Nice Rack! Tara Whalley Wears Her Art on Her Sleeve

At the risk of stating the obvious, the clothes we wear matter. And not just in the sense of sartorial splendour and self-expression, but for those across the supply chain and beyond working towards a more sustainable fashion future. To celebrate these creatives putting people and planet first, we’ve introduced a new digital series called Nice Rack! (… get it) so we can go behind the seams with some of our favourite sustainable brands, together. 

This week we meet Melbourne designer Tara Whalley to celebrate the joy and whimsy of her wearable art. Crafting eye-catching garments with her own distinctive flair, her collections are inspired by travels across Guatemala, Japan, San Francisco and Joshua Tree to name but a few. She was recently granted the Denis Diderot (A-i-R) Grant and will travel to France to be an Artist in Residence at Chateau d’Orquevaux this month to craft her next collection. Ooh la la!

images of tara whalley wearing her designs ANDREW MARTIN

Tell us about yourself…

I established my self-titled fashion brand in 2015 after returning to Australia after a year of working with war-affected Mayan weavers. It was this time in Guatemala that informed my painting practice – translating experience into artwork for fabric with a clear direction for the basis of my signature style. My collections are made in Melbourne with natural fibres, digitally printed to reduce environmental impact, utilise offcuts to minimise waste, available in sizes XS to 10XLovely and feature my hand-painted artwork

What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

Sustainable fashion means choosing what you purchase carefully. I feel it is important that you really love something so that you get a lot of wear out of it. Buying something that is well made will help it last longer and I am a big fan of hand washing for longevity. 

I was often drawing outfits in biro on the back of recycled paper from Dad’s work, stapling together little booklets and making little clothes out of scrap pieces of fabric.

When did you know you wanted to get into fashion?

I feel like my first memory was when I was about 10. I imagined having a label called Tara Whalley and I recently uncovered a little pretend clothing label I made out of paper. I was often drawing outfits in biro on the back of recycled paper from Dad’s work, stapling together little booklets and making little clothes out of scrap pieces of fabric. I also wanted to be an illustrator so creating my own prints has ticked a couple of boxes. 

Why were you inspired to start your label and what continues to inspire you as a designer?

After living in Guatemala for a year working with war-affected women weavers (and having a lot of fun riding chicken buses to source materials and artisans… and some scary times such as being held up on a mountain and other misadventures), I returned home to Australia with a reinforced love of locally made products. It was a long-held dream to start a label, but I was a bit nervous. I was encouraged to “Just Do It” and not put off my dream, and it was the best advice. I then received an invite to be part of the We Wear Future Exhibition, which became my deadline for my collection launch. I hand-painted every inch of fabric used and to my surprise and delight, the collection sold out! It was the confirmation I needed that I was on the right track. 

I am most inspired now by plants and unusual antiques, and translating these objects into painterly artworks. Creating eye-catching artworks that are easy to wear drives me.

I was encouraged to “Just Do It” and not put off my dream, and it was the best advice.

READ MORE: Nice Rack! Inside Anna Cordell’s Splendid World Of Silk, Suits and Singers

How do you incorporate sustainability/ethical practices within your brand?

I choose fabrics made from plants and make locally. I enjoy ducking down the road to see my makers, and I often will walk over with a big hiking backpack to bring back stock. Digital printing also uses a lot less water than screen printing. Lately I have been doing more made-to-order than carrying stock so we only make what is needed.

My accessories range is made from offcuts from the collections – we make it a challenge to use everything! The unusable pieces become boxing bag filling or are sometimes used to create artworks – like this amazing piece by Elise Cakebread.

Tell us about any standout moments in your career…

Exhibiting in the National Gallery of Victoria – straight after high school, my work was presented at Top Arts. It was a very surreal moment!

Working and living in Guatemala for a year designing for war-affected weavers and designing a naturally dyed, handmade footwear range for ALAS the Label.

Hosting the Shop Gal pop up – I ran a pop-up shop and had the best time showing off my favourite local brands to Melbourne. 

The Lamington Drive artist residency runs once every three years and is a Jacky Winter Group project (an agency that represents really amazing artists). Four artists had three months to complete a series of works. It was an amazing challenge and experience!

New York Fashion Week – an amazing opportunity for a Melbourne designer to present on the global stage!

Paris Fashion Week – it was a miracle my collection arrived after doing many loops of France and was almost delivered to the wrong people every day! An amazing experience that had me on the edge of my seat ‘til the last minute. 

Being listed as one of top ten textile designers by The Design Files.

And at the moment I’m preparing for my artist residency at Chateau d’Orquevaux in the Champagne region of France!

What are your favourite pieces to wear?

For everyday wear I love wearing the T-dress shape – it feels easy to throw on but also dressy. If I’m feeling floaty or in the mood to wear something a bit more swishy in the skirt, the A-line dress or ruffle apron dress feel so lovely and if I’m feeling sharp I love wearing one of my suits/suit dresses. For the prints, I will rotate based on my mood and how sunny it is. I often finish the look with a matching silk scarf.

Who are a few of your favourite local designers?

I love Aacute who hand-makes earrings in amazing colours and modern shapes. The colours always happen to match perfectly with my collections but it was really fun to commission some bespoke designs for Paris Fashion Week.

Cakebread always makes really amazing homewares and lately has been working on many exciting swatches made from textile waste. They look like magical worlds!

What do you think needs to change in the Australian fashion landscape?

We have some really amazing local designers… and a lot of empty retail shops. There are some government initiatives, but sometimes as I wander down an empty street that was once thriving, I imagine some of the amazing designers I know filling these shops. Increasing visibility of these designers would be amazing. Perhaps stylists for film and television picking more local designs could be great. I’ve also seen bigger brands hosting smaller brands in their bricks-and-mortar stores overseas, which would be amazing. Something like Melbourne Money would be an interesting idea to apply to local brands and Australian owned bricks and mortar stores too.