Liam's Leading Lady: Emily Miller-Sharma

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Liam Diffuse dress from Autumn 2015  

Could you imagine designing your own wardrobe every season with the only real limit being your imagination?  As the designer for local label Liam, Emily Miller-Sharma comes up with each collection herself, aided by her design team.  It's a seasonal task that begins with finding inspiration and then figuring out the practicalities of how to turn it into a collection.  Liam is several season in now, having launched at New Zealand Fashion Week 2011, and it's continuing to grow with each range, allowing Emily to demonstrate her impeccable skills as a designer.  

I recently sat down with Emily in Liam's showroom, which is shared with sister label Ruby, to chat about her stunning new collection for Autumn/Winter 2015 entitled 'The Space Between', the success of her 'Celebrations' range and her excitement at designing her own bridal gown for her upcoming wedding to her fiance Alistair.

Evelyn: Where did you draw the inspiration for your new collection from?

Emily: The inspiration for most of my collections usually manifests itself in quite small ways in the collection. It’s generally something that I have inspiration pictures pinned on my wall and I look to them as to how I will resolve design decisions.  So a lot of the time my inspirations are architecture based and/or based in fine art. For Autumn/Winter 2015 where it started was this lecture by this architect called Glenn Murkett. He’s an Australian architect and I went to a lecture he gave when  I was up in Hong Kong sourcing fabrics for the collection.  He was talking about the way that still life artists give consideration to the space between the objects as well as the objects they’re painting. So in a fruit bowl or in a floral arrangement it’s not just the flowers, it’s the space between the flowers and that tension that kind of gives more substance to the painting then just the flowers on their own.  Which I thought was really amazing and I thought that that could translate quite well in how I think about putting splits into clothing and different ways I can fasten and that kind of thing.

So already I had started thinking about that and then it was around about the same time that there were images of the proposed memorial in Norway which is in Sørbråten peninsula, that’s a memorial for people who were killed there and the idea was that the memorial is the space between two cuts in the landscape.  That image was so striking because that space between had so much power. So that’s where the inspiration came from and then I just started thinking about ways of cutting into the clothes and then I started thinking about magnets and how magnets kind of shut out the space between or if you flip them round they don’t touch. There is that weird forcefield which is so strange when you do that with magnets but so cool.  Then I was thinking about ways that I can graphically interpret the space between so there’s a print that’s the space between spots, and then just playing around with the spacing of the florals that Henrietta Harris did.  They're these floral still life posies that I then played around with how they were spaced on the fabric.

Now I’m working with an artist called Billie Cully who takes photographs of still lifes basically but they’re really quite modern, quite beautiful and quite powerful.  So that will be something that we release later.  And then that image of the memorial in Norway we showed to Jaimee Stockman Young who is the artist who did the set installation for our lookbook.  I know some fashion designers look to a movie  or a book and it’s quite thematic, the references are quite direct and it’s quite obvious that they’ve looked at this book or that movie and this era.  But for Liam it doesn’t come naturally for me to design that way.  For me it’s more looking at something that I’m interested in and using that as a way to resolve design decisions and then how it’s interpreted is always going to be in a Liam way.

Evelyn: Liam is over three years in now, how has your customer changed in that time?

Emily: I think that there are some aesthetics of Madame Hawke (Liam's former incarnation) that I have incorporated into Liam, naturally because I was designing the Madame Hawke product but maybe what I left behind was that slightly kind of grungey, a bit more denim stuff. I left that all behind just because it was naturally in terms of what I was wanting to design I just wasn’t that drawn to that anymore as I was. So I guess that would be the main aesthetic that has changed. The thinking has always been that Ruby obviously has a younger aesthetic and is for a slightly younger person and then that younger person doesn’t stay that young forever so we all actually grow up eventually and so as a way of keeping that same spirit of Ruby but moving into a different phase in your life it doesn’t need to be upsetting or boring. It doesn’t need to be super expensive either, the price points for Ruby and Liam are very similar so as you move on in different aspects of your life, maybe leave university and get a job that kind of thing you can stay with the spirit of Ruby.

Growing up is a big change in anyone’s life.  Youth is such a weird thing and age is such a weird thing because I’m 31 now and I started here when I was 25 and I was designing for people that were older than me and now I’m designing for people that are younger and older than me.  But as a younger designer, designing for someone older that was a challenge and I had to figure out how to get around that but now as someone older designing for someone younger that’s also a challenge because I don’t actually go and do things that a 25 year old does anymore really.  I might sometimes but really I don’t so understanding who that person is by making sure that I’m surrounded by those people, reading about them, kind of trying to genuinely get to know them so I can best design for them is the focus.

Evelyn: Do you think about what you would like to add to your own wardrobe each season when you design each collection?

Emily: Basically I kind of see myself as a filter for lots of different ideas and then what I spit out is in the end the collection.  So definitely one of the inputs is just what I want to be wearing right now. The challenge with that is that what I want to be wearing right now will be in store in six to twelve months time so I kind of have to be mindful of that but dressing is such a personal thing that I put a lot of myself into the design.  There is always going to be an element of what I want to wear but I think as I’ve grown as a designer I’m better at being able to design not just for myself. So thinking about what somebody else would really want and what they would want to be wearing it for and really researching that properly.  Doing Celebrations has really helped because I’m working directly with customers trying heaps of different things on telling me what they actually want as opposed to when I’m in store it’s a little more tricky because the relationship isn’t quite as established.  When I’m just working one on one or with maybe three girls it’s a lot easier for me to understand what they want and they are there to tell me what they want and so it’s basically really amazing research for me. 

Emily Miller-Sharma

Evelyn: Congratulations on the success of Celebrations, I've heard it's going really well, how did it come about?

Emily:It’s about being part of a really cool time in people’s lives.  Celebrations really came along quite naturally because people would come into store and they would want a particular dress but in cream or pink or white or whatever. And we would as much as possible try and accommodate them but it got to a point where unless we put a proper structure around it we weren’t actually giving our customers the type of service that I would want to give them.  So when we launched it at the beginning of last year we had a really good response and it’s been going really well, it’s just something that is evolving over time.  So every person that I work with I learn a new way of approaching them or approaching their situation.  We’ve had quite a few pregnant bridesmaids, no pregnant brides yet.  But pregnant bridesmaids is definitely quite an exciting thing as it’s that time in everyone’s life where it’s like marriage, children, that new kind of phase.  But it also can be a challenge because sometimes bodies change quite quickly in pregnancy so we have to allow enough time to make the dress but also not make it too far in advance so then by the time the wedding day actually arrives the dress doesn’t fit the bridesmaid anymore.  It’s just one of those things that we are kind of learning as we go. It just means you have to be flexible with your designs.

Evelyn: Will you also be designing your own wedding dress for your upcoming wedding?

Emily: Yes, I will be. I’ve been sewing my own clothes for a long time, even though I now no longer physically sew my own clothes anymore but I’ve been making my own clothes since I was in my early teens and it would be so weird for me to work with somebody else now.  Obviously I will be working with Mel our patternmaker, like I do with all of our clothes.  It would just be so weird if it was any other way.  I’m going up to the fabric markets soon and I was starting to think in my mind if now would be the time to start thinking about wedding dress fabrics while I’m there, it probably is.

Evelyn: Online shopping has certainly changed the way customers buy clothes, how do you think it's changed fashion?

Emily: I really feel for people that are going out shopping for their graduation dress or a dress to wear on a date or to wear to a work event or something because it just takes so long to find the thing that you want and that’s one of the things that is so great about online shopping.  You can look around heaps of different stores without needing to get on the bus or get in the car and find a park and then get in and find out that you don’t even really like anything in the shop.  You can also narrow down the thing you like online then go in and try them on.  It used to be limited to NZ and Australia and what wholesale customers you could pick up overseas.  Now we can sell to anyone all over the world which is cool.  It’s just a matter of having a consistent online service and a really clear message of how things can be purchased and our sizing and that kind of stuff.

I definitely noticed when I went down and judged a third year design assignment at Massey in Wellington how much more on trend the collections were than they were when I was in that year.  Because the amount of time that we spent on the internet was like a really small fraction of what they will be spending on the internet now.  And just looking at how quickly they could pick up on trends and how easy it was for them to interpret was really interesting.  Which is on the one hand great because we’re all connected but there’s an article I read a little while ago which was more of a music article but was talking about how everywhere is starting to sound like the Brooklyn sound which is great because it’s universal and this is specifically about America but what the music from the south and the music from the north west and all that kind of stuff?  It’s losing its identity as everything tries to emulate the Brooklyn sound and I guess that’s a sad thing that you kind of need to be a little bit resolute about as a creative.

Evelyn: Speaking of music, how does that influence your work?

Emily: I guess it influences it in that it’s always on. I always have music on, it makes me feel weird if I’m working and I have no music on.  It’s either because the album or the playlist has finished or I’m just about to go or something. But pretty much I am always listening to music.

Evelyn: How about fashion show music?

Emily: The music absolutely envelops everyone in the space, especially at fashion shows where there is like a massive pa and it’s super loud. NZFW this year was great actually, Alistair played the drums at the NOM*D show and it was like 'thank you for the earplugs'.  I think it’s fun to incorporate theatrics into what goes on at a fashion show just because it’s not solely a method to sell to wholesale customers and show media anymore because there are so many other avenues to do that.  So it’s obviously always going to be about the clothes but finding ways to incorporate the brand more and do something which is a little more playful is really great.

Evelyn: Back to influences, how do you feel about the influence of street style?

Emily: It was quite interesting when there were those few shows a couple of years ago that were clearly influenced by street style and you know there has always been movements of clothing that has come up instead of gone down.  Usually things like basketball or skating, they’re more activity based but then there is that whole punk rock music scene that then came up into fashion etc, but it was interesting in terms of street style.  Especially since street style is purely a fashion movement, no other ethos behind it unlike punk rock, so that was kind of interesting because it made the fashion industry seem like such a tight circle.

Evelyn: One of the things I love about Liam is that there’s an ease to your garments, nothing is really super-fitted.

Emily: I guess they tend to be more comfortable, the gowns or the more formal frocks will be more fitted.  But the thing is that it’s unlikely you’re going to get up put a gown on and go to work, stay in the gown and go out for dinner.  So it’s understanding that with most of the things that I’m designing, I’m imagining that you should be able to wear it through your working day into going out that night. So it needs to be able to transition in that way, but obviously there are gowns that are clearly not for 10am on a Thursday morning.

Evelyn: Where do you see the future of Liam, is it something you want to do forever?

Emily: Yeah, I’ve always made clothes so I will always be making clothes, and Liam is something that will exist for as long as I can see.  Liam is not just me as I have a team of people that work with me and it’s important to have a brand that’s not just about this one person. So yeah, I am the designer, but there is a massive team around me that are part of it and I think that it will continue to grow and evolve.

Liam's new Autumn 2015 collection is available at Ruby stores and stockists now as well as online here.

Images by Karen Inderbitzer-Waller for Liam

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