself struck daily by people’s appreciation for the way ordinary things were manually crafted and the care they took to maintain them. The importance of regional specialisation and the strength of cultural traditions really sets Japan apart from many other places I have visited.
When my partner and I finally returned to Australia I realised I was not ready to put my secret kitchen table sewing projects away. They demanded space! I had become really invested in testing and transforming fabrics, and I began to imagine the possibility of an lj struthers line. Homecoming was also a moment of high contrast; I was frustrated that the Australian market offered very little womenswear which appealed to my personal taste, and had a strong desire to create what was missing from my wardrobe (the origin of so many businesses!) At the same time, I had a new appreciation for the opportunities and freedom we have here in Australia to start a business, without being overwhelmed by history and hierarchy. It’s very different from Japan!
Is there a personality, or essence you aspire to capture in your designs? What type of woman inspires you?
Absolutely, I am inspired by our customers every day, whether they are 25 or 92! There’s an energy and intelligence in rejecting a lot of the things we were taught to expect to wear as older women. I’m delighted by people who never lose sight of a sense of possibility, of a playful mindset and an attitude of curiosity about what could be done differently, in all their choices, not just with what they wear.
As a designer, it’s really invigorating to see women fully embrace the freedom to reshape their daily lives, be it through their approach to work, the people around them, their creative endeavours and how they present themselves aesthetically. I know some people are happy in jeans and tee shirts, and that’s great, but many seem to be searching for some space, some abstraction or openness in dress, which allows space for personal interpretation, for greater ease, maybe less seriousness.
At times the category of conventional womenswear just feels so tired and restricting, both literally and imaginatively, and lj struthers calls out to rebels. I love meeting them!
Tell us more about the fabrics you use, your feelings on the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry?
Oh dear, how long do you have!? I’m extremely passionate about our fabrics. I think if you’re awake to the tactile properties of natural fibres especially – the springiness of wool, the lustrous flop of linen, the way true plant-based indigo dye sinks into to silk and cotton – you already appreciate the economy of buying the best you can get your hands on.
The fabrics we use are rewarding in so many ways; longevity, warmth, comfort, the way they age, the volume they hold, to say nothing of the beauty and extraordinary technical skill it takes to produce them – I have a hard time understanding the appeal of anything less. Who wants to pay for fabrics which will soon disappoint you? So much of what is pitched as more affordable is a false economy, and it’s heartening to see the growing awareness about the production chain for food, technology and manufacturing, not just in fashion. I hope the change is genuine, lasting, and comes from a place of education rather than just a greenwash.
One of the things I’m really proud of is that lj struthers has always integrated these concerns, from day one. We create incredibly hard wearing and long lasting garments, with maximum adaptability and minimal packaging. We make very small runs of each design, from 1 to 8 pieces, so there is no excess inventory, and we use every scrap of fabric in smaller accessories – even our fabric waste is factored into the production chain.
Shopping for beautiful things is still a luxury and I’m not out to lecture anyone, but choosing lj struthers has always been an ethical option, and I’m quietly excited about the potential for us to find ways to extend our involvement in the growing Tasmanian textile production industry.
And everything is hand-made? Do you think there is something in this act, and the intention of care that is passed on in each garment?
lj struthers has always been sewn locally here in Tasmania in excellent working conditions, and yes, I think people do enjoy knowing that every garment is cut in our studio just upstairs, under the same roof as the store at the Salamanca Arts Centre.
People do experience a connection with the hand constructed and limited nature of our garments, certainly. For me, it’s just as much about the practical and personal connections we have with our staff and wonderful machinists – contributing meaningful work for very skilled people at a time when manufacturing is seldom done in Australia and investing in Tasmania’s creative economy. Choosing to base lj struthers’ production in Tasmania, in the hands of people we’ve worked with for years, is also our best guarantee of delivering quality workmanship to our customers. There’s no reason why independent designers can’t make extraordinary things here in Tasmania.
What do you love about fashion, it’s potential to be empowering, and transformative, particularly in regard to older women?
Again, I think my frustration with conventional fashion and its limitations is not unique, but thankfully there is no imperative to do as you’re told! Transformative is a great word because clothing can do so much to manifest as well to as alter our moods – it can soothe and shield as well as draw out and help express our artistic selves.
I always want lj struthers garments to invite playful interpretation, the crazy layers as well as the polished drama, and as our personalities evolve and mature, there’s less requirement than ever to conform. Older women are ready to step into their own style and have a lot to
model for younger women about intelligence, having fun, and the integrity of building your own idiosyncratic wardrobe.
You are inspired by the Japanese aesthetic, but also their ability to embrace the beauty of simplicity. In what ways has this manifested in your own life?
I try to live up to the values I appreciate from many cultures, but the centrality of family is at the top. Nothing is more important than the time we have to enjoy together in health, on an island of such wild beauty and natural abundance.
How do you encourage people to see the joy in ethical, sustainable fashion?
A good question which contains its own answer I think – what is not joyful about ethical intention? What is not joyful in something both beautiful and sustainable? Virtue and enjoyment need not be mutually exclusive, and I hope we encourage customers to this view by respecting the bodies they have, celebrating local entrepreneurship, delighting in materials of exquisite quality, and taking pride in the active responsibility we all have for our choices. We only sell ‘wants’ not needs, but you can certainly want something which is both ethically produced and gorgeous.
lj struthers is a label for every size and every age, what are some of your favourite pieces currently that typify this ethos?
Don’t make me pick a favourite from my children! At this time of year though with the bite of winter winds, I do love the enveloping sculptural drama and mighty cuffs of our ‘gallery’ coat. We see women choosing it in bold, oversized herringbones and tweed wools, where it forms a commanding statement and carries off many a glamorous winter performance.
The same coat in carbon black or a calming natural tone becomes a study in slouchy nonchalance on another woman, layered in easy understated comfort with trainers and wide legged pants. Whatever the age or size, it never ceases to delight me when the coat goes on and the character comes out!
the lj struthers label, worn by independent, iconoclastic women who project distinctive style with confidence, is exclusive to the maker Hobart, and can be shopped online at themakerhobart.com.au or in-store at the historic Salamanca Arts Centre, Shop 5, 77 Salamanca Place Hobart. You can also follow the maker Hobart on Instagram and Facebook
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