When Johanna Ryle-Howe finished studying fashion design at university and found herself uninspired by the industry around her, she decided to create something of her own. What started as a fun project with her then-housemate Sarah Russell has now grown into Melbourne womenswear label Caves Collect, where she crafts high quality, sustainable and locally made wardrobe staples.

Back when the duo started in 2014, Ryle-Howe and Russell handmade every piece themselves. “We were just really obsessed with it and would work constantly, like 12 hours a day,” Ryle-Howe tells Broadsheet. Sewing garments while trying to start an entire business was as hectic as you would imagine. “We’d have days where we’d literally be doing the finishing touches to pieces before rushing out to the post office to ship the order on time.”

Ten years on, Ryle-Howe now runs Caves solo after Russell stepped away from the business in 2022 to start homeware label Scotato. (Its textured cushions and quilts are made from offcuts, including fabrics from Caves.) And she’s not behind the sewing machine anymore.

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The label’s timeless pieces are handmade in local Aussie factories with fabrics sourced across Italy, Japan and Oz. Its merino knits in particular are made in one of Australia’s last remaining knit factories from cashwool yarn imported from Italian mill Zegna Baruffa Lane Borgosesia, which also works with top luxury brands around the world.

But manufacturing locally is no easy feat, Ryle-Howe says. “It’s a pretty tough wicket making in Australia, there’s not a huge industry here but we feel very motivated to keep [doing so] … There’s more of a demand in Australia than there are factories to meet that demand, so I think that’s a bit of an issue in the industry at the moment.”

Ryle-Howe pioneered conversations around ethical production and considered consumption well before “sustainability” and “slow fashion” became industry buzzwords in the last few years.

“I don’t really call it a fashion brand,” she explains. “For me, the word ‘fashion’ kind of feels trend-based and I see Caves as being positioned a bit outside of the formal fashion industry. I feel like it’s very unsustainable to just be constantly buying the newest trend and it feels very untenable to be to be operating that way.”

Instead of creating collections under the pressure of seasons, Ryle-Howe works on developing and finessing key pieces until she’s happy with them. “We’ll just take our time, which is something that’s really important,” she says.

Feedback from customers and the fabric itself often form a starting point for designs that use classic archetypal shapes to last the test of time. With that sentiment in mind, prints and patterns are also a no-go. “We want something that’s just going to slot into a cohesive small wardrobe that you can get a lot of wear out of.”

At the beginning of Covid, the direct-to-consumer label moved into a showroom in the Abbotsford Convent, with a studio space attached next door. The workroom is where inventory is stored, orders are shipped and Ryle-Howe, along with a team of four others, gets going with small production runs, prototyping and other behind-the-scenes operations.

It’s a beautiful, rustic set-up fitted out with a 200-year-old oak cupboard, wooden tables made by Ryle-Howe’s husband and inspiring mood boards all around. “There’s a grand piano in the studio opposite us with a concert pianist and you’ll just hear the music wafting around.”

To date, the Convent is the only place where customers can try on Caves IRL. But with a large international fan club (which Ryle-Howe credits with starting her business at the dawn of social media), the designer has slowly opened up to the possibility of getting overseas wholesalers on board.

As is often the case when running your own business, Ryle-Howe wears many hats. Her days are a mix of designing, attending fittings, visiting factories, making newsletters and running the brand’s social media – all while being a new mum.

It’s a tough gig to balance, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love being able to create a brand that aligns with my values because I honestly don’t know who I would work for if I had to get a job in the fashion industry.

“Sometimes when you put something out into the world, you’re not sure if people will really appreciate what you’re doing. But you do it for yourself because it’s important. It’s really nice to see that people do take note of that.”

A version of this article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.

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