Founded by Australian designer Charlotte Hicks, ESSE shares our values of carefully curating our wardrobes and rewearing pieces for years to come. Building on a collection of wardrobe essentials, this season we are loving the introduction of elegant evening wear, designed to be worn beyond just one season.
To celebrate the launch of the new season, we spoke with Charlotte about how she positions ESSE and the role it plays in our wardrobes, how she arrived at a place of considerate and slow consumption, what position ESSE has taken with sustainability, and much more.
We would love to know more about you, where did you grow up, what did you study, what life experiences do you think have made the biggest impact on where you are now?
Oh good question! I grew up in Sydney and was fortunate enough to study fashion. I did a Fashion Design and Textile degree at UTS. At the time I thought it was the most intense four years of my life. The big graduate collection, the works! I realised quickly though it was just grooming me for the endurance required in this industry. I have had some big pivotal moments – some personal and some professional. Generally speaking they gave me the motivation, the resilience and the focus to take the leap.
You’ve worked behind the scenes as a designer in the Australian fashion industry for some time, what did you learn through these experiences that you wanted to take with you into your own label?
In this game the best thing you can do is watch, observe and soak up knowledge. Learn from the people who have experience around you. There are low barriers to entry to starting your own brand so it is easy to do young, but it can be really tough to navigate and there is a lot of margin for error. So spending time watching and learning was crucial for me. It turned out this really formed the ethos of the brand.
I started ESSE with the intention of departing from the things I had quickly started to loath about the industry. Along with distilling what I still loved about this crazy world we are in.
It’s the less obvious lessons that are the ones that I cling to the most. The small nuances of building an incredible company culture for example. I was fortunate enough to learn that from some of the best women in the industry. That magic and that sparkle, motivates a small army to help bring the vision to life.
Having the ability to create your own brand, how have you positioned ESSE and what role does it play in our wardrobes?
I want to design pieces that make women feel like the best version of themselves. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing. Little bits of indulgence for you and only you.
I want ESSE to be that piece you always know you can go to. It might not be the loudest in your wardrobe, but it’s the most loyal and reliable. It performs for you when you need it to and it will never fail to make you feel at ease (and we feel like the best version of ourselves when we are at ease right!)
Each piece should have a balance between masculine and feminine, giving you that strength, that toughness but also that feminine energy.
With your prior experiences in the fashion industry, how much did this help you with launching your own brand, what were the biggest challenges and learnings you faced?
There is no doubt that the experiences I have had inform everything I do, every day. As I alluded to before – it could be what to do, but also what not to do! There is still SO much you cannot be prepared for. I am grateful that I can preempt some things (having been exposed to a lot) but there is no doubt the challenges and the learnings are very very real. You cannot completely understand until it is yours, until you are in the driver’s seat. When you have everything to lose and everything to gain. It’s hard to prepare for that mental load.
The sustainability conversation is an ever evolving one as we continue to learn, ask questions and figure out how fashion can operate with awareness and consideration to the environment. What position has ESSE taken with sustainability?
This is such a loaded question for me, and the brand because I believe sustainability is an outlook. I built the business on the ethos of considered consumption. So sustainability is a core brand value, a pillar the business is resting on. It is really ‘baked into’ everything that we do. I always wanted ESSE to be a purpose-led brand. So daily, with every decision being made this core value is reflected on. That isn’t to say I/we are perfect and have all the answers – far from it in fact. I believe though, if it is a core value, there are daily incremental shifts that work towards the wider goals and objectives.
The hardest part for me is to summarise and not appear tokenistic about the approach. It’s a complex subject matter. Bottom line though I am constantly questioning and challenging how I/we can do better, be better. Have substance beyond everything - from the designs to the supply chain, through to the business model itself. Endeavour to consider the full lifecycle of a garment, from the sourcing of raw materials to the disposal of the final product and taking steps to minimise the environmental impact at every stage. I question how the designs can themselves give back to the land not take from it. I really believe it is ESSE's job (and all businesses in general) to help enable customers to make better decisions too. Take them on the journey and help them navigate the subject matter too. Use the business to promote better practices and raise awareness in general. I am not really scratching the surface here but there are a lot of projects we are working on heading into 2023 and I am so excited to share more.
Nothing can truly happen as a sole business though, it is so much about the collective. Ultimately, the most forward-thinking approach to sustainability in fashion is one that recognises the need for a comprehensive, collaborative approach to addressing the environmental challenges facing the industry. It is taking a holistic view of sustainability and working together to develop innovative solutions and tackle resolutions at scale.
Like many others, I was blown away by your Resort collection that showed at the Opera House earlier this year. It left me wanting to dress more elegantly and with thought. How did this collection make you feel and what are your favourite pieces from this collection?
Firstly, thank you! I love that I sparked that. If nothing else that is so humbling to hear. All I knew was that I wanted to create a moment. A moment in the chaos. I think it cemented the vision, the world of ESSE. It was a moment for me to have a little more exploration creatively too. Something a little bit beyond the ‘wardrobe ESSEnitals” So to see it realised was beyond my wildest dreams! Each look is so sentimental. I loved the looks where the pieces were from 2020 and I had reinvigorated them. I loved the re-worked Signat Shirt because that project is so close to my heart. I took excess Signat shirts and excess scarves. Redesigned the shirts with a lush, draped back scarf. Just taking more responsibility for our own excess no need to just throw things onto the sale rack!
We feel very aligned with the Esse woman, on carefully curating one's wardrobe and rewearing pieces for years to come. What have been some of the biggest factors for you arriving at this place of consideration and slow consumption?
I think it really was a combination of me personally and my experiences in the industry. I am not a consumer. I don’t buy much at all, I never have. I just want/need the right pieces. Full Stop. Have you ever packed a bag for a trip and taken far too much, because you don’t have exactly what you need? I often think about that when I am designing. What are the exact pieces you need, lets aim for nothing more than that.
Being a designer prior to ESSE though, I was burnt out by the continual cycle for more. I really wanted ESSE to find a balance between what you need and what you want. A sweet spot that feeds your artistic soul but not with a loss of integrity. A moment to indulge but not without compromising the world around us. That part I am continually analysing!
ESSE has a large focus on working with Australian manufacturers. How has creating locally influenced the brand’s style and ethos? And has this mindset changed over the years?
There is no doubt, making locally does have its limitations. I wouldn’t say that it affects the aesthetic, but more that it means I need to lean into certain types of product over others. I do need to be creative within the parameters. I am still so passionate about keeping as much production here because we are in this incredible position to be able to keep a whole manufacturing industry thriving.
How would you describe your style?
I love the balance between the masculine and the feminine. I would say I do lean into the masculine a lot. I am more about ease, comfort and performance these days. There is a classicism in there, an artful minimalism. I do like a little adventure, something with a hint of exploration, even if it is as subtle as a play with proportion.
I do resonate with the idea of a ‘gentlewoman’, perhaps this is who I see as the ESSE woman and I try to tap into her! For me that concept has a refined masculine influence, but there is also this allure of a strong female energy. Something that comes when you feel confident – it’s not being overtly sexy, more sensual perhaps. Intriguing, discerning and of substance. Perhaps she’s who inspires me!
What are your wardrobe essentials?
Its obvious. But it just will never get old.