We’re sitting in Amie Darragh’s studio in the front room of a quaint little house in North Carlton. Chatting about the yet-to-be-released debut collection of her label KINAOK, the designer has an almost timid, softly spoken way about her. Though she’s just received a delivery of her first range, her bashful visage seems to belie that of the fashion world.
The range, too, possesses a particular subtlety. Inspired by vintage outdoor wear, winter sports and the American TV series Friday Night Lights, the collection consists of fitted shirts, puffer vests, woollen tracksuit pants, silk dresses with pussy bows and stadium jackets, for women. “I was obsessed with the show,” she offers smilingly. “We’d watch three or four episodes in a row. It’s kind of like high school football down in the south. Like 90210 but a bit more mature maybe.” Another smile.
Like Darragh, there is an understated sense of detachment to the line, which teams sportswear cool with pretty, feminine pieces. The signature garment of KINOAK’s inaugural season is the ‘I Heart Riggins’ jacket, named after a character in the show. “They all sort of get around in those big oversized jackets and the girls often wear their boyfriend’s jackets,” says Darragh. “It’s great.”
Her pieces are highly detailed, but in subtle ways. Italian zips punctuate wool and leather, while hand-printed and dyed silk and bamboo blend linings rest alongside Japanese cloth. The fabrics are crucial to the KINOAK range and ultimately influence the way the pieces turn out. “But it works both ways,” Darragh notes. “Sometimes the collection inspires the fabric.” The outcome is a 30-piece range of high quality casual attire made in Melbourne.
KINOAK’s relaxedness is a breath of fresh air in a city defined by its sharp, tailored mode and dark, muted colour palette. The label’s mergence of sophisticated casual wear and sporty aesthetics is a world away from the Melbourne archetype. “My use of colour is very distinctive, and no black, I won’t use a lot of black,” she says. “I guess in that way I’ll stand out.”
The collection is made up soft pastels of mauve, pink, green, pale blue, mustard and grey. In fact, Darragh doesn’t ever wear black – navy is as dark as she’ll go. “Everything I make I would want to wear myself. KINOAK is for women who believe that comfort and practicality doesn’t always equate to boring. It can be upbeat and beautiful. I’d like to think it’s for all types and no one in particular,” she says, pausing. “KINOAK is a little bit sensible too.”
As Darragh takes me through the racks, it’s hard not to agree. There is something rather straight about this collection, but that’s not to say that it takes itself too seriously. She pulls one piece out. “These are the tracksuit pants that everyone loves. They’re super warm.” But these are no ordinary ‘tracky dacks’ – they’re more like a comfortable woollen trouser with an elastic silk cuff at the ankle. And if ever there was a pair of tracksuit pants that could be worn out of the house, this is it. In this way, KINOAK is happily mismatched – imagine a pretty young girl in a nice frock, wearing her football player boyfriend’s jacket or high top sneakers. There’s something a little Middle American jock and cheerleader about it, in a good way.
Darragh’s uncanny aesthetic comes as little surprise when you consider her background. Before she founded KINOAK, Darragh got her break working for Kate Sylvester back home in New Zealand. “A lot of the processes took place in the studio so we had so much control over the end result and the deadlines,” she recalls. “I loved the hands-on aspect; we did in-house cutting, beading, handmade trimmings. Every single garment went through a thorough quality control process before it left the workroom.
“The clothes felt special,” she continues. “I was part of a great team. We worked hard and had so much fun.”
Nonetheless, Darragh upped stumps in 2003 and shifted to Melbourne, where she began working at PAM as production manager. “The world of PAM was very foreign, fun and exciting – their creative energy is amazing,” she urges.
“At first most of the production was in Melbourne but eventually we moved it all offshore. My days became emails, coffee, spec sheets, Excel, more coffee, even more Excel and emails. We produced clothing, books, shoes and toys, and [facilitated] many collaborations. It was a great place to be… There was never a dull moment working with Shauna [T] and Misha [Hollenbach].”
After eight years with the dynamic duo, however, it was time to move on. As nearly any designer will tell you, there’s nothing like the creative freedom of working on your own projects, and Darragh is no exception. “No more printed t-shirts,” she sighs laughingly.
From KINOAK’s infancy, Darragh’s approach has evidenced a laterality of thought. For her first campaign and look book shoot, she enlisted designers Marilyn & Sons and renowned photographic artist Matthew Sleeth to shoot the collection, who had been looking for an opportunity to expand his repertoire beyond a fine art context. “We were really keen with the idea of approaching an artist rather than a fashion photographer,” says Darragh. “I really liked the look of his stuff…and luckily Matthew was up for it!”
Together, Darragh and Sleeth created a simple narrative for each piece, with a distinctive visual style. “He’s a perfectionist, but his artist’s take suits the brand incredibly well. The shoot has a slightly odd, unique look – perfect for KINOAK,” says Darragh. “He also created a video of the shoot on the day. It was hooked up to the roof and took a shot every five minutes. When you watch it you can see the light change over the course of the day. It’s unreal…and something I would‘ve never thought of.”
The atypical qualities of Sleeth’s images resonate strongly with the KINOAK aesthetic. He shoots with an acute eye for detail, but there is a slight, wry awkwardness to his images, much like the garments. Stark and raw, his shots of the KINOAK range are a blend of raw architectural details and angular poses – light bouncing off metal skirting boards, a model standing tall, as if shocked to be photographed. Aside from his clearly distinguishable aesthetic, Sleeth’s work brings more conceptual strain to the trope of the fashion shoot, making KINOAK’s unusual garments a striking point of focus.
It’s for good reason. KINOAK’s garments almost feel reiterated from another time – familiar but new, fresh and unique. There is an almost anti-style to the pieces, a rare sense of restraint. This reserved trait speaks volumes of its designer. “I didn’t like the idea of using my name at all,” says Darragh. “I wanted to make a new name up.” As she goes onto explain, the name KINOAK arose from playing with the idea of a family tree (Darragh meaning tree in Gaelic).
And though KINOAK is certainly a niche label, it’s refreshing to see something stand out – however quietly – from the crowd. “I’ve been working on this range twice as long as you usually spend on a line,” she smiles, almost guiltily. “It took me while to find my feet.”
And we’re glad she has. Darragh’s sophisticated, sporty take on women’s wear is a rare bloom in Melbourne fashion’s fields of grey and black.