BEHIND THE SEAMS: Charlotte Hicks, National Design Award winner and Founder ESSE
not just our core belief at After Eight but also the founding ethos and words that drive Charlotte Hicks, founder and director of ESSE. With pieces in her latest collection including our dream cream tailored trouser and a wear-forever asymmetric black cotton summer dress, it’s easy to see why we’ve fallen hard for the brand. Get comfy, grab a glass, and enjoy a deeper insight into the woman behind consciously-designed pieces your wardrobe will love.
A sustainable, ready-to-wear lifestyle brand for the woman who takes a considered approach to her style, ESSE was launched by Hicks in 2018 off the back of almost a decade in the industry working across including Sass & Bide, Nookie and Zimmermann.
While an incredible experience, as time went on the excess she saw across the industry weighed heavily on her mind.
"Excess design, excess development, excess stock, excess product, excess deliveries, and then excess consumer demands. It was too much.”
“It was a big journey. I loved my experience designing for such incredible brands. I was surrounded by amazing teams and incredible mentors, but it was the industry at large that just felt so excessive. There is a certain pressure on designers to create more and more and faster in the hope that things cut through the masses – it is such a saturated landscape. I just felt like it wasn’t emotionally sustainable as a designer anymore.”
Rather than the actions of a singular brand, it was simply indicative of what was going on across the fashion industry as a whole.
“It was very much being a part of being burnt out and just feeling quite sick and disgusted by what our industry was doing globally.”
It proved the motivation to change direction and go back to her driving force: doing something Hicks was passionate about, designing beautiful pieces, and making women feel fantastic about themselves.
“For me, it was taking time to step out of the industry and really looking at everything that I loved about the industry and what I do, and then everything I despised and trying to create something that solved some of those problems,” she says.
And with the aim of doing things differently, ESSE was born: tailored to the time-poor and overwhelmed women calling out for curated collections that made day-to-day dressing easy. It’s what Hicks calls the considered capsule.
“[I thought] why can't all these capsules work together? Why do we need this idea of seasonal churn and that one season becomes redundant and it's old and it's replaced. That idea just seemed so baffling to me,” she says.
"It wasn't how I shopped. It wasn't how I dressed, it wasn't how my wardrobe worked. I don't throw my wardrobe out and replace it the moment something's on sale, I slowly build it. I hate this idea of all these beautiful pieces being told that they're old and redundant. Women really do get quite psychologically warped into thinking that something's passe or old really quick.”
Nodding enthusiastically like us? Of course you are. Because as Hicks explains, there’s nothing wrong with that black blazer you bought last season if it’s designed right and in quality fabric.
"My advice would be don’t buy four things on sale, buy one thing full price and appreciate it and treasure it,” she says. Amen.
That’s not to say even this (highly logical) approach doesn’t have its challenges and considerations.
“The challenges that I face as a brand is this idea of if I'm participating in wholesale and I'm not purely direct to consumer, there's still an idea of sale and there's an idea of sort of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. So how can I try and slow that down?”
It became clearer to Hicks that ESSE should play a more active role in trying to find solutions to the “problem”.
“I don't profess to know all the answers and I'm not perfect, but passionate about the attempt and pursuit for one step closer,” she says.
Hicks was making all these decisions three years ago. Since then, we’ve seen the pandemic magnify the sustainability issues within the fashion industry and accelerate the conversation. ESSE is now part of a whole new wave of brands taking a slower, two collections a year rather than several, approach. And part of that is also pushing back on retailers and the constant consumer call for sales.
“No-one wins in a sale, except for the customer. And the only reason why the customer wins is that they’re desperate for something that they think they need,” she explains.
She sees it as her responsibility as a designer to design pieces to the highest quality; better clothing that serves a purpose.
“When we were studying at university, we were told as designers in any medium - interior, industrial or whatever - you're a designer because you are designing solutions. I take that very seriously as I'm trained that way. If there's too much product out there and there's too many people who don't take that seriously then they're just putting stuff out there because it's easy to do that."
“So I think it's our responsibility to design better products that solve problems. The questions I ask are: what is she missing? What does she need?”
And to that point, we had to ask: what does Hicks believe are the core key pieces that form a wardrobe made to love?
“You need a “suit” but it doesn’t have to be uptight or anything: just great pants and a great blazer that’s easy, comfortable, versatile and durable. Then a great shirt, dress, jean, a casual top and then maybe another casual pant,” she says.
"That's kind of like 101 to me; it's pretty foolproof."
With a philosophy that calls for pieces that are versatile and designed to perform for you, each ESSE collection offers foundational items worth investing in. Whether perfectly tailored black trousers, a white shirt dress, strapless dress, or knitted skirt, ESSE fits seamlessly into a wardrobe that transcends seasons.
As a year to remember (despite our best efforts to forget!) 2020 is one that Hicks has torn feelings about.
“I was so lucky really with so many good things that did happen last year that I’m forever grateful for: I won two awards including the National Design Award which was incredible and a beautiful part of my journey so far. But it was hard to really celebrate because with all the highs were the lows,” she says.
“I was still able to really grow and picked up some amazing retailers. But did it grow as fast? Maybe not. Did it grow as big? Who knows would it or could it have been bigger? Who knows? I don't care. I was really happy and I picked up some beautiful retailers like After Eight."
“[But] although I was able to still deliver, it was and it still is tough. Melbourne going into lockdown for six weeks which is where I get 80% of my fabrics made - it was tough.”
Of course when it comes to sustainability, fabrics - and where they come from - are an important part of the conversation.
One of the (many) things we love about ESSE is that the tags give details about the story of sustainability of the fabric used. Knowledge is power; for Hicks being transparent around her processes and sourcing is highly important.
In what has become quite unique in the industry, a lot of fabric ESSE uses is knitted from scratch in Melbourne, while the garments are made in Sydney - keeping it local and with a conscious eye on carbon footprint.
"The simplicity of keeping everything here in Australia, it's a small piece of a huge pie, but I'm really passionate about the concept of supporting local. Particularly after what has happened in the last year,” she says.
And like us, she believes it’s as much about being open about what you’re not doing (yet) as what you are. Progress, not perfection.
“I'm giving my customers the baseline and also showing what I'm not doing because I think there's still work to be done.
“For me, it's always been about talking about the journey because I'm on the journey as much as the world is. The industry as a whole is still so new to this space and still catching up. How can a brand proclaim to be amazing when there is so much work to be done?”
We know there are still tricky conversations to be had when it comes to sustainability and fashion, with many factors and contradictions to grapple with. Hicks is honest but hopeful and says it’s up to all sides to work together.
“The reality is we all need or want to make money. And I think us all making a conscious effort to understand if we want to make an exuberant amount of money, there is nothing ultimately sustainable about that. So we just have to do it in the most mindful way that we can to reduce our footprint as possible in the pursuit for that growth. It's a big complex topic, but I think it's just up to all of us to be as mindful as we can and work together.”
While not necessarily solving all issues, it’s models like pre-ordering that offer better solutions to some of these problems that can benefit both brand, retailer and customer. Smaller runs and carefully selected and curated offerings like you’ll find at After Eight allow all sides to be as considered as possible.
When it comes to a mentor or moment that has truly shaped her as a designer, Hicks doesn’t have to look further than her husband. An entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, she says he inspires her daily.
“He has just such an incredible problem solving, solutions focused brain and a never say die attitude and we are so fortunate to kind of be both embarking on these journeys at the same time. He definitely inspires me on all fronts, like just to, to, to rethink my approach to things and be a better human, a better entrepreneur, and a better business owner.”
When the clock strikes After Eight, you’ll find Hicks likely tending to emails and posting on social media.
“For me, this time is the undisturbed hours of the day where I might actually get some stuff done. It’s the time I might do something that is a little bit more indulgent. Like I do actually like to design at that time because it's when I am uninterrupted. But in terms of winding down, I think it's the time where I just try to check in with my loved ones. And check in with my husband after our busy day. It’s that reset time for me.”
A final word to consider —
“If I can do anything, shopping at ESSE or not, it’s if I can make you think about that purchase: do you really need it? And does it make you feel great? Because if it doesn't, then don't buy it and wait for that dress that does. I think an education thing as well from women and Australian women as well. We're not kind enough to ourselves.” — Charlotte Hicks