NICO: Starting a label that parallels with strong ethics
From shooting for brands to kickstarting her own, Lis Harvey has paved her own way to create something she loves
Local Brisbanite and owner of NICO Underwear, Lis Harvey, is the kind of gal who creates with integrity. She set out to do business in a way that parallels with her own ethics right from the very start—with transparency, consideration for the environment, and looking to continually improve every step of the way. We visited her manufacturer, DR Manufacturing, and her pop-up shop in Brisbane to find out a little bit more about the people behind NICO.
How did the idea for NICO come into fruition? Tell us what inspired you and how it all began.
I had been working as a photographer, which I still love and still do a bit of it, but working in advertising photography and fulfilling someone else’s brief it can be weirdly uncreative. I was looking for a more creative project where I could make all the calls and be in charge, and for a chance to be more expressive. I had bounced around a bunch of ideas, and nothing had really felt right. This is very cheesy, but I walked past a lingerie store and thought “that’s it!”. It sounds really silly, but it just felt really instinctive.
I also felt there was a bit of a gap in the industry. There’s all that lacy, sexy stuff, and then the really plain, boring stuff, but I didn’t feel like there was anything that really represented me as a woman—wanting to be comfortable but still have nice fabrics and nice cuts. I wanted to create something that was a different kind of sexy, and from there it all just fell into place, knowing this was how we were going to approach it.
Not coming from a fashion background and launching your own label is really courageous. What was it that made you feel confident you could tackle it?
I don’t know! Sometimes I look back and think it was weird that I did it!
It’s really admirable. It’s tricky to change.
It is tricky to change. I must have been 26 at the time, and I didn’t have anything to lose. The risk involved was just having lost some time, and if I failed I would just go back to my normal life (laughs). I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. For me I really really truly felt that the worst thing was to have had that idea, really wanting to do it—and then not do it. I would feel shit about not trying.
How did you come up with the name NICO? What does it mean?
So you might know of the band the Velvet Underground, and they did that album with that German model Nico—that’s where it originates. I always thought she was a cool, interesting lady, and loved that she was a bit different. She did things in her own way and existed in this world of fashion and art, but was very much an individual, and those were core qualities that resonated really nicely with what I wanted the brand to be. It was also a name that was short and catchy and easy to remember!
What was the process you went through to learn the ropes in building a fashion brand from scratch? Who or what has been the biggest help to you in creating your products and establishing your brand?
From when I had the idea to when we launched, I spent a good 2 years skilling up. I thought about going back to study, but I didn’t want to spend another 3 years at University. I curated my own education—I knew I needed to learn pattern making, for example. I sought after all of the skills and the people that could teach me. That being said I’m still learning all the time, I’m by no means an expert! While I was learning I was working on my first range very slowly, with a lot of trial and error, just working it all out.
It was about 1.5 years into those 2 years of prep that I felt confident. I had always sewn a lot growing up so I had the basics down pat I guess, it was just a matter of fine tuning the techniques. I set a date for a launch party and starting inviting people, and then it got really hectic for a while. I was just chained to the sewing machine. You’ve got to have a deadline, else it would have just floated on for a while.
There’s a really nice supportive community in Brisbane, and there’s been people along the way who have just been open about sharing information, which I think is really important and is something I’m really open to as well—sharing information about our suppliers or talking about how we do things. It’s silly not to! So many brands refuse to talk about that but I think it’s healthy competition. It’s been an ongoing journey, and still there’s a lot of people I rely on to help out. Working with local manufacturers has been awesome as well, because they’re really supportive of the business; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
After launching your first range and deciding to take on a manufacturer, how did you go about selecting where you would manufacture?
I knew that I couldn’t keep continuing to manufacture the range myself, because it was just so time consuming, especially when you’re trying to run all the other elements in the business. There was no way we would be able to grow or scale things if it was only me. Plus, the guys who make it now are way better sewers than me!
I had been chatting to the girls at Peppermint Magazine, as I had shot for them a little bit, and I remember Kelly had suggested looking into Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) accreditation—so that got the ball rolling. ECA were really great in recommending manufacturers and people they had worked with. They put me in touch with the guys at DR Manufacturing and everything went from there. DR were really supportive and helped me to get the brand off the ground, and we’re still working with them now. They’re excellent communicators and really great to work with.
Was producing locally the only option for you?
I did look interstate a little bit, and it would be okay to do that if we had to, but I really preferred the idea of producing locally. It’s just much easier to manage and it’s easy to keep an eye on things and be reactive. If we need to restock something we can start a production run straight away. Problems happen all the time in manufacturing, things need to be changed or fixed, or we need more of a certain size. If there are any issues the guys give me a call and I’m there in an hour, and within 20 minutes we can be up and running again. Being in the same city and not having any delays has been really good in that way.
You use fabrics such as modal, bamboo and organic cotton. Why these fabrics?
Having a fashion brand is all about making lots of small decisions that lead to a bigger product. There’s a lot of things that have to be factored into any decision, and part of that is business related—we need to fulfil a certain brief, make a profit, those sorts of things. But sustainability and environmental impact is also a factor that really weighs in on all the decisions we make. When it comes to choosing fabrics that’s a criteria that I’m always wanting to tick as much as we possibly can.
Modal is the fabric we use the most, our basics range is made from modal. When I came across it I thought “why wouldn’t you use this!”, it’s so beautiful, environmental or not, and is so well suited to underwear. What I love about modal is that it’s really easy to trace right back to the raw material, which in the world of fabrics is actually pretty hard to do. It ticks a lot of the environmental boxes we’re looking for.
Lenzing is the company that supply our modal, it’s their fibre and their process that they run internally. They source the beechwood themselves and turn the raw material into the fibres needed to make the fabric within their factory. From there it then gets sent to our knitters in Melbourne who knit the fabric for us, and then it comes straight to us. It’s really easy to trace because it doesn’t pass through so many hands. As a small brand that’s what I’m looking for in supply chains—the least amount of people involved, because often it’s such a huge chain.
All of our trims we source from an Australian company who run their factory in Indonesia, so again it’s less people involved and is easily traceable. Working with small Australian companies who are doing good things is what’s most rewarding.
We used a lot of bamboo in the beginning before I discovered modal. They have really similar properties and is a really similar process and technique—taking a wood fibre, breaking it down and turning it into something you can knit with. We were sourcing the bamboo from an Australian supplier who were working with a factory in China. They had really high standards around who they sourced from and visited the factories regularly. I felt really confident in that supply chain, but it wasn’t as easily traceable as the modal.
Modal is a closed loop cycle as well—all the chemicals that are used to break the wood pulp down are contained and reused in the factories, so it tends to be a little bit more sustainable than bamboo. We’re not ruling bamboo out entirely, bamboo is still a great fibre and we may use it again in the future depending on what our range might be. When you’re talking about sustainability in this sphere, from whatever perspective you take it from, there’s pros and cons to any fibres and any kinds of production. You’ve just got to have your criteria and go with that. In that way Lenzing modal has been really nice for us.
We used organic cotton in our stripes collection, which is a capsule range we released using remnant fabric. Otherwise our organic cotton is sourced from an Australian company growing in India and knitting it here in Australia, so again a short supply chain and a company that are really nice to deal with.
That’s what I’m really looking for with our fibres—that it isn’t hugely complicated. I don’t feel like we’ve had to compromise on fabrics at all in order to be sustainable.
Do you have any advice for designers that are having trouble tracing where their fabrics are from?
It is hard and it seems that the default is to not talk about that. When you’re talking to fabric suppliers they’re not necessarily offering that information. I think you just have to ask the tough questions, which is hard because maintaining good relationships is important in your production, but I think more and more consumers are demanding it so brands need to demand it too. So ask the questions. The push for transparency is coming from the consumers, I think we’re hearing that loud and clear, and that push needs to happen right down the supply chain.
There are also some great companies doing great things, who are making it easy to know where things are coming from. Look for those companies who are making it easy for you.
How often are you designing new things? What’s the balance like between designing and creating, to admin and the business side of things?
Not as much designing and creating as I would like! It’s a lot of business and admin stuff which is important and a big part of any business. Now that we’ve got the basics in place though, I’m looking at doing little capsule ranges every year. I feel I can be a little bit more creative and have a bit more fun with the capsule ranges. Previously I was locked into thinking everyone needed something plain and white, so it’s exciting to be able to play a little bit more.
How are you finding the response? People are no doubt drawn to the effortless style of your collections, but has ethical production become a strong selling point too?
That’s actually just happened on it’s own in a way. I didn’t start the brand to be an eco brand, that wasn’t the criteria, that was just how I was comfortable doing business. In the beginning I didn’t really push that side of it, I was just making underwear. But people really jumped onboard and were seeking that out, and it’s become a big part of the brand that people are celebrating. We still get a lot of customers looking for nice comfy undies, but the fact that things are made ethically and with sustainability in mind is a big bonus, and more and more it’s what converts them.
What is the best way for us to look after our underwear and make them last?
Hand washing is always the best way to care for your underwear, but I totally recognise that not many people have the time to make that happen! So with that in mind, we started packaging the underwear in reusable lingerie wash bags. They really do make a big difference in protecting the fabrics and the trims to make them last longer. Plus it was the perfect way for us to eliminate superfluous packaging!
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
For me the key is a really simple idea and it’s transparency. The default in the fashion industry is to not talk about these things, and I think a lot of brands mistakenly believe that it’s dangerous to talk about sustainability or that it’s off-putting to customers. It’s often thought that customers don’t want to know about it, or that it’s not the sexy side of fashion, that it’s the ugly side of fashion, but it’s really important. I think because we’ve found ourselves in this situation where so much terrible stuff is going on, it’s time to step up and realise we can’t turn a blind eye to this. So I think transparency is the key. When I see brands having PR disasters or issues with people asking questions, and they simply sit there in silence and don’t acknowledge where things are coming from, there’s an obvious need for change. A brand can say they have policies in place but you need to prove it and show people.
It can be a daunting idea for a lot of brands so I think it’s about taking it one step at a time. Choose your battles, and continually strive to improve—that’s what we’re doing at NICO. I think we’ve got a lot of great stuff in place, but there’s always things we could be doing better. It’s that constant auditing of what we’re doing and trying to get better all the time.
What’s next for NICO?
I really want to do some swimwear, and keep branching out into more basics. Underwear will always be the core of what we do, but our aesthetic translates well into daywear too, so we’ll be pushing that a bit further. We’ll also have a Summery capsule range coming out in September/October, which is exciting!