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Melbourne slow fashion label Project Bowman on rejecting the minimalist aesthetic of ‘sustainable’ fashion

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

“When Project Bowman was born, it was all about creating an alternative to the minimal and neutral aesthetics of ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ clothing that was available.”

Melbourne slow fashion label Project Bowman describes itself as being “full of contrasts”. The feminine and the masculine sit side by side, and well-constructed wardrobe staples have unexpected accents, like a zip “down your whole ass” on a pair of the label’s jeans.

Founded by friends Amber Rigney and Bella Nolan in 2019, the label officially launched last year. The duo previously worked together at a fast fashion chain, and while chatting about their lives inside a windowless stockroom they realised they had very similar aspirations. They both wanted to create a label that was forward thinking and fully transparent, but without compromising on fun, interesting details.


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With their combined skillsets – Amber in fashion design and Bella in PR and communications – they decided to throw caution to the wind and figure everything out as they went. While it hasn’t been easy, they’ve slowly built a loyal customer base who looks to the label for its honest approach to sustainability.

And while this focus is the backbone of the label, it doesn’t adhere to the overdone ‘minimalist’ aesthetic many slow fashion labels tend to go for. Here, they discuss the evolution of Project Bowman and what needs to change in the Australian fashion industry.

Tell us about you. What’s your fashion background?

Amber and I met while slogging it out together at a big fast fashion retailer we have here in Australia. We both absolutely hated it and felt really guilty and hypocritical working in fast fashion. We would endlessly talk to each other about what we really want to do with our lives and careers while packing clothes in a dark, windowless stockroom and realising we had a lot of shared goals. From there, we decided to band together and make it happen.

Amber has a background in fashion design from RMIT and I have experience in PR and communications so it felt right that we had two very different skill sets to bring to the table to make Project Bowman come to life. Neither of us had experience in fashion business, despite a few internships here and there, so we were really winging it at the start.

 

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How did the label get started? Talk us through the process and the challenges.

After a brief conceptual phase as a recycled denim brand, we decided scouring op shops for worn out denim and patchworking them together wasn’t the most innovative idea and use of our time. If we wanted to create a label that resonated with people and made them fall in love with clothes again, we needed to get specific about who we are, our goals, who our customers are and what they care about. It was only when we did this that the Project Bowman we have today was born.

The designs came naturally, but it was finding suppliers and someone to manufacture our designs that was the hurdle. We had no legitimate experience or industry connections and were unwilling to compromise on producing locally, ethically and in small runs. The Melbourne (and Australian) industry is so small, so all these combined made it really difficult to find people that were willing to give us the time of day. After multiple calls with businesses that had minimum order quantities that were far too high and one particular person who said we wouldn’t get anywhere without them, we found the right place in Brunswick who were willing to give us a shot.

Finding a deadstock fabric supplier, which is a business that buys fabric waste from larger fashion houses and sells it on to other labels, was also super helpful. We didn’t need a crazy amount of fabric, so it meant we could purchase low quantities, sometimes only a couple of metres, and save fabric waste from entering a landfill – a win-win all round! Since then, we’ve been working on a really slow model with these same suppliers, as well as our crazy talented pattern maker Linda, producing ‘project one’ over the course of a year and a half.

 

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What were you trying to achieve from the project at the time? How has this evolved and what are you trying to communicate through the brand now?

When Project Bowman was born, it was all about creating an alternative to the minimal and neutral aesthetics of ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ clothing that was available. We wanted people to be able to find desirable, edgier, design focused clothes that still had minimal impact on the earth. To accompany this, we were really hell bent on being 100 per cent transparent around everything we do. Not many brands were inviting their audience behind the scenes and to become a part of the decision making process, so we wanted to really champion this and make it a part of our identity.

It’s been great to see so many brands adopt this approach recently, too. As Amber and I evolve, so does the brand. We are really coming into our own as individuals and unashamedly expressing our authentic selves. As for what this means for Project Bowman, you’ll see a new direction in our garments. Our values will still be at our core, but we’ll be asking for a little less feedback and committing to our creative vision wholeheartedly. We are excited to keep producing pieces that are a reflection of us and communicating them with a more artistic lens. Watch this space!

Where did the name come from?

We actually came across the word ‘bowman’ in A Dictionary of the Underworld by Eric Partridge. It read: bowman, a smart criminal; a well dressed criminal. We saw this and ran with it. It really resonated with who we wanted our customers to be, people who aren’t afraid to break the rules, get messy every now and then, stand up for what they believe in no matter the consequences, all while looking good doing so. So now, we’re Project Bowman – an ongoing project where we make clothes for the ‘well dressed criminals’.

 

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What are you most proud of in your work on your label?

When it comes down to it, we’re most proud of doing it all by ourselves. Project Bowman is 100 per cent funded, owned and run by Amber and myself. We started with no capital and no investors. While that has made it extremely difficult at times, it’s so important to us to keep it that way. One day we just said fuck it and made it happen. We are still very new on the scene, with less than two years since launching. We still have a long way to come but we are super proud of our efforts so far!

What do you wish you knew when you started?

Everything! It’s been such a huge learning curve and even when you think you have a handle on things, something will come along and throw you for six. We love the challenge though and I think if we did start out knowing everything, Project Bowman wouldn’t be what it is today.

What about the Australian fashion industry needs to change?

There’s a lot that needs to change in the Australian fashion industry, just as it does globally, but I think we’re working on it. It’s been great to see consumers more focused on supporting local brands, labels making more ethically and with sustainable materials. We have a long way to go but we’re getting there. What would be great to see is more actual ‘industry’ in Australia. We know from our experience making in Melbourne, the industry has diminished to the point of only a handful of manufacturers and textile mills.

It’d be amazing to see the local industry re-invigorated. The benefits are huge, both economically and the ability to create more consciously, e.g. the ability to request lower production quantities, easy to trace ethical accreditations, lower emissions, etc. The demand for local producers is getting bigger, so it’ll be exciting to see how this influences and grows manufacturing here.

 

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Dream Australian collaborators?

We’ve wanted to work with local tattoo artists for a while now, in a few different capacities. We won’t spoil too much. We’re fans of Harley Jones, Alice Glascott and also, Troye Sivan. Troye, if you see this hit us up.

Go-to dinner party playlist?

The playlist is the most stress inducing part of hosting. I like to go with a little dinner party disco, starting with some Total Giovanni on low in the background and ending up a few wines deep dancing in the kitchen to Donna Summer.

If you want to play it safe, it might be better to find a Soundcloud mix you love and stick with it for the whole night. I’ve been listening to Sally Tabart from The Design FilesSo Much So Much mixes a lot lately, which could easily soundtrack a good night in.

How can we buy one of your pieces?

Our pieces are exclusively online at projectbowman.com.

You can follow Project Bowman here and shop its range here.

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