Fashion designer Hayley Smith and photographer Mclean Stephenson produce work that sits outside of what’s considered popular, but which is still commercially successful.
Their commitment to what they value artistically can be credited, in part, to the six years they have spent subconsciously honing a shared aesthetic, and supporting each other in times of doubt over the course of their relationship.
“I’ve definitely learnt to be stronger and say what I want," says Smith. “Sometimes you get walked over. Now I say, ‘no’. Mclean’s definitely taught me that you don’t have to please everyone.”
Smith knew she wanted to be a fashion designer at the age of five, and doggedly pursued her dream. She launched fashion label Serpent & the Swan in 2010 with her sister, Lauri Smith. The brand has shown at multiple fashion weeks in Australia and internationally. New York is next on the agenda.
In contrast, Stephenson first picked up a camera six years ago, a gift from his parents, and became obsessed. This culminated in an exhibition and book launch, both titled Extracts. These featured his portraits (many of well-known musicians) and landscapes at Black Eye Gallery in Sydney's Darlinghurst in July last year.
During our interview at their seaside apartment in Bondi, the conversation becomes animated when we discuss how they met. They have differing stories, but what they can agree on includes a record store in Newtown and a hilarious reggae party that led to the fortuitous pairing, a wedding in 2013, and the pint-sized Brussels griffon puppy named Frida nestled between the two throughout our conversation.
Smith describes their shared creative practice as, “A big moving beast, it criss-crosses, there are lots of paths.”
“But there are lots of diversions and differences as well,” Stephenson adds.
The camera given to Stephenson by his parents was a Canon digital, very different to the analogue models he uses to shoot with today.
“A good friend of mine, Glen Wilkie, who is a well-known photographer, shoots everything on film. I was looking at his images and thought they looked so different. I realised then I needed to start shooting on film,” he says.
The transition required a lot of equipment and cameras. Much of the film Stephenson uses has been out of production for a long time.
“The freezer is full of really old film. I’m buying film that expired 40 years ago and there is no assurance it will work. And I’m taking it up the mountain and hoping it does.”
Although he is now employed by record companies to shoot well-known musicians, including Bill Callahan, The Drones and The Preatures, it’s his own practice, the portraits and landscapes, that are more meaningful to him.
“When I’m up in the mountains I use bigger cameras. They are extraordinarily slow to use, so it’s sort of a meditative process. It’s not about doing something that is going to work for someone else, it’s about doing the right thing for what I am taking the picture of,” he says.
Similar to Stephenson, music plays a big part in Smith’s work. “At our 2014 Australian Fashion Week show we had Sarah Blasko play for us. At that point it felt like it was all coming together,” she says.
As far as formal collaborations go, Stephenson shot the first ever Serpent & the Swan campaign and, Smith is quick to point out, he’ll be the only one to ever do it. He has also taken hundreds of portraits of Smith, some of which appear in Extracts.
“I’m not particularly fond of a lot of commercial photography, so I’m not in any way motivated to replicate it,” he says, “I think I’ve been fortunate through persistence – some people have come around to seeing things my way.”
Similarly, Smith explains, “We’ve had a lot of people telling us otherwise, but we just continue doing what we love and I think that’s why we’re still around, because we have a strong vision and it’s unlike anyone else’s.”