Documented By: Taylor Hallett and Sarah Canavan for RIISE
It’s startling to hear the usually upbeat founder of Esse Studios, Charlotte Hicks, describe disillusionment as part of her appraisal of the fashion industry.
Then again, her feelings of frustration, witnessed over a decade-long period, do offer the best explanation for Esse Studios’ creation and Hicks’ antithetical attitude towards traditional fashion production.
“I didn’t like the pace…It was just about more and more for the sake of more,” Hicks says in hindsight. “There was so much waste, on a lot of fronts, obviously environmentally, but also so much work was being lost, so much creative energy diverted into getting stuff done quickly.”
Hicks had forged a solid career in the fashion industry before launching Esse, graduating with a Bachelor of Design from the University of Technology Sydney with honours before working the better part of a decade with global industry leaders, including Sass and Bide. She speaks with a genuine affection about the formative years of her career, reflecting on the invaluable aspects of the industry it exposed her to: commercial, product and design. But, ultimately, she felt called to personal pursuits, and so her ethical label Esse Studios was conceived and launched in 2017.
Hicks first started exploring sustainable fashion five years ago, sharing that for her, sustainability has never been just a buzzword. The wastefulness and thoughtless speed of fashion were initial motivators to develop a brand that embraces small capsule collections, slow release editions and seasonless fashion, and it is an authentic exploration of what fashion really means to consumers and how to return to the basic functionality of clothes and style, unbound by seasons and trends, that inspires Esse.
Fusing functionality with a timeless aesthetic helped Hicks develop Esse’s first capsule collection, appropriately christened the “non-negotiables”. From here, the idea became that with every edition, you could build on the last, styling new garments with previous collections in a way that reinvigorates past purchases.
The endurance of each Esse garment is paramount to the brand’s sustainability pledge, as is their commitment to sourcing high quality, low impact fabrics and manufacturing them locally. For example, Esse’s denim, sourced from Italy, is yarn-dyed naturally using the leaves of the Indigofera plant and their premium cotton, used in their quintessential range of cotton shirts, is also derived from quality suppliers in Italy. Denim and shirting styles are manufactured in Australia by factories with socially responsible and ethical practices, while specialised knitwear is made in a boutique factory in China.
Hicks acknowledges that to be truly sustainable requires “questioning and challenging everything. As a brand, you’re in bed with a whole bunch of people who have to be flawless for you to be flawless,” she says. “That’s why I try to partner with people who are doing due diligence, who are trying to shift and change their business practices and have that shared vision.”
Hicks was named Australia’s Best New Designer for 2020 at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival last year and received a nomination for the Australian Fashion Laureate Awards in the Sustainable Innovation category. Reflecting on her success in such a short time, she says:
“I find it super humbling to have won the award at such an early stage of the business. It’s nice to see people believe in your vision.”