Heidi Middleton is redefining what a small, ethical fashion business looks like
Channelling her passion for art, fashion and sustainability, Heidi Middleton is redefining what a small, ethical creative fashion business can look like today.
The style icon and designer co-founded one of our most prolific labels, sass & bide, with her best friend Sarah-Jane Clarke in 1999. The label became
a global sensation, with more than 200 stores across the globe. Heidi sold her beloved brand in 2013 and moved to France, turning her focus to art,
cooking and renovating a French chateaux.
Heidi’s latest project, ArtClub was born from a desire to make things of beauty, with purpose and meaning. Heidi visited the Sunshine Coast recently and
appeared in conversation with radio announcer and fashion editor Carlie Wacker at the Mooloolaba Surf Club as part of the Sunshine Coast Council
CW: Tell us about little Heidi growing up in Queensland.
HM: I was born in Sydney but feel like a Queenslander. I was raised here and love coming back to Queensland. We moved to Brookfield when I was young
and I used to ride my pony to school. It was a simple early existence.
CW: So, you finished school and went to university…
HM: I went to art college, now part of Griffith University. They were great days. Sarah-Jane and I met through Greek boyfriends who were best friends.
We hit it off and shared this unique style. We loved dressing up and clothes. We became inseparable and still talk every day.
After college, we moved to London together. I lost my portfolio on the way and that was a crisis because it was done manually, not on a computer. I had
to get a job in account management, not graphic design which was what I had studied because I didn’t have work to present.
CW: So, you’re in London and you come up with this idea to start a jeans label. Why jeans and how did you make that happen?
HM: We started selling customised jeans at Portobello Markets. We were buying existing second-hand Levis and adding 6 inches of raffia bought from
a haberdashery store. We started selling out each week and couldn’t fulfil all the orders. Then we added some handmade tops and a few other products
and they all sold very well. We were young, running on adrenaline, fuelled by creative energy and the great response to what we were doing.
After two and a half years, our visas were expiring so we were heading back to Australia. We had this idea to start a business, then met a business man
in London who loaned us $35,000 each as a goodwill gesture and headed back to Australia with the money in our pockets and this idea.
We couldn’t find a jean that felt low and sexy at the time so we made a sample and found denim-makers in Sydney. Apparently, they felt sorry for us and
felt terrible taking our money because they didn’t think the jeans would sell.
CW: What was it about your product that encouraged an investor to give you the money?
HM: It was an amazing gesture. We paid him back at the end of the year with $25,000 interest. The jeans sold very quickly and we were insisting
on COD so cash was flowing into the business well.
We always designed what we wanted to wear. It wasn’t any more complicated than that, simply designing what we loved and couldn’t buy anywhere else.
CW: What do you think is the reason Sass & Bide became such a cult brand?
HM: Probably a combination of things. I guess it came down to timing, luck, talent, and to having a point of difference. We always had a twist.
I didn’t want to just put out a plain jacket, it had to have a metallic lining, a little extra something. Then we built up a beautiful, loyal customer
base of women who really appreciated the aesthetic.
We were lucky to meet Sarah Jessica Parker and our clothing appeared on the show (Sex and the City). There were many serendipitous things that happened
that came out of being bold and opportunistic.
CW: You sold the brand to Myer, moved to France, had two beautiful girls. Tell us about that time.
HM: Sarah-Jane and I always said let’s start this brand, build it and sell it within five years. We sold it 13 or 14 years in when it was at its
peak. I was working crazy hours, doing seven days and no matter how much I worked I couldn’t keep up with the demand.
After the business sold, my family lived in Paris for a few years which we loved. Then we decided we weren’t quite ready to leave France but wanted the
earth under our feet and some fresh air. We visited a friend living near Bordeaux and she took us to this house that hadn’t been lived in for two years
but had great proportions. We put in an offer and a week later it was signed, sealed and delivered.
There are lots of brocantes and antique markets in the region. Every weekend I would be travelling the region to find things for the home. We undertook
a major renovation and very quickly it came to life.
CW: Your great idea, your next venture came from the chateau.
HM: I started painting again and making collage. The ideas were fomenting but it wasn’t clear what I wanted to do when I re-entered the market.
I was loving the art, but missing design and fashion and I am very passionate about vintage clothing.
I had a strong desire to design a business model that was very different to sass & bide and that had a sustainable foundation. I wanted to use remnant
fabric from around the world and design something that optimised creativity, not dilute it. I wanted it to be about creativity and sharing it positively
in a way that was giving back to people and the planet.
We were back in Sydney when it morphed into what ArtClub is now, an online atelier for my creativity. It is rule free except for one rule which is “be
CW: ArtClub is your business where you sell art and you sell fashion. Tell me a bit about the place that you play in within those worlds.
HM: The art is abstract, it is bold and graphic. I’m mainly using acrylics on canvas. The fashion comes from a sensory place. I design what I am
feeling, using shapes that I love. It still has that contradictory element, that dichotomy of quite strong but also soft, a bit of drama and theatre,
yet also modern.
It is important for us to minimise the carbon footprint and support local industries so all our pieces are made in Sydney. We make between 10 and 15 of
each piece, numbered by hand and signed by the maker. Eighty percent of the garments are made from remnant fabrics that would otherwise go to landfill
with the remaining fabrics organically grown.
CW: Your business is themed towards that ethical, sustainable, “fast-slow” fashion. Is there a title you are giving it?
HM: For me it is a win-win. Creatively I am able to move something from a design, made locally onto Artclub within 2-3 weeks as opposed to the old
way which would have had a six-month lead time. So, there is a wonderful spontaneity, it is fresh, it feels more fluid and playful. Customers can equally
be a bit more excited. There are smaller quantities but content is arriving more frequently on the site - it’s “fast-slow” fashion.
The pressure is on for people to be transparent with their business operations. There is a big threat to the planet that we are all aware of but I believe
we have the chance to turn things around. People can do their bit and play a part.
CW: What can people do to play their part in sustainable fashion?
HM: Some people maybe get overwhelmed that it is a big thing to transform a business into sustainable model but they just need to start with one
or two things. Whether it’s making sure fabrics are produced ethically, that there are safe workplaces, that the people who are making the fabrics
are paid fairly. You can start with that.
When something is authentic, people read that and you will often get a response, especially in a niche market. I feel like there’s a move back to more
cottage industries and grass roots creativity, to movements that generate less of an impact. People are genuinely excited about more sustainable fashion
business models and having the important conversations.
I was starting to see my girls wanting to shop at [fast fashion outlets]. So, I started asking them questions like ‘How much do you think the person who
made this was paid if you’re paying $5 for it and it was made in China and had to be shipped here?’ To turn things around for the planet, these are
the conversations we need to be having.
(From the audience) How do you nurture your creativity?
HM: I think time is a big one and being immersed in the things that trigger inspiration, be it a vintage market, or nature, or heading to a library
and getting absorbed in books. I love to travel and often get off a plane and head straight to a local antique market for inspiration.
Interested in learning more about ethical fashion?
Check out these stories from the Living Smart Archive:
Fabric - Slow Fashion Artful Living 2019 is an initiative of the Sunshine Coast Council, supported by Sunshine Coast Living Smart
and the Regional Arts Development Fund. Heidi Middleton’s visit to the Sunshine Coast was a collaboration with The Refinery - Sunshine Coast, Creative Incubator.
Images by Sam Hagan, Moonshaker Media (http://www.moonshakermedia.com.au/)