Virginia Martin’s clothing label Bul (pronounced with a short, hard ‘u’, like gull or skull) was born following a trip to Mexico. It was there that her love of the coast manifested itself as the driving force and philosophy of the label. Her latest collection is a homage to New Zealand’s rugged and varied coastline, which follows on from winter’s sojourn to Lithuania, which was rich with cold, northern European motifs and fabrication.
There had been earlier incarnations and other careers. When she was 19, with the confidence and exuberance you expect of a 19-year-old, she first created the Bul label. A year at RMIT’s clothing production course was all she needed to set the wheels in motion. But by 23, bigger cities called, as they often do. With her early experience under he belt, she picked up internships with some of New York’s most respected designers – Proenzer Schouler, Cynthia Rowley and Heatherette.
Bul version 1.0 was over.
Following the trip to Mexico, Martin returned to Melbourne. But soon enough, a job with west coast brand Trovata took her back to the States. Fortunately for us – not so much for Trovata – the brand fell to pieces and Martin returned home. “There wasn’t even a designer,” she jokes. “What were they going to do with an assistant?”
At the end of 2008, Bul version 2.0 began.
So Bul, with the short ‘u’, is actually Martin’s nickname, which her little brother gave her when she was little, as he had trouble with Virginia. How Bul became the solution is anyone’s guess, but it stuck.
Upon entering the city store, Martin sits on a sofa at the back of the room – the kind of Danish thing made cool in this setting, her navy and white striped knitted skirt and long sleeve top making it more so.
This Curtin House space was Bul’s first store and it very quickly expanded to include what could be considered the company flagship on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, which opened a year later while the city store gave half of its space to an office-studio for the growing brand.
Studio spaces are always the best part of a brand experience and the most interesting part of any visit. What gets left out, what’s on show, what’s been collected or even cast aside – it says more than a website or a carefully edited look book could ever possibly say. Clean or messy, staged or not, the studio is the truth. With her assistant Emily Davis, Martin runs a tight ship.
To the rear, a rack of next season’s samples is building towards its place in a photo shoot or showroom. Full of soft yellows, warm blacks, whites and stripes – plus a signature feather print to represent the brand’s Kiwi trip – it’s also full of the tactile qualities that have become Bul hallmarks: peach skinned cottons, suede-like silks and super soft jerseys. Ranges have grown and pieces have become more involved and detailed. This summer sees beautiful golden clasps and closures at the necks of dresses and tops, while fabrics and cloths feel less generic and more bespoke. This collection will also see the arrival of sunglasses for the very first time. Add to this shoes, jewellery, swimwear, bags and candles, and Martin‘s either bitten off more than she can chew or she’s empire building.
Around the office and the store are happy-go-lucky collected knickknacks that have a mid-century sensibility and craft-like quality, be it an old box of table tennis balls, a series of ascending wooden lighthouses or an old model ship. They all hint at the coast or being on the beach. The shop itself is like an old boatshed: slatted and ‘aged’ white timber has become shelves, seats and supporting walls. Despite its naivety there’s a control that Martin demonstrates without it ever feeling so, which is the best kind. The same can be said for the new sunglasses. Martin is in charge, knows when to apply her touch and knows when to pull back or let it be.
This kind of self-control is why this is Bul’s third year stocked in Myer (in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth), where the 90 or so pieces she presents per collection have taken residence. Add a healthy wholesale business, a pop-up store at The Strand in Sydney (with talk of something more permanent up there soon), Bul is an overnight success story in only two iterations, with a stay in New York, a trip to Mexico and false start in LA along the way.
Bul’s Estonia line is on sale now. New Zealand drops soon.