Our sweeping obsession with all things Australia is nothing new. The nation's tourism represents 3 percent — the same amount as in the U.S. — of Australia's total GDP, with an average of 7.4 million annual visitors flocking to its shores, deserts and reefs. But fashion is playing catch up. With an influx of fledgling creative talent and innovative retail experiences cropping up across Sydney, Melbourne and beyond, the U.S. has kept a close eye on the Land Down Under for several seasons now. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Australian design aesthetic — easy, minimal pieces one could wear to both the beach and the office — is especially appealing as we look to streamline our wardrobes. And that's not even mentioning Australia's famously rigid commitment to sustainable manufacturing.
St. Agni, an Australian label that specializes in women's clothing and handmade leather footwear, is doing all that, and then some. Based out of the iconic oceanside town of Byron Bay, 470 miles up the coast from Sydney, the brand is the brainchild of married couple Lara and Matt Fells who started it out of their home while each maintaining their full-time jobs. The whole thing is, for lack of a better descriptor, just very Australian: simple, vaguely earthy silhouettes that evoke afternoons spent in the sun — which explains why it caught my eye while deep in an Instagram Explore pit. I scheduled a phone interview with the Fells' that very next day.
Lara, Matt and I — and technically, their newborn baby, whom I can faintly hear cooing in the background — start off our call by talking about how they met while each was working in retail. Matt, originally from the U.K., was on a working visa in Australia, during which he met Lara in her native Tasmania. The couple went back and forth between the U.K. and Australia — a 20-hour flight — before together relocating to Byron Bay where they continued to work in retail. But they had always wanted to do their own thing. In 2014, St. Agni was born.
"Initially, we really didn't have any funding to start the business, so it kind of started on a whim," says Lara. "We were like, 'Let's just do it — give it everything we've got and just see how it goes.'" Lara explains that because they didn't have the capital to launch in multiple categories, the pair maxed out a credit card with a $10,000 limit — "that's all we had to put into it" — and debuted with a tiny range of bags, followed by shoes and eventually, clothing.
That "less is more" mentality in both business and design carried them through St. Agni's earliest days. Both Lara and Matt stayed at their full-time jobs for at least two years, operating the label from their house and fulfilling orders on nights and weekends. Matt says St. Agni's bags were initially kept in one box in a cupboard, which then grew into several boxes in the laundry room, which then ended up in their bedroom — and soon, it grew to a point where they just couldn't do it on the side anymore. So, they took the plunge, left their jobs in phases and locked down a warehouse with office space and a showroom downstairs. That was when the brand really took off.
Lara notes that the showroom allowed for people — buyers, consumers, whomever — to connect with St. Agni better than had been possible while they were operating from their house. In Australia, people largely wear what they really want to wear — though of course, there are exceptions — and to be able to check out the goods in person is a huge draw. "It's a very laid-back country, isn't it, Australia?" says Matt. "We're so lucky to live in Byron Bay, which is such a relaxed, beach-type town. But I think that stems from having that laid-back look; it can be dressed up when you take it down to a city like Melbourne or Sydney."
Though Byron Bay has a permanent population of just 9,000, it has a booming tourism scene that sees more than a million visitors a year. Much of this, Matt gathers, may have something to do with the artistic juices the town is brewing. "There seems to be lots of independent fashion labels emerging from Byron Bay," he says. "I think that the creativity of this area is contagious; everyone really supports each other." In addition to St. Agni, there's Auguste (for flirty dresses), Arnhem Clothing (for "free-spirited," Bohemian types) and Amilita Boutique (for the eco-minded, ethical consumer). But there are more, and probably more to come.
St. Agni does all of its production locally, in Indonesia — which is technically local in relation to Byron Bay. Lara and Matt stumbled into it almost by accident when, years ago, they began going to Indonesia on vacation, and each time, they'd get a few pieces made.
"We decided that we really wanted to try to source all of the materials from there so we could lower the impact of having to import products and materials into Indonesia," recalls Matt. "It can be very challenging at times because, obviously, they haven't got the scope of somewhere like China or India, but their craftsmanship and their quality is really, really good."
Over the last four years, their Indonesian production team has become family, growing from just three workers in the very beginning to 35 now. Matt notes that it's been nice to see the production team's business grow hand-in-hand with their own. "It's a small community," says Lara. "I feel like if we went somewhere in China, you could go to an office and you wouldn't get to see anyone, but we're really involved." When Lara and Matt are in town, they have a big group dinner with the entire workshop.
Their leather comes out of Indonesia, too, but from an equally small, 50-person tannery and factory on the island of Java. When it came time to decide on St. Agni's tannery, their vetting process was extensive. "That was really important to us, to find out that information before we continued with them," says Matt.
At both factories, they only produce to meet demand. Lara explains that they'll wait until something sells out completely before they re-order, if they re-order at all. "It works well for us, as well, because obviously we're not spending money where it doesn't need to be spent," she says. "We're only spending money on products we know people want." All of this is only really possible at a smaller factory where they can have that communication with the workshop.
In a sense, St. Agni's intentionally itty-bitty production may limit its size; Lara says that in an alternate universe, they probably would've moved to somewhere bigger by now. So, when I ask where they're headed, Matt responds by saying that's a question they're constantly asking themselves, too. "Just naturally, it's growing on its own, so how big do we want it to be?" he says. They certainly don't need to make it "massive," or to have it at every department store. Lara admits they're happy if they can keep it at this pace and level, where it's still boutique-quality, but isn't completely accessible or mainstream.
"We're still so involved with the business, even now — packing shoes in boxes, putting labels on boxes…" starts Matt. "We still cover pretty much every area of the business; we do our own accounting, we do everything. If we go to that next step, then we start employing general managers and CEOs." They're rightfully wary of that, too, because then the label they started to strike out on their own isn't quite all theirs anymore.
Right now, Lara and Matt are perfectly content doing what they do best: creating beautiful, responsibly crafted goods that look and feel like Australia. They had to hustle to get St. Agni to where it is today — why not sit at the top of hill for a bit and enjoy the view?
"It's really hard when you're starting out, especially when you're starting out small," says Lara. "But I think the really important thing, something we've done, is just try to make the right decisions along the way. It doesn't stop here. Every time you're faced with a decision or you have that chance to improve, take it.”
Homepage photo: Lara and Matt Fells (and their dog, Harper) at St. Agni's showroom in Byron Bay. Photo: Courtesy of St. Agni