Culture. Petty crime. Glamour. Sex work. Nightlife. Problem drug use. Throughout its history St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street has been many things to many people. But even those who maintain an undying love for the strip would agree it’s seen better days. By one estimate the current vacancy rate is 21 per cent, making it one of the city’s most neglected high streets.
Renew Australia is used to dealing with numbers like these. Founded in 2011, the social enterprise works to reinvigorate ailing streets and suburbs, and ultimately improve the fabric of entire towns and cities. Its predecessor, Renew Newcastle, helped the town rebuild after the 2008 financial crisis, and its model has been taken up internationally.
The organisation works with landlords, traders’ associations and local councils to find vacant spaces, and offer them to fledgling creative businesses rent-free or at a low cost on a rolling basis. Landlords can continue to advertise their buildings for sale or rent, and in some cases the tenants appointed by Renew Australia are the ones who stick around to pay the rent. House House, the Melbourne indie game studio that developed surprise hit Untitled Goose Game and sold more than a million copies, is one of the organisation’s most notable success stories.
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“Renew Australia exists to provide opportunities for creatives to trial ideas, build capacity and engage with the public,” says CEO Angela Simons. “Our projects have benefitted lots of different stakeholders. The creatives, obviously, by providing them with the space to work, experiment and take risks. But of course it also benefits a lot of other people along the way, including the broader community.”
Its newest project is a growing cluster of seven shops on Fitzroy Street, made possible with $75,000 each from Port Phillip Council and the Fitzroy Street Business Association. The first four shops opened in March, and the remaining three in June. Like all Renew spaces, they’re designed to complement and enhance what’s already on the street, rather than compete with it. The idea is to grow foot traffic, build community and hopefully, revive the strip for everyone.
“A lot of the creative spaces in Melbourne are tucked down laneways, upstairs in warehouses. It’s very much who you know, or if you’re in the know,” Simons says. “What we find is, there’s quite often a separation between the creative industries and the general public. Having visible creative spaces can be a demonstration of future use.”
Sophie Brabenec grew up hanging around Fitzroy Street and now runs Calistags Plants, one of the four businesses that arrived in March.
“The first two or three weeks were an absolute hurricane of activity,” she says. “So many people coming in, so many people interested, so many people wanting to talk about what’s happening on Fitzroy Street, talk about the initiative, talk about what they see for the future, talk about why they think Fitzroy Street has gone the way it’s gone, talk about the history of Fitzroy Street, talk about their personal association with Fitzroy Street. It’s been exhausting in the most beautiful of ways.
“One of the things that’s amazing about this initiative is, particularly as I’m doing it on my own, that I have six other shops and a dozen people that are my comrades. Every day we can compare notes and experiences, we can bail each other out. I feel really lucky that they’re the people I’ve ended up with and there is that support.”
She’s since received some local commissions, including styling plants a few doors up at Tolarno restaurant for Mirka’s Birthday, and the Star Health offices at the recently opened Victorian Pride Centre, also close by.
Here’s a quick rundown of all the current Renew Fitzroy Street businesses:
Farm Goat’s Greg Egan hand-makes luxe soaps using olive oil, coconut oil and goats milk sourced personally from a farm near Echuca. But it’s the botanicals and essential oils that make his soaps really shine: lime and roasted coconut, rosemary and ginger, lemongrass and sumac, and orange and lemon myrtle being four such combinations. Egan was a chef for more than two decades, and it shows. Visit his rustic, timber-accented space to shop the full range.
Mike Stretch Finds
If any shop at Renew Fitzroy Street personifies St Kilda, it’s this streetwear retailer, which harks back to the suburb’s days as a skate destination and home to alternative culture more generally. Owner Michael Vaughan started selling online in 2018. In person he’s continuing his mission to stock cult local brands such as Badlands, Long & Lost, Days of When and more. Pop by for a statement hoodie, cap or T-shirt.
St Kilda Artworks Collective
This three-in-one space houses three complementary businesses. There’s Sam Sagginelli’s Flo & Co, specialising in seasonal, Australian grown flowers styled and installed for events. She also runs fun workshops that teach people how to choose, prepare and arrange flowers.
The second tenant is fibre artist Peter “Mr Macrame” Williams, who makes colourful earrings, plant hangers and decorative wall pieces from cotton cord and other materials. Like Sagginelli, he runs workshops to share his expertise.
Third tenant Rus Kitchin is a painter, muralist and digital artist with a kaleidoscope of influences, from cyberpunk and dystopian worlds to various sects, cults and syncretic religions around the world.
Pluginhuman is a multi-award-winning art-technology duo, Dr Betty Sargeant and Justin Dwyer, who have exhibited at major festivals and institutions in Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Brazil. Playing with light, projection and the moving image, their work frequently addresses nature, the environment and other pressing contemporary issues. While their space is primarily a studio, they’ve also begun selling editioned prints from it too.
“As long as they’re not having meetings, the door is open for people to come in and ask questions and learn more about what they do,” Simons says. “People can come and see the inner workings and happenings of this type of creative project. But actually, one of the reasons they were selected for the project is, the installations they can do in the window, 24 hours a day, to bring light, art and vibrancy to the street.”
Actor Sophie Brabenec was between projects in Los Angeles (hence “Cali”) when she started began selling her “living art” – epiphytes such as staghorn (hence “stags”) and elkhorn ferns mounted on timber plates, ready to hang on your wall. They’re perfect for small spaces. Brabenec takes much of her styling inspiration from Japan and Korea, where small homes are the norm, and stocks 50-plus plant species including jungle carpets, birds nest ferns and orchids. All her pieces, including kokedama, are made on site.
A murano glass dolphin lamp, a quilted powder blue chair and a transparent polycarbonate coffee table are a few of the statement pieces you might find at this postmodern homewares store. Owners Courtney DeWitt and Corine Auzou have a penchant for Italy and 1980s design movement Memphis Milano. They source and restore original pieces featuring lurid colours and asymmetrical forms. Keep an eye on Instagram to see what’s new – the rarer and more coveted pieces don’t stay long.
Art at the Thomas
Ceramicist Cinda Manins and mixed-media visual artists Robert Lee Davis and Rebecca Garfield run this traditional exhibition space together. Wander through to view paintings, sculptures, ceramics and other visual art, all of which changes frequently. The gallery hosts regular artist talks and how-to workshops for those keen to engage with the local scene further.