Editor's note: This story was photographed and written just before the fires in Australia grew to their current devastating state. We were deeply inspired by the women we met in Australia, particularly by their forward thinking approach to sustainability. The fires are a tragic wake up call that we must change the ways we consume, produce, and live our lives in order to protect this planet. Our hearts are with the people and animals who are being directly affected by this crisis, and you can join us in giving to the Australian Red Cross here to help those in need.
Byron Bay, Australia may very well be the buzziest beach town in the world right now -- and it's no small thanks to sisters Elizabeth Abegg and Isabella Pennefather. The Melbourne-raised siblings co-founded their fashion line, Spell & The Gypsy Collective, there well over a decade ago when the the town was still a sleepy beachside community of hippies and nomads. Today, Spell is a global brand, and Byron boasts an exciting food and design scene that draws residents from all over the world.
It's impossible to talk about what's happening in Byron without at least one footnote to Isabella and Elizabeth's enormous success -- typically followed by "And they're so nice!"
The siblings are widely credited for drawing other creatives to Byron Bay, and for influencing the fashion world with their commitment to sustainability. All that aside, we love Spell for its constant character. Every season is dreamy, feminine, and thoughtfully detailed. And now that we've been inside their gorgeous headquarters (which feels more like a beach house than an office) we're even more devoted to the brand and everything it stands for. Scroll down to go inside the Spell headquarters, and find out exactly how this pair of sisters turned their dreams into a global business.
Sisters Isabella Pennefather (left) and Elizabeth Abegg (right) at the Spell & the Gypsy Collective head office.
You’re known for being one of the companies that really put Byron on the map in terms of style and design. What led you to start your business here?
Elizabeth: My sister and I are Melbourne girls originally, but we both left our hometown around 15 years ago. Isabella moved up to Byron and I moved to Sydney. She had been hand-making jewelry forever but once she moved to Byron she had the artisan markets on her doorstep, not to mention an abundance of new inspiration all around her – it wasn’t long before her jewelry developed a small but cultish following in town. That’s when I moved up from Sydney and I was struck by how much the town was acting as a kind of incubator for brands. The lifestyle we led really shaped our brand, and Byron Bay turned out to be the third character in our story – it was the backdrop to everything we were creating!
Is there a story behind the very unique name of your brand?
Isabella: My name is Isabella, when we were growing up, my three other sisters would just shorten that name to "Spell" when they were calling out to me. If you say Isabella really fast over and over, it becomes SPELL. So that’s what I named my jewelry label. In those days we were actually selling a few local labels in our boutique so we called it a collective because that’s what it was!
We love the femininity of Spell designs. Who or what inspired the vision for the brand?
Isabella: The feeling of the brand sort of evolved organically over time, but from the beginning we were both inspired by our fathers’ leather crafting days back in the 70’s… he was so creative, constructing leather bags and sandals and burning incense in his little store up in QLD. He was a true free-spirited hippy! I’m sure that rubbed off on us somehow. Lizzy and I were both very inspired by the vintage pieces and jewelry we found in Byron Bay amongst our friends who were fellow designers and vintage collectors, that had a huge impact on our early collections. Now I visit California regularly and do shopping trips to gather all the juicy treasures they have to offer. Their flea markets and vintage stores are just incredible over there. So that is a huge inspiration to our brand these days.
Living in Byron Bay has also definitely shaped what our brand has grown to be. It’s such an idyllic, summery, holiday destination, which keeps our collections colourful, comfortable, feminine and beautiful, but always with a vintage twist.
Tell us about how you source your prints and fabrics — each one is so special.
Isabella: We design all our prints from scratch, we find inspiration from old vintage dresses and fabrics we find at markets and vintage fairs, we use tiny little elements from those and then mix it with so much other inspiration! We find a lot of imagery online, and Pinterest, like everyone else. But we work very hard with our textile designers to get the prints just right. I will sometimes debate over one color in a print a hundred times just to get it right, then change it again when it comes in! All our prints are hand drawn and are worked on for weeks and months to perfect. We have also created our own fabrics over the years to become a lot more sustainable. That’s an ongoing journey for us, but we are so happy with some of the fabrics we use. We hate anything flat and stiff; all our fabrics usually have a lovely drape or a textured finish, which makes all of our pieces just a little more special.
Your office space is incredible. What was your approach to designing the space?
Elizabeth: We used the building’s original structure as our blank canvas, so everything we created flowed on from that. The space used to be a wood carving factory and all the reclaimed beams were erected when it was built – they offset the clean, white, open spaces with a beautiful earthy, rustic feel.
We wanted the space to feel like an escape, because that’s the state that best fits with our creative process.
Ultimately an office space needs to be conducive to creativity and focus, so the cleaner and brighter the better. We achieved this with a white resin floor that helps reflect light, lots of wide-open spaces, but also little breakout spaces and nooks that you can get away to if you want to have a private meeting or brainstorm. We also use a lot of homewares to give the space a soft and restorative feeling. It’s funny, we moved in over two years ago and I still love every square inch of the place!
Spell is really a leader in the world of sustainable fashion. In what ways are you making your designs eco-friendly?
Elizabeth: Thank you! It’s incredible to hear you suggest we are leading. I do believe we’re beginning to see movement toward a more sustainable approach within the garment industry at large and I’d love to believe we’re playing a small part in that! Our sustainability strategy is quite broad, because in an industry as complex as the fashion industry there are so many areas to tackle. It encompasses everything from responsible sourcing and transparency to circularity and innovation. One of our biggest focus areas at Spell is the fabrications we use in our designs, because raw materials play a major role in contributing to the overall environmental impact of a garment. We also work hard to communicate the environmental benefits of these fibres to our customers – I think one of the biggest drivers of change is educating the customer and taking them on this journey with us. I know from my own experience, since I started learning more about sustainability my own shopping behaviours have totally shifted. One of the other key areas of focus for us is having close relationships with our makers - they're like an extended family. It's a priority for us to understand where our clothing is made as well as going one step further and run Artisan programs where our focus is to support marginalised artisans all over the world.
There’s an adventurous travel thread running through every collection you design. Are certain destinations inspiring you right now? Where will you go next?
Isabella: Yes, each collection is definitely inspired by a place. Sometimes it’s somewhere I haven’t been, like Between Sea and Sky which was inspired by my dreams of going to Positano. Other ranges, like Sunset Road (which we shot on Erin Wasson) was inspired by my family road trip across Arizona. Most recently, we travelled to the northern point of Australia to shoot our Seashell campaign which was one of our most memorable experiences.
My ultimate dream would be to ride a camel through the Moroccan desert to a Bedouin tent and sleep under the stars! Hopefully we can manifest that one one day!
What advice would you have for a young woman interested in getting started in sustainable design?
Elizabeth: I’d say firstly, if you are starting a brand as sustainable as you can from scratch, rather than having to retro-fit it, you’re well ahead of the game.
I think it is important to build a brand with the assumption that very soon ALL brands will need to be sustainable, and not to rely on sustainability as your point of difference.
There are some incredible resources available to conscious entrepreneurs these days. Gobble up as many great podcasts as you can, I’d start with Clare Press’s Wardrobe Crisis and Big Closet Small Planet and read ALL the books by Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard. Finally, it’s important to decide what your own values are in this space because they’ll help inform which areas of sustainability you want to focus on, for inspiration, research your favorite brand’s sustainability strategies and see what you resonate with.
Describe the Spell girl in five words or fewer.
Isabella: Feminine, free-spirited, creative, passionate, mother.