Although Australia is a continent about the size of the 48 contiguous United States, its population gravitated to coastal areas, away from the central desert outback, so its fashion shares some of the characteristics of our island style in terms of colors and prints inspired by local flora and fauna and indigenous arts.
There’s also a strong leaning toward casual, outdoorsy style owing to its rugged outback heritage.
Given that affinity for casual wear, it makes sense that a couple of Australian designers — Marylea Conrad of Ki-ele and Michelle Douglas of Meg by Design — have found comfortable niches of their own on Oahu. Both have recently launched websites to reach those who can only dream of an island lifestyle.
Meg by Design
At first glance, Michelle Douglas’ garments appear to be stark-white underpinnings destined to become more dependable wardrobe basics than statement pieces.
The longer you stare, however, the more varying details reveal themselves, bringing the garments to life. There’s white on cream color-blocking and sheer patchwork in varying weights of silks and cottons, tiers of ruffles and shredded florets, causing each garment to possess a character and spirit of its own.
With feminine camisoles, bias-cut skirts, flowing dresses and sheer jackets meant to be layered in multiple ways, it might be impossible to pick just one piece. The Australian market and Etsy.com followers have already learned that Douglas’ garments, sold under her label Meg by Design, are hard to resist.
Her white and light palette with accent pieces in peach, pink and purple represents a new direction in her life.
“When I was younger, I used to wear a lot of black. It looked a lot better on me,” Douglas said. “Now if I put black on, I think it accentuates the dark circles under my eyes. I might look slimmer but I look 10 years older.”
Before she started designing clothing, Douglas said she “always liked to think of the seasons ahead and what I’d like to find, but I could never find the clothes.” What she came up with were flowing romantic tops and dresses reminiscent of Victorian underpinnings, now suitable as outerwear in an age in which body-conscious clothing is a norm.
“When I started wearing them, it was amazing how fabulous I felt. I would wear them at home, shopping and working, and it felt so feminine, comfortable and fun. The same piece can be dressed up many different ways to look appropriate for many different places. You could wear it to the beach and then out to dinner.”
Douglas is a latecomer to fashion, having started just eight years ago after a career as a midwife and registered nurse in her native Australia.
“I grew up in a Catholic family, going to Catholic school. Design and art were considered trivial and discouraged. We were expected to study serious things like math, science and history,” she said. “Looking back now, it would have been so obvious that I would have probably been OK in the fashion industry, but it wasn’t the right time. It was, ‘Get yourself a career that pays.’”
She had grown up sewing on an old machine set up in the family’s garage.
“I’d make these funky outfits for school plays and come up with the most outrageous things and think nothing of it,” she said.
Later, Douglas would make things for the home, but “I never made clothes to actually wear. They were always costumes or home things.”
She eventually started dyeing silk pieces for Australian designer Akira Isagowa and worked with other designers before establishing her own brand, taking her work to boutique owners for their verdict. Her garments then were largely one-of-a-kind pieces, so there were many times she’d walk into a boutique where customers were waiting to see what was new.
She took a break for three years after marrying and motherhood, moving to Maine with her American husband and ending up in Hawaii early last year.
She said she has already noticed a difference in the way Australian women wear her pieces versus a more conservative Hawaii.
“Girls in Australia are more than happy to show a really good-looking bra. They are! They’re wicked and would ask me, ‘Can you put more see-through patches at the top, where the bra is?’ I was trying to do the opposite and cover it up!”
Douglas only recently began sewing again, eager to establish a home business that would allow her to be a work-at-home mom. Through the DIY community shopping site Etsy.com, she found an international audience of women 35 and older, due to price points of $95 and up.
Although she recently launched her own website MegbyDesign.com, she will continue to use Etsy.com as a place for “more kooky” one-of-a-kind pieces she sews herself, while establishing her site as a place for more mainstream basics.
More recently she has fulfilled a dream of designing earthy beach wedding gowns in the same bohemian spirit of her regular collection.
“I always had it in my mind to do beach bridal wear, so I was so excited to move to Hawaii. People fly in from all over the world to get married here. There are a lot of people looking for something a little more simple than a traditional wedding gown.” See Michelle Douglas’ designs at MegbyDesign.com or www.etsy.com/shop/megbydesign.
Marylea Conrad grew up in Sydney, focusing on one task at a time, whether graduating from high school or dedicating all her energy toward her college fashion projects. After school she gravitated toward fashion writing and continued that track once she arrived in Hawaii eight years ago. But everything she learned over the years solidified, and it seems she has been making up for lost time ever since, launching a couple of fashion brands in rapid succession.
In four years she became a mother, started the clothing brand Melia Conrad, named after her eldest daughter, and launched her jewelry brand Ki-ele, named after her second daughter. “Somehow, with juggling family, my company and still writing, my brain took another step in multitasking. Sometimes it feels like I’m in a competition to be a world champion.”
Conrad will launch her latest Ki-ele jewelry collection, inspired by Tahiti, this week, with free shipping and a 15 percent discount on purchases to April 8 (use code IHEARTKIELE15).
The collection includes her “Bora Bora” beaded necklace, capturing the blue-green of the sea, that doubles as a layer bracelet. It was among jewelry featured in the 2011 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Elsewhere in the collection, which she fashions by hand, are triangles of hammered silver with rounded edges that mimic over-water bungalows of Bora Bora. These are presented in earrings and linked necklaces that manage to capture the beach spirit of Tahiti while keeping step with the geometry of international fashion trends. In the past year the number of boutiques carrying her jewelry has expanded from three in Hawaii to 14 from Japan to Florida and New York.
Along the way, Conrad discontinued her clothing brand to focus on her jewelry. But the ideas keep coming. She experimented with a line of beach-themed housewares under the Ki-ele banner, and has another nonfashion-related company in the works.
“I’m hopeful that this is only the beginning.”
Ki-ele designs can be found at www.ki-ele.com and boutiques including Fighting Eel on Bethel Street, Global Creations & Interiors in Haleiwa, Kai in Kailua, Nohea Galleries, Red Bamboo in Kailua and Aloha Tower Marketplace, and Shasa Emporium at Kahala Mall.