It’s winter in Sydney’s Palm Beach, and nestled in front of a glowing living room fire is Banjo, the family hound of Sass & Bide designer Heidi Middleton.
As the effortlessly cool fashion guru reclines on the couch with her husband and two daughters, she’s relaxed and bubbly– she is so clearly in her comfort zone here. Despite the picture perfect image, Middleton’s confidence and success comes without pretentiousness, and she clearly still lives for the creative life. Billabout steals Middleton away from her family just a few weeks before she leaves for London to show the latest Sass & Bide collection Seekerstate ss12. We chat with her about how her role has changed since the Myer purchase, why they’ve chosen London fashion week over New York, and we discover how they’ve become a global success– including giving Sarah Jessica Parker a jacket from their shoulders.
Why did you guys make the switch from New York to London?
We loved showing in New York, and did for four or five years, but when the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) started to have an effect, sales in the states weren’t escalating. We love London and the idea for the label was born in London , so we have spent a lot of time there; we made the switch and have been showing in London for the past three seasons. Also, in America, we felt like we had to tone things down and ‘Americanize’ the designs. In the UK, we don’t change the look or aesthetic of the brand– there’s no creative dissolution in London, and we are more free to be ourselves. Plus our sales in the UK are great.
Is New York Fashion Week an option again?
You can only show in one market, and so you are forced to choose one place because of the time, money and logistics. People often say, ‘Why don’t you do a big show in Sydney and support your homeland?’ Realistically, to do a big show here and then one six weeks later in London is not physically possible. We try to have a presence here during fashion week…we go out to shows, we are amongst it and we support it. The coverage that you get worldwide from showing in London, New York or Paris is also much broader: you cover every market. It just makes more sense when you are selling internationally, and the UK is one of our biggest markets.
What’s life like in Palm Beach and does being out of the city affect your creativity?
That’s why I moved up here. There’s too much temptation down in the city. I love the contrast of putting your big toe in the mania of the city, and then the peace up here. It’s paradise! Look out there… [sun setting over Pittwater]. I love having this getaway, it feeds the soul and I get re-energized here, but I’d probably find it hard if I didn’t have the stimulation of the city too.
You recently sold a percentage of the company to Myer– congratulations! What’s day-to-day life like for you now? Has it changed?
I’m at work three days a week where essentially I try to fit five days into three. My role hasn’t changed much, I’ve always creatively directed the company and designed the collections. I guess with the size of the company growing, it has intensified, but the team has also grown. Even after the sale, Myer insisted that we run quite autonomously. They said,’ Look, pretend that we are invisible unless you want something.’ I mean we still need to hit our figures and things, but they haven’t touched staff or moved offices, so it still feels the same-ish.
Do you find now that you are in more of a directing role and less hands on, though?
I still design eighty-percent of the collection, and that’s the bit I love. The hard bit is the rest of the business and the deadlines. It’s still a dream in a way. I can’t believe that I get to design things that I love with great people, and with my bestie Sarah-Jane Clarke [co-founder and designer of Sass and Bide].
Where did the name come from?
Sass & Bide is based on Sarah-Jane and my nicknames.
Do you have some stand out memories from your New York shows?
The after parties…I love New York, we have always had a great experience there, and that’s why we kept going back for more.
One funny story from the early days is when Helena Christensen was going to shoot our campaign, and Lizzie Jagger was going to model it. It was all lined up to shoot a couple of days after our show. I got a phone call at 6am on the shoot day that Lizzie had just broken up with her boyfriend Sean Lennon (I’m not normally one to drop names…) and had been up all night crying. She hadn’t slept. She was devastated. So we asked Helena, ‘Will you model, and we will shoot and style it?’ We did, and we got some great shots, but it was one of those mad New York moments.
Do you like the process of showing the collections?
I see the value in showing. It’s very important, especially if you’re trying to build an international presence and brand, but I’d love to be able to do a show without the interviews and all of the other stuff. If I’m happy in my heart with what I’m showing, I care less about what the critics think.
I heard that you walked past a Sex in the City episode being filmed in New York and you gave Sarah Jessica Parker the jacket off your back. True or false?
Yeah! It was actually Sarah-Jane’s jacket. We stumbled upon the set and asked the security guard to give it to her. We saw him walk over and give it to her and she then came over and asked us about it and where she could buy more– she ended up ordering half of the collection.
What advice do you have for Aussies trying to break it internationally?
Just give it a go, cold call, be persistent. You only live once. The worst outcome is not a bad outcome.
Interview by Pete Maiden.