“All our collections are inspired by a muse from the past; we’re focused on reversing queer or minority erasure,” says Lilian Nicol-Ford, co-founder of Sydney fashion label Nicol & Ford, which she runs with partner Katie-Louise Nicol-Ford.

Its latest collection is called Thorn, a nickname given to Rosaleen Norton – or “the witch of Kings Cross”. Norton was an artist, a practitioner of pantheistic witchcraft, and an occultist who dabbled in “sex magic” and seances; she attracted notoriety and outrage in Sydney in the 1950s and ’60s. Her work was seized by the government at her first exhibition in Melbourne in 1949, and her life story inspired Lil and Katie.

“She was very poorly treated in the public eye, but there was a point where she decided to take ownership of the brand ‘the witch of Kings Cross’ and use it to her advantage,” says Lil. “So there’s a lot of empowerment to it.”

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The couple likes to think about who these people would be and how they would live today. “And we think her work would find a community and be celebrated in certain spaces today in a way that it wasn’t in the ’50s.”

The duo has made 26 items for Nicol & Ford’s third runway show at Australian Fashion Week. And like they’ve done with shows Comet in 2023 and Château De Groussay in 2022, the process starts with casting models from within the LGBTQIA+ community. “It’s so narrative-driven that we need to have the people wearing our clothing as more than just bodies,” adds Lil.

The runway show will be divided into three chapters: the first part is about underground sex culture, which Norton was part of; the second is about human-animal forms, a thread in the artist’s works; and the third is the history of persecution.

“Part of why we were drawn to Rosaleen’s work, some of her really early work – to my eye – is such an amazing example of trans bodies illustrated in the arts space in the ’50s. And for me, being trans identifying, having my partner custom-make clothing for me is such an extraordinary proposition. It’s deeply tied into our work and the way we work.”

Lil and Katie often wear the same outfits – sometimes intentionally, sometimes by fluke. Today they’re dressed in the Meteor pinstripe suits. “When we’re going out to events or a club, it’s more of a decision,” says Katie. “But often we’re just on the same wavelength. It is unbelievable but I had no idea Lil was wearing this this morning.”

Before launching Nicol & Ford in 2017, Katie was a costume designer. She’d packed her sewing machine under the bed, burnt out from running her own business. “Lil was always prodding me, ‘When are you going to start sewing again?’” she says. Now Katie’s skills are the label’s secret weapon. “You’ve been professionally sewing full-time for 14 years and that’s knowledge you can’t replicate without that duration and experience,” says Lil.

Katie also prides herself on being able to make clothes for bodies without having met them. Earlier this year she made an outfit for UK drag performer Bimini. “We have this funny thing where on New Year’s Eve we sit down and write a hit list of the top five people we want to dress that year. It’s just as much manifestation as planning,” says Lil.

Lil, an art historian, researcher and designer, also gets hands-on with production. “This is my nan’s late ’80s Bernina Sport, which is built like a German tank,” she says. “You can’t buy machines like this anymore. My nan made herself little home pattern outfits when I was a kid. It’s done every buttonhole on every garment we’ve ever produced.”

The studio space is compact and orderly. There’s an antique wardrobe, clothing rail and a high cutting table that used to be a bar table. Katie points out an overlocker in the corner, one her mum bought for her 18th birthday. “My mum bought it second-hand and I’ve carried that with me interstate, all over the world. It goes!” she laughs. “It’s not the most reliable machine, but I do think there’s something special about being on this journey with me for almost 20 years.”

Their demi-couture clothing is made from fabrics that would otherwise go to waste. “There’s a dress made entirely in cowhide, which was a floor cowhide we found on Facebook Marketplace,” says Lil. “This scrap, for example, is from a vintage wedding dress from the 1950s that we unpicked the lace and dyed it with natural Japanese dye,” says Katie.

The label puts custom orders on hold for six months in the lead-up to fashion week. Most of its clients live overseas – in London, New York, Paris and LA. There’s one customer in Germany who’s purchased five pieces from every collection. “She has more of an archive than we do,” says Lil. “We finally met her two years ago. She turned up in a coat from our first collection. It was pristine.” Katie adds: “It was quite emotional. It looked like the day it was made.”

At the moment the label has 11 interns, all from Tafe, which is where Katie studied. “I love it,” she says. “I was intimidated at first, but I’m passionate about making and I really want to get into teaching, so to be able to spend time with these beautiful young brains is amazing – they’re so talented.

Though they’re keen to pass on their knowledge, there’s no ambition to scale up. Instead, it’s about fashion as an extension of themselves. “It brings us so much joy and it’s so much a part of us,” says Katie. “We’re very lucky.”


Read more in our Studio Visit series.