loading
drag

How Melbourne designer Karla Laidlaw made a name for herself with modern interpretations of early 2000s fashion

IMAGES VIA KARLAIDLAW

WORDS BY EVANGELINE POLYMENEAS

Where high fashion meets arts and crafts.

When Melbourne designer Karla Laidlaw first started her clothing label in 2018, her parents sat her down and explained just how hard it is to make it as a fashion brand in Australia. While a lot of parents might try to sway their children away from a creative industry they know nothing about, Karla’s parents’ advice was coming from hard-won experience.

They were both in the rag trade when they were younger, and had seen first-hand how the absence of local manufacturing had devastated the Australian fashion industry. But in true entrepreneurial fashion, Karla only let this get her down “for around one hour” before deciding, “fuck it, it’s going to work”. And work it has.

Initially born out of a desire to make clothing for herself and her friends, after seeing the demand for her custom corsets grow, she decided to launch her wearable art brand, Karlaidlaw. Her designs are a modern interpretation of early 2000s fashion – think halter neck tops, low-rise pants, ruched mini skirts and velvet tracksuit sets – and have quickly found a cult following. Basically, it’s Paris Hilton’s wardrobe if she grew up in Berlin rather than Beverly Hills. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it brought with it a rabid demand for loungewear. Thanks to its array of brightly coloured velvet tracksuit sets, Karla’s brand began to solidify its place in the Australian fashion scene. I spoke to Karla about why she doesn’t classify her brand as sustainable, the inspiration her niche clientele provides her with, and why she never wants to be stocked in mainstream department stores. 

Hi Karla, I love your name! Tell us, who are you and how did you get into the fashion industry? 

Nawh, thank you so much! I started the brand properly about three years ago. Before that, I was half working with it and half working in retail. When I say ‘half working with it’, I mean I was working on my bedroom floor. [Karlaidlaw] gained a lot of traction which was really good, and then I quit my job and started on it full-time. When COVID hit, I was making these velvet tracksuit pants that kind of erupted, which have been fantastic because it has given me an opportunity to have the financial backing to be as creative as I want to be.

What is Karlaidlaw and why did it begin? 

Karlaidlaw is freedom. It is freedom of expression. Right now, Karlaidlaw is inspired by arts and crafts – I take a fabric and I cut some holes into it, then I fray it, dye it and spray paint it. In my upcoming collection, I have this velvet pant that I’ve overlaid with mesh, then I’ve taken an airbrush and sprayed it to create textures. It is a pant, but it isn’t a basic pant anymore. It’s a pant that has an ‘arts and crafts’ origin story, but [is crafted] in the same way that pieces are on the runway and in magazines.

Karlaidlaw has a cult following from people who like the brand because it messes around with those fabrications. My clientele is niche. My brand isn’t meant to be massive. What [my clients] want and what I want, is the pieces I have just explained to be available. I have always loved art. I started Karlaidlaw because I want to create. I know this sounds cliché, but I wanted to create pieces that I couldn’t find myself. That’s how it started.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by karla laidlaw (@_karlaidlaw)

Karlaidlaw was made as a reaction to fast fashion. What does sustainability mean to you? 

I was talking about this with Krystal Deans, another designer and she is super sustainable. I wouldn’t even call myself a sustainable brand. Fashion is one of the largest polluting industries. So, I inherently cannot be sustainable, but I think about the process as much as I can. I have my own requirements for Karlaidlaw sustainability. I keep everything small.

I get everything made in Melbourne. All my fabrics are dyed using natural dyes, as often as I can. Everything is locally produced. I am a small brand and I make small quantities. I don’t use plastic. I do everything I can to be sustainable. I don’t know how many brands that say they are sustainable, are actually sustainable. It is such an umbrella term. When you think about what is sustainable, it is so much more than making sure your packaging is biodegradable. There are a few extra elements.

What inspires Karlaidlaw? 

My customers really. I know that’s another cliche. Fabrics also inspire most of the things I do. My studio is actually just full of leftovers. I will start off with a top that I have drawn up. Then I’ll make the pattern and sew it up. Then I’ll start creating a seam there or adding a zip there or find a piece of velvet where the colour just works. Like I said before, when I am left to my own devices that is when I can really start making. So, fabrics are really big for me and then knowing the people out there are hungry for something different pushes me to make things that are really unique. 

What has been your biggest success since launching your brand?

My parents were in the rag trade when they were younger, and bless their souls they sat me down early on when I started the brand and tried to explain how hard it is to start a fashion brand in Australia these days, because of the lack of manufacturing, lack of mills etc. I think that got me down for around one hour, and I just thought fuck it, it’s going to work. And from then on, I’ve had this work ethic, that if I am putting in this much hard work, it will be successful.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by karla laidlaw (@_karlaidlaw)

I mean, of course, it’s not just about being creative; there is luck involved and privilege. I work in my mum’s garage rent free – I appreciate how much support and knowledge I have around me as Mum and Dad have been in the business. We all work really hard in this industry. It’s a tough one. But to measure success perhaps I would say [it’s] to feel like I am able to do what I love for a job and support myself.

What challenges have you faced while building Karlaidlaw?

The challenges are working the jobs of 10 people as one person and also dealing with the in-between stages of working solo and adding people on. Despite not being the most organised person in the world, I am a bit of a control freak. I struggle giving jobs to other people, in case it’s not done correctly, but so far, so good. I am creating a good team around me.

Where do you see Karlaidlaw in the future?

I always want to keep my brand stocked in conceptual stores. I never want my brand to be at a Myer, David Jones or Macy’s. I hope in the future to keep stocking at stores that serve my customer base. I want to expand to menswear and I also don’t want to be limited to just fashion. I would love to do furniture. I have an interest in furniture design. Other types of mediums other than fashion that can all be under one name. Also, in terms of the clothes, everything will be as size-inclusive [as possible]. In my next collection, everything will be a size six to 18.

 You can find Karlaidlaw here.

Lazy Loading