Noosa-raised, Sydney-based clothing designer Sam Elsom is master of his eponymous fashion label elsom.. He could also be described as a ‘brand guardian’ of sorts. Both leading Aussie fashion label Bracewell and global surf brand Quiksilver have entrusted their precious identities to Sam’s keen design eye with dazzling results. His determined gaze has one eye on quality design and the other fixed firmly on ethical practices, from the growing of organic cotton in India to the spinning of sustainable fabrics in Italy, and manufacturing at home in Sydney. He’s even making textiles out of cow’s milk and recycled plastic bottles. His dream is to continue to fly the flag for sustainable fashion.
Sam Elsom comes across as an earnest kind of guy. As we chat over the phone he responds to each question in a gentle, considered tone, pausing now and then to order his thoughts. He’s also a humble soul – using the word ‘fortunate’ a lot – although it soon becomes clear it isn’t good fortune that has delivered his success but rather pure dedication, guts and innovation on his part.
Sam’s understated disposition runs right through his men’s and women’s label, elsom., which has been going great guns since its launch in 2006. His suits, dresses, pants, blouses, scarves, slips, jeans, tees and hot little minis are tailored with aching precision and designed to a simple, slick and sexy aesthetic, using only the finest organic and sustainable textiles. Glance through his online collections at www.elsom.com.au and you’ll instantly detect his penchant for supreme tailoring, inspired by days of old when the suit was part of a gentleman’s daily get-up.
Sam’s also recently teamed up with Quiksilver to design a range of suits for surfers and now a lifestyle range – Quiksilver X Elsom – that is manufactured in Australia using organic textiles. Sam is proud to note he has complete creative control over the new label from woe to go, ensuring the collection is run along the same ethical values as his own label.
Sam’s aesthetic has come a long way since his late teens when his wardrobe was all boardshorts and flip-flops. After graduating from high school in Noosa, Sam deferred a medical degree and travelled to London. There he indulged his childhood love for art and illustration, enrolling in a three-month art course at the famous Central St Martins College of Art and Design. “I thought I’d just do it as a bit of time out, but then I got right into it and it opened my eyes to another world,” Sam recalls. That world was colourful and vibrant and powerfully magnetic. It drew him to enrol in another six months of fashion design where he says the most valuable lessons were in discipline, time management and work ethic.
When Sam returned home to live in Sydney the first opportunity to present itself was a one-week work experience assignment with elegant Aussie label, Bracewell. At the time, designer Michael Bracewell had just employed a young female design graduate and was looking for a second spirited soul to share the daunting task of taking his label to fresh new heights. Unbeknownst to Sam, Michael had already pored over his portfolio and was impressed. Bracewell gave Sam a set of mundane administrative tasks for the week and also asked him to design two pieces for the new collection. “So I did it and at the end of the week I went back to working in a bar,” Sam explains matter-of-factly, as if designing two garments for an established label was as straightforward as posting some envelopes. “Soon after I got a call up saying they were interested in employing me and the pieces were selling really well,” he says, smiling audibly down the phone line.
He eagerly devoted the next three-and-a-half years to designing Bracewell collections and is still appreciative of the career-defining opportunity. When Sam started his own label of t-shirts in 2004, straight after working for Bracewell, he admits he wasn’t quite sure if it was the right timing. “You just have to have the confidence to step out.” His advice to young guns is to get business training and that “… you can never have enough experience”.
Ever the entrepreneur, Sam soon built his label beyond t-shirts into a quality designer collection for men and women. His grand scheme was to create superior organic and sustainable textiles worthy of high-end fashion. At the time, organic fabrics certainly weren’t a fashionista’s dream – they were viewed as hippy, heavy and unrefined.
So in 2006 he set off to his local Indian take-away joint in Glebe. Clenched in his hand was a list of fair-trade organic-cotton farmers in India he might like to do business with. “I asked the guy at the store to call the farmers and, yeah, we ended up forming a relationship with these farms,” Sam says. To this day he places utmost value on supporting farmers in developing countries as he feels there’s a lot of positive impact to be made, even from small relationships like the ones elsom. sustains.
Next, Sam rang an Italian mill in Lake Como and convinced them to get involved. “So we were getting organic cotton from India and sending it to an Italian mill and they were turning it into some of the finest cottons that have ever been in organic fashion,” Sam spells it out for me. “Then we started working with a Chinese silk company, obtaining silk from one of the last natural silk habitats in the world and making the most beautiful silk and cotton blends.”
“You can never stop working if you want to,” Sam shares of his passion for experimenting with new sustainable fabrics and finding ways of bringing ethics into the manufacturing side of the industry. He later tells me he lives above his atelier in Redfern so I’m sure he really doesn’t ever stop working. “We’re continually sourcing new ideas and trying to make those happen. The research and development is endless because we’re forever coming up with concepts and trying to create them.”
Sam’s current schemes involve working with a group in Switzerland who use cow’s milk to craft a sustainable, chemical-free fabric and another company that makes sequins out of recycled bottles. I ask Sam how he gets around the high-cost challenge of working with organic textiles and he says he doesn’t. “We have to wear it,” he says, no pun intended.
“We know from our own research that if you have two of exactly the same designs and one is cheaper, customers will always go for the cheaper option.” Instead, elsom. adds value for its customer in other ways such as through superior fabrics, uber-cool and comfy designs and quality tailoring.
He says he feels fortunate that elsom. has succeeded, although it’s pretty clear it’s his nous and resourcefulness that has helped him achieve big things. “I think it’s good fortune but I also feel there’s kind of a goodness to it that helps it succeed. I feel like what we’re doing is fundamentally good and not necessarily for our own commercial gain; it’s more to try to educate people and change people’s perception of what organic textiles and organic fashion can be.”