May 2024

Shape Up


About a month ago, with very little fanfare, a shop called Poepke launched the first season of their in-house label, POE.

With one look-book, a short introduction far too congenial to be called a press release and some space made among Poepke’s racks of Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Bernhard Willhelm, POE took its place.

Sometimes barely announcing oneself is a bold statement, and POE’s relative insouciance gives a good insight into its ethos and intention. This is a label that focuses less on whether clothes maketh the woman than it does on who maketh and weareth the clothes.

Fresh from a stint at Eley Kishimoto in London, Olivia Mai is the sketchpad behind POE’s clever and sweetly wearable first collection. While she has obviously taken notes from her time at EK – a lighthearted approach to detailing and eye for contrast are two of POE’s calling cards – POE’s Spring Summer 2011 collection strikes a unique balance between thoughtfulness and spontaneity.

I caught up with Olivia Mai, well into designing POE’s second season, to talk inspirations, resignations and old London town.

Millie Stein: You finished your fashion training in Sydney and then moved to London. What motivated the move?

Olivia Mai: I moved to London because my life in Sydney was too good. I think you’ll find a lot of people say this about why they move. I worked, at the time, not just one job I really liked but two. All my family and friends are here, so I felt like I knew everything there was to know about Sydney and I wasn’t feeling challenged. I’d been to London on holidays before and I’d read UK fashion magazines. It just felt so exciting. I think I wanted an upheaval, and I got it when I moved because it was really competitive in the fashion industry. Everyone says that and it’s true, because every second person you meet is creative, which can be amazing and also frustrating because you’re all going for the same jobs.

MS: Did London change your idea of what a career in fashion was?

OM: I think the ins and outs of fashion in Sydney is different to London, but you get that anyway. Every company does it differently. I think, having worked at Eley Kishimoto, it was so amazing to work with Wakako [Kishimoto] because she’s just a creative dynamo and you couldn’t stop her if you tried. You don’t even really know what she’s thinking until you see it all at the end, so watching her and her concept – she designs everything from head to toe – like how she thinks about print and shape, and watching that come together each season… It was amazing creatively and production-wise.

MS: At what point did Nicola Lie [Co-Director of Poepke] approach you about doing a collection?

OM: I had worked in Poepke before as a shop girl, and I think she must’ve known I was coming back from London because she sent me an email asking me if I was interested in working on this new project, an in-house label. When I got that email I was so excited. I was at work at Eley Kishimoto at the time and I had to run to the archival room just to call my sister and say, “Ah, this great thing is happening!” It couldn’t have come at a better time: I was coming home and didn’t know what I wanted to do here or who I wanted to work for. In London, I knew who I wanted to work for and I got to work for them, so I was on such a high, and to come back I was going to have to work all that stuff out. For Nicola to offer it to me at that time was just amazing, a dream come true. I think Poepke is like one big family. It feels like there’s always a place for you here.

MS: Has it been different designing a range for a shop, as opposed to a label with an established history?

OM: I think it’s the same thing, because I think of it as working for a client. It’s about fitting in with the Poepke philosophy and aesthetic, so when I design for POE that’s what I’m thinking of. Especially when Nicola and I talk about it or she looks at my designs, it’s always the question, ‘Which Poepke customer is going to buy this?’ So I think, even if I worked for an existing label, it would still be about the customer base.

MS: How much do you have to temper your own ideas with what works for Poepke’s customers?

OM: I guess, because we’re just starting, I have to be more aware of what the customer wants. I think once they start to know and trust the label, I can express myself more. But, having said that, when we shot the look book and I saw the looks come together, there is a lot of my personality in the print and how the looks were styled. I showed the shots to my friend who had never seen POE before, and he said it was how he imagined my range would be. So even though I don’t think it’s very me, I think you can’t help but inject your personality. I see it now: the jerseys and how the arm is cut, the print, the fact that the collection is very blue but with pops of mustard – it’s very me. Although I think I have distance from it, I don’t.

MS: What was your focus for the first range?

OM: We concentrated on wardrobe staples, so shirts, trousers, skirts, a coat. Jersey is a big thing I had to think about. They were the shapes, but in terms of what I was inspired by, there are always three things that I like: abstract shape, colour and pattern. I always like those things. When I look on style blogs or image blogs like Ffffound, I notice – and sometimes I laugh – that it’s really predictable the things that I am drawn to. It was really exciting to be able to design a print for this collection and see it go into production.

MS: Tell me about the print you designed.

OM: It’s called Tossed Matchsticks, and I was kind of thinking about something shape-y. It was kind of influenced by a coat I found at Rozelle markets, that idea of a bold print all over a coat. I was influenced by this Japanese pattern book I have, it’s full of kimono prints, but this particular one was so weird, it was a print of lit cigarettes all over a kimono. When I saw it, it just stuck with me.

MS: If you think back to when you were in fashion school, did you think you’d be here now?

OM: You know, you’re in fashion school, so the idea is that you will one day be working on your own label or someone else’s. Straight out of school, I was a design assistant and production assistant for years. It was for labels that I loved, but I always knew there would come a time when I would want to do something for myself. It’s funny, because I feel like I do own this but at the same time I know I am working for Poepke. I have a lot of creative control. There are people who are happy to be working for someone else, which is fine, but I felt like maybe this is the next challenge that I needed… So, did I think I’d be here? Yes!


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