Leo Strange the Label

I met Emily-Louise and Melissa of Leo Strange for a chat at their studio on a sunny day in Perth, Western Australia. Producing absolutely natural, wonderfully colourful banana silk and Khadi fabric wardrobe staples in India, the garments are dyed and manufactured by long time friends they met during their time in India. Both having gone to India for different reasons, they returned back to Australia with a common goal; to support Indian artisans and produce clothing respecting ancient, natural practices. To them the best form of help is not charity; they believe in trade not aid. Read on about their journey to founding Leo Strange and about their thoughts on reactions to slow fashion.

Emily went to India initially to work with her friends’ NGO in Pushkar which was giving education to local kids. While on her trip there, she discovered factories which had a lot of fabric waste from saris; she decided to utilise these to create a small range of kimonos. Melissa on the other went out to Puducherry to work at a bar with her manager at the time; it was during her time there that she met the man now doing their natural dyeing. When Emily and Melissa met back in Australia, they felt that they complemented each other perfectly; while Emily was design-oriented because of her fashion design degree from Bournemouth, Melissa had always handled the numbers game better. For Melissa, her journey to starting Leo Strange with Emily was like coming full circle; she had made her own clothes when she was 16 but felt there was no money in the fashion industry so she “did medical science, dropped out, went travelling for six years and came back to the same place that I always wanted to be at which is doing this”. 

It is almost hard to believe that Leo Strange is still such a young label; the girls have already sold at multiple markets happening in Fremantle, created beautiful editorials as well as found niche textiles through their friends in India. For Emily one of the most principal aspects of making clothes was to support the Indian artisans and help them thrive through sustainability; “because we both had that close connection in India and we could see what was happening there and we could see how much you needed trade not aid. To be able to be a part of that process is brilliant, to see people who are actually making a difference”. They wanted to do this by creating wardrobe staples, using distinctively Indian textiles. Melissa’s approach was based on the belief that “if you really wanna help a culture like India you need to kind of let them educate themselves and let them have the opportunity to decide what they wanna do”. It’s about bringing back a community effort, where people get to dabble with textile heritage that has been a part of their culture for centuries, and using that to sustain themselves. The girls at Leo Strange also see this as an excellent way to preserve their vast history with textile making; “you see a lot of loss of tradition in India in terms of weaving, embroidery, and a lot of the these things are kind of just disappearing” explained Melissa.

One thing all slow fashion brands struggle with is keeping up with fast fashion, and it is just something that you have to come in terms with and accept. Emily says this is something they have learned after setting up the brand: “we’ve realised along the way that they do come up with more problems cos the process just does take so much longer, but you have to allow more time and work a bit slower”. For them, what was important was being advocates of change within the fashion system. The girls found their passion for slow fashion in very different ways; Emily from within the machine that is fast fashion, and Melissa looking from the outside in. Emily had been working as a visual merchandiser for the high street for 10 years, and was seeing the negative impacts; the mindless consumption that never satisfied the hungry customers and the relentlessness of big fast fashion companies. This for her, took the fun out of fashion; as a person who loved personal style and finding unique secondhand pieces, she couldn’t be a part of a system that, ironically, had so little regard for clothing. Melissa on the other hand was inundated with questions about where our clothes were made, and kept being around people who were looking for answers. Having always had a sustainability driven mindset, it was a natural next step for her to pursue how artisan communities could sustain themselves with crafts. 

rather than consuming through fast fashion, following the trends, people would embody their own style

I was very interested in finding out about the community in Fremantle, Western Australia, where Leo Strange the Label is based. From what I had seen, it seemed like one of the most supportive, creative and environmentally conscious places I had been to. “Someone else will come here like ‘these people.. No one wears bras’. It’s cool you know, you can wear anything here and people will be like ‘oh you look nice’. I think it’s really rare. I grew up in Brisbane and you walk down the street and everybody looks the same” explains Melissa about the people in Freo. It’s kind of like an ideal eco friendly bubble for a creative looking to spend time with like minded individuals with a penchant for dressing for themselves and nobody else. “Most people are apart of the community and doing something, so it might not be in fashion but it might be they have a little side project where they’re planting trees” says Melissa. The locals have also responded to their collection quite positively; Emily explained that “people love the banana fabric cos it’s something new that people haven’t really heard of before”. For them it isn’t about making people work hard to become conscious consumers; instead they are taking the approach of making the clothes accessible, affordable and easy to wear. “I don’t think anyone wants to buy unethically, like if you had a choice of two t-shirts and they were the same price, and one wasn’t ethical and one wasn’t, obviously you’re gonna buy ethical” says Melissa, clarifying how people want options, variety and convenience, because most simply don’t have the time to go out and do their research.

Made in India has bad connotations for a lot of shoppers; this is something Leo Strange has struggled with. Having originated from sweatshop labour that Western fast fashion companies set up in Asia, the idea of bad quality manufacturing doesn’t actually have anything to do with the skill of Asian artisans and craftsmen; only the pace at which clothes need to be made for these companies. “It’s hard, cos you kind of get a bit angry, but people don’t know. It’s not fair to expect them to understand that Asia has been at the center of textiles. I think before the Silk Road, all you could get in Europe was linen” explains Melissa. 

For countries that have their history and culture steeped in textiles and storytelling through fabric, these artisans are a huge part of the identity of that country. “You don’t want to take trade away from those countries where it’s their livelihood. You can’t stop working in those countries because they will fall apart” says Emily. The key is to change perceptions of manufacturing quality, and keep utilising skilled craftsmen all over the world. For Melissa, it is about finding a better future, and opportunities for highly skilled artisans in developing countries: “I wanna keep understanding that how can we take the way that you weave silk saris, and  turn that into something that’s gonna be a little bit better for the western world, so that you guys can still earn your money”.

When asking about their 10 year goals, both of the girls had clear ideas about where they were headed. It’s comforting to see brands that have a vision of what kind of change they want to make and how they are going to execute it. Melissa’s goal is to become a household name in Australia. Melissa would like to set up their own farms where they grow the crops, but that is more a 40 year goal she jokes. “The banana industry is really big in Australia as well, so we could start weaving our fabric here” says Melissa. Emily on the other hand finds a strong online presence the key; this ensures that their costs do not go up and opens the brand up to fast fashion shoppers. She feels the key to the success of slow fashion is the attitudes of the individuals: “if you bring back that connection and that love for your clothes, you won’t wanna buy fast fashion, because you’ll be so excited about your garment, that it means something to you, that you don’t wanna have that throw away fashion mentality”. Transparency is clearly apparent on the Leo Strange the Label website, and has an important part in the future of the brand as well: “When we do have more money, we’ll open up our own artisan houses where we can monitor everything that happens and have complete control” says Emily.

You don’t want to take trade away from those countries where it’s their livelihood

Written and photographed by Jennie Barck

Find more Leo Strange and purchase the items here.