Backstage at Matteau's Resort 2020 show, things are surprisingly calm for a first-time showing at fashion week. There's no frantic running around or shouting; there isn't even a big fuss over actress Phoebe Tonkin, who is there to walk the runway as a favor to friends and Matteau founders, Ilona Hamer and Peta Heinsen. The sisters are quietly, and perhaps nervously, making the rounds, ensuring that the fit is just right on a buttery yellow goddess dress or adjusting the styling on a rust-colored one piece.
This sense of peace is reflected perfectly in the clothes, a relatively new category for the brand which was originally founded with swimwear. The duo dipped their toes into ready-to-wear with an exclusive capsule for Net-a-Porter back in 2018, and after a "really, really strong" reaction from customers, decided to make it a permanent part of the business. But it all started with a simple black bikini.
"Essentially, we'd been looking to build a business together for a while, and it was really a case of finding that gap," Heinsen says. "We went through a whole lot of ideas, and one day, Ilona just sent to me, 'My God!' She was going away, and she said, 'I just can't find the perfect black bikini. Working at Vogue, I see everything, and I can't find it.' We both looked at each other and we were like, 'That's the opportunity.'"
While the sisters founded Matteau together, they aren't even working on the same continent. Hamer is a stylist and the fashion director for Unconditional, which means she's based in New York City, while Heinsen is in Sydney with the rest of their team. The business runs on Australian time, presenting a big challenge for Hamer. "She comes home at night after being on set all day, and because evening in New York is our early morning, we do Skype, we do it all," Heinsen explains. "She works into the night a lot."
Hamer serves as creative director — "She's pulling in imagery every single day; she brings so much of that inspiration," her sister says — while Heinsen executes the vision with the Matteau team. Nearly everything is produced in Australia, which is as much a question of supporting their local factories as it is ensuring quality. The duo like knowing who made the clothes they're selling and knowing that Australia's strict labor laws are being enforced. As with the US, however, it is not without its challenges; when they expanded into knitwear, there was not enough production capability at home, so they had to go elsewhere.
"The more people take their production offshore, the more people are going out of business," Hamer explains. "The factories are not surviving because they don't have the volume of work. For us, it's important. We're trying to obviously grow our scale so we can make sure they also stay in business."
That dedication to ethical and sustainable style is part of the core of Matteau's business. They use recycled cardboard for packaging and don't include anything else, so that it can be thrown right back into the cycle without waste, and are working with Epicor Clothing Australia to audit their factories and become certified under their guidelines. They are also currently in the process of exploring sustainable swimwear options, weighing the pros and cons of the materials available on the market.
"There's different grades of product; you have stuff that comes from recycled fishing nets, but then the nylon yarn that you get from that is inferior to nylon yarn that is made from scratch, so you don't necessarily get as good a product in terms of the yarn," Heinsen says. "For us, it's about finding the right thing that we know is going to last, because we have very good longevity in our garments. Our swimwear can last you three seasons."
That ethos carried to the runway, where Heinsen and Hamer thoughtfully cast a diverse group of women to represent the brand across race, age and body types. "It's real life! That is the world," Heinsen says. (It is worth noting the brand's sizing metric currently stops at a size 10.) Since it was the first time they were presenting Matteau beyond a static image — they've never done movies or any real-life presentations until this — it presented the perfect opportunity to show what the sisters stand for.
"The way I see the world now, you don't really buy a brand just for the brand or the pieces; you want to buy something because you agree with what those people are doing, what they say." Hamer says. "I just think that there's people who don't think about things, and they bang things out, or they're trying to make money. I like only putting out things that have a lot of integrity, that are very beautiful and thought about, and that's just a better way of living for us."