Young Brisbane designer Elisabeth Harvey launched her fledgling sustainable underwear label, Nico Underwear, in January 2012. Like a true entrepreneur, Elisabeth saw a gap in the underwear market and decided to fill it. Described as an in-between label, Nico is playful but not super sexy, and simple but not boring. A photographer by trade, Elisabeth hasn’t let a lack of fashion experience stop her from chasing her dream. She says she is fortunate to live in an era where knowledge is at your fingertips. And she lives and breathes her advice to others: “Make the most of the opportunities you’ve got.”
Unlike many in search of a career change, Elisabeth Harvey didn’t launch her Nico Underwear fashion label to escape her day job. Since graduating from the Queensland College of Art with a photography degree in 2006, she has relished working as a freelance photographer across architecture, fashion and interiors contracts, as well as documentary projects. She is clearly talented, being nominated as a finalist in many industry awards including, most recently, the 2010 Sony World Photography Awards and the 2009 Prix de la Photographie Paris.
Elisabeth launched Nico for the creative challenge. “I was craving something with a little more creative control where I could be more expressive. And basically I wanted to make all the choices rather than answering to someone else,” she laughs of her independent streak.
She began tossing around business ideas, but none stuck. In 2009, while holidaying in Norway (where her partner is from), she had a lightbulb moment. “It sounds cheesy, but I walked past an underwear store and went – ‘Oh yeah’,” Elisabeth recalls. “And when you know, you just know. It was one of those instinctual things.”
Elisabeth realised that she loved cute bras and undies, but had a tricky time finding garments that suited her persona. “There’s this really padded, same-same, sparkly, lacy stuff, which is great, but it doesn’t suit everyone,” she explains of one end of the underwear garment spectrum. “And then there’s this everyday practical sort of stuff, which is also great. But at the time there wasn’t the in-between underwear that’s sexy but not in a traditional over-the-top kind of way.”
After chatting to friends and finding many experienced the same underwear dilemma, Elisabeth decided to fill the gap in the market. She began designing her Nico label, which she describes as “unique, style-driven lingerie to wear every day.” Over two years from 2009, she took crash courses in sewing and business, and researched options for sustainable fabrics and ethical manufacturing in Australia.
Elisabeth is thrilled that her hard work is paying off as customers snap up her garments through her online store and retail stockists, including Heidi Go Seek in Fortitude Valley, Ra Ra Superstar in Paddington and The Happy Cabin in West End. Her pieces are also sold through online lingerie boutique, Assiere.com.
Elisabeth says she was committed to making Nico a sustainable label. All Nico garments are manufactured in Australia and the fabrics are sustainable and organic. Elisabeth is also planning to seek accreditation with Ethical Clothing Australia – an organisation that ensures that workers receive fair wages and work conditions.
“I personally believe in sustainability, so I don’t think I could start this business in any other way,” she says of her decision to make Nico eco-aware. “In the future, we’re all going to be heading down this path whether we want to or not, so for me it really made sense to be ahead of the trend and investigate it and be as much a part of it as I could be.”
Organic bamboo fabrics will feature in the second collection. “We were lucky with this one because it is a sustainable fabric and is produced in ways that are a lot less environmentally damaging than cotton,” Elisabeth notes of bamboo’s benefits. “But it’s also this really gorgeous fabric to wear that’s well suited to underwear – so it’s an easy choice.”
Elisabeth acknowledges that production costs are higher when using sustainable fabrics and manufacturing in Australia, but it’s a hurdle she’s willing to jump.
“The key for us is to find an educated audience who appreciates those factors and is willing to pay a little bit more
than some other mass-produced brands. These days it is getting less expensive … I think that’s where the industry is headed.”
Elisabeth says she stumbled into fashion. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I know – that’s bizarre,” she laughs of her childhood dream. “It doesn’t really make sense, but I think I just liked talking to people and finding out how they think.”
In her teens she became fascinated with making films and saved her earnings from a summer job to buy a camera. Within the first year of her film degree she realised that the study was killing the passion, so she pursued photography instead, which she admits is a tough industry to crack. “It takes time to develop a style and client base. It’s hard, but not impossible.”
Her greatest challenge is playing the “struggling artist” card however, she never considers giving up. “I really wanted this career and this lifestyle so I just make it happen,” she shares of her motivation for starting Nico and freelancing in photography. “It’s a long-term thing. Because at what point do you say: ‘I’ve made it’? I can’t ever imagine saying that. It’s ongoing. It’s a struggle in many ways, but you have to enjoy the journey and I do. It’s fun.”
Elisabeth believes it’s an exciting time for small labels in the Australian fashion industry. “There are lots of small brands doing great things and challenging the traditional ways of retailing, which involved big brands having the monopoly on the market. I’m excited to be part of this new era of fashion.”
Her advice for others who are considering launching new business ventures is to go for it. “There’s going to be 10-million roadblocks and many times when you say ‘This is impossible’,” she notes. “But it’s not. You can just do it. And I almost feel we are so lucky in this generation with the country we live in and the opportunities we’ve got, so don’t waste it. Make the most of the opportunities you’ve got.”
Elisabeth is working on her second Nico collection, set to launch in summer 2012/2013. Like the essence of summer, it will be colourful, fresh and fun. Designing the second time around is proving a daunting process and Elisabeth says she can empathise with what new bands must feel when striving to create a second album that betters the first.
“There’s that follow-up expectation and you’re thinking ‘Can I do it again?’” Elisabeth laughs. “Do you go on a totally different path or do you keep it the same? It’s been interesting.”
When things get tough, Elisabeth has wise words for herself. “Often I have to step back and take a deep breath and let things settle. It’s always a good technique when things get a bit scary … A deep breath goes a long way.”