AFTER EIGHT CONVERSATIONS:
Sophia McMahon from slow fashion label autark.
By Emma Petterwood
At the heart of autark is a dynamic balance between empathy for the natural world on the one hand and a powerful intuitive design sensibility on the other. Since autark was founded in 2016, by Sophia McMahon, this approach has propelled the designer on to become a bright spark in the Australian design industry.
Earlier this year, McMahon was nominated as finalist for the prestigious National Designer Award. An accolade highlighting the designer’s talent and commitment to sustainable and ethical practices.
McMahon’s style is elegant and classic (with a twist). Innovative and bold yet feminine designs are the hallmark of autark pieces, created in mind for a woman who is strong, individual, and knows her own mind.
As an exciting changemaker, our interview with Sophia dives into inspiration, innovation and insight into her eco-conscious design values and practices.
Me: We’d love to hear the story of autark.
Sophia: My family have hugely influenced both myself and autark; all of my mother’s family are entrepreneurs with their own businesses and my nana was a beautiful sewer – she would make the most wonderful pieces for my mother and myself when I was little. I think a previous career as a speech pathologist also heavily influenced the ethical foundation of autark – I have always been mindful of people, animals and the environment and have empathised with the distress of the natural world. All of these values and experiences collided when I started autark – even though on paper the progression from my previous career makes no sense at all, it was as though the facets of my life came together to create the business.
Me: You are driving change and setting higher standards in sustainability in the industry, why is this important to you?
Sophia: To me, being mindful and engaged with the idea of sustainability in the fashion industry is non-negotiable, as the fashion industry is sadly one of the biggest contributors to global pollution. However, to be part of the industry also presents the opportunity to demonstrate change to the traditional ways of working, and to challenge disposable, fast views of fashion.
The key ethos behind autark is about helping people to rediscover the value in their clothing again. I often think back to when my Nana made clothes and how much skill and care went into that process. The same amount of skill is still required to make any piece of clothing today, but I feel that consumers are often not encouraged to value that skill, the item itself, the resources that were used to make it, or the people who created it. It’s incredibly important to me to help people rediscover that joy, by purchasing thoughtfully and considering investment pieces to create a capsule wardrobe, wearing and re-styling their pieces on a regular basis, by learning more about the clothes they buy, where they originate from and who made them.
To be able to work with innovative and inspiring like-minded businesses who are doing exciting things in this space is a privilege and one of the best parts of my job. We have recently partnered with Upparel and we are now able send all of our studio offcuts to them for recycling, which is a wonderful way to minimise autark’s waste impact and spread their message of circularity to the autark community. It’s also incredibly exciting to be working with wonderful stores like After Eight – Em and Fleur’s celebration of the joy and self-expression of fashion, underpinned by a belief in conscious consumption and such attention to their brand’s sustainable and ethical practices is so strongly aligned with what we set out to achieve at autark.
Me: When sourcing sustainable fabrics for your collections what do you look for? And why?
Sophia: I love to see certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or European Flax for example, when choosing fabrics. It’s also really important that the supplier is able to provide evidence of the certification, as sometimes sadly simply stating that a fabric is organic may not necessarily mean it is so. Research is also key when choosing fabrics, and I am looking forward to using more hemp and linen for upcoming collections as I am finding that they are two of the most sustainable and lowest impact fabrics.
Me: For the styles that are designed using deadstock, how do you go about sourcing such high-quality deadstock fabric?
Sophia: I am lucky enough to work with some wonderful fabric agencies based here in Australia who source the beautiful fabrics I use for autark collections. Deadstock can be such a tricky fabric source due to its availability, but also incredibly rewarding to use as the fabrics can be absolutely stunning and it is of course utilising fabrics that otherwise may be wasted.
Me: What is the moment that shaped you as a designer?
Sophia: There are so many moments that shape my design mind and aesthetic from season to season, but consistently it is absolutely seeing autark in movement. My favourite thing is to receive images of customers experiencing wonderful moments in autark pieces, looking and feeling their best. It’s a privilege to feel that I could somehow contribute to that feeling for them. I also absorb so much energy and excitement from seeing autark in a runway show or seeing looks and a creative vision come together for a shoot – to see something you have imagined in your head take physical form and to then see it on a body is an experience I’ll always be spellbound by.
Me: What is your most loved and worn autark piece?
Sophia: I am very spoiled because I am lucky enough to be able to wear the studio samples on a rotation – but I would say for me the shirting is a real go to. The gather sleeve and relaxed fit shirts are so easy to throw on; they are comfy and oversized but are still really polished and classic. I adore the beautiful Agean GOTS cotton poplin, and the Italian Linen/Cotton deadstock blue stripe that we’ve used for these styles.
Me: After Eight is shaped around the idea of woman indulging in their guilty pleasures (ie: shopping) after 8pm at night, so we’d love to know what rituals you have at this time in the evening.
Sophia: I’ve been trying to be more disciplined at switching off of an evening as I work from home and can sadly find that quite difficult but all going to plan this is definitely a time that I like to slow down. A cheeky treat like a glass of wine or bowl of ice cream never goes astray around this time. I’ve also been trying to read a lot more and am enjoying that to switch off before I go to bed.
Me: What is the biggest high or greatest challenge you have experienced since starting autark?
I think similarly for many in the industry last year was an incredibly difficult year that was very much full of unknowns. To find myself in a place where the survival and growth of something I had created and worked so hard to build was uncertain was without question a low, but as with anything, change always provides the opportunity for growth, just not always as expected. Funnily enough 2020 also ended up being a year that the business reached important milestones I had set out to achieve and its growth has been incredibly positive since.
At the beginning of this year I also experienced one of the biggest business highs I’ve had when autark was named as a finalist for the National Designer Award. To start a brand straight out of study and then be able to stand alongside the incredible fellow NDA nominees years later was a huge achievement for me and something I’m really proud of.
Our edit of autark’s upcoming collection can be pre-ordered now for a late April delivery.