Nice Rack! A Punk Heart Beats Inside WAH-WAH’s Iconic Knitwear
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.
Leaf through the wardrobe of any bona fide “cool” person and you might just come across WAH-WAH’s signature knitwear. Designed in Sydney and inspired by the punk records of her youth, designer Kaylene Milner marries elements of pop culture with a deeply sustainable practice to create wearable art with a whole lotta heart. From collaborating with the incredible Pitjantjatjara artist Kaylene Whiskey to feminist punk icons The Raincoats, WAH-WAH has earned a cult following that boasts the likes of Noel Fielding and Taika Waititi among its ranks.
KAYLENE WITH HER SON
Today she launches a new collaboration with the inimitable Sri-Lankan-born, Australian artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. “The chaotic, vibrant energy of Ramesh’s art vibrates on a similar wavelength to WAH-WAH’s aesthetic, so it seemed inevitable that we were drawn to each other’s work for this collaboration,” Kaylene says. “From a technical standpoint, designing for knitwear can be limiting, but those limitations forced me to rethink how to construct a standard sweater to reflect Ramesh’s work.” To celebrate the launch, alongside whimsical joy and all things colour, we caught up with Kaylene to unpick her iconic knitwear.
photos of ramesh collection LEXI LAPHOR styling KIRSTY BAROS hair ELLA STEWART-WILLIAMS makeup CELESTE GUBB models RAMESH NITHIYENDRAN,
REMY FAINT, JULIA FAINT AND KIRTHANA SELVARAJ
Tell us about yourself…
I’m Kaylene. I’m a designer and musician living and working on beautiful Gadigal land.
I’ve straddled the music and design worlds for several years now. Unable to choose whether to pursue one direction or the other, I merged the two and the result was my knitwear brand WAH-WAH AUSTRALIA. I originally started the brand with a view to paying homage to local underground punk bands that I liked, basically because I thought it was a funny and unexpected thing to do. The scope has since broadened, and I am now incredibly fortunate to collaborate with many incredible musicians, visual artists and creatives all over the world.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
For me, sustainable fashion means designing garments that people fall in love with. That’s the first step. If they love it, they will wear it over and over again! Beyond this, it is my responsibility as a designer and business owner to make garments from high-quality sustainable fibres, which is why I work primarily with merino wool and also be really mindful of supply and demand.
For me, sustainable fashion means designing garments that people fall in love with. That’s the first step. If they love it, they will wear it over and over again!
I only produce a handful of styles every year, but each one is really thought through. The designs might seem fun and off-the-cuff, but I slave over them, making sure every little detail is just right. I think my customers have come to appreciate this. They know that the garments often sell out and that they won’t be discounted, so each purchase feels like a bit of a special investment. At least, that’s what I aim for!
left WAH-WAH x ARETHA BROWN NIYEC FUNDRAISER right WAH-WAH x FILTHY RATBAG
When did you know you wanted to get into fashion?
I was studying musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music but I was spending every spare moment soaking up past runway collections and dreaming up imaginary clothing lines with my best friend. I made a real snap decision to drop out of my musicology degree and went to my local library to search for some books that might give me some clues as to how to put a fashion design portfolio together. I made a very naive and enthusiastic submission to the Fashion Design Studio at Ultimo TAFE and had no plan B if I didn’t get in. Luckily, things have worked out so far! That said, I never really felt like a “fashion person”. I’ve always been on the outskirts of the industry and that suits me just fine!
READ MORE: Nice Rack! Tara Whalley Wears Her Art on Her Sleeve
Why were you inspired to start your label and what continues to inspire you as a designer?
Working for another label never felt like an appealing option. I always hated interning for other brands when I was a student and recent graduate – except for Gary Bigeni because he’s a legend and a sweetheart. The whole appeal of studying design was to bring my ideas to life, so as soon as I graduated, I started working on a collection to show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia. This was followed by a confusing year-long stint working and interning in New York which really helped to confirm that I didn’t want to work for someone else.
Upon returning, I launched a namesake brand with close to no funds, but a lot of enthusiasm. I learned so much from doing this, but it wasn’t sustainable and I wasn’t ready, so I stopped after two seasons. I still had such a strong desire to have my own brand and I knew if I was going to do something it had to be small, focused and fun! WAH-WAH started more as a side project but has since turned into my full-time obsession.
How did this collection come about?
I have a whiteboard in my room with a few names of bands and artists scribbled on it that I’d love to collaborate with one day. Artist Ramesh Nithiyendran was one of those names, but he actually got in touch with me, so it was a no-brainer! I love his colourful, totemic figurative sculptures, and he has the best personal style, so it all just felt like a perfect fit for the brand.
The design process was really fun! There was a lot of back and forth with ideas and whenever I was worried that I may have made the design too intense, Ramesh would always suggest that we could push it further. I love that energy!
Whenever I was worried that I may have made the design too intense, Ramesh would always suggest that we could push it further. I love that energy!
Describe it in three words…
Chaotic, vibrant, luxurious!
How do you incorporate sustainability/ethical practices within your brand?
I’ve decided not to wholesale for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that selling directly to customers means I don’t have to constantly try and find the cheapest manufacturer and yarns. If I were wholesaling, the garments would be double the price and there might be a temptation to make decisions based on cost, rather than sustainability and ethics. It also means I can better ensure that I’m only making as many garments as there is demand for.
In addition to trying to create the best possible product that I can, I also try to regularly create styles that donate profits to various causes. These have included The Climate Council, Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, Teenage Cancer Trust and Carbon Positive Australia. I think it’s really cool that this little niche project has allowed me to give something back to these charities and organisations.
READ MORE: Nice Rack! Inside Anna Cordell’s Splendid World Of Silk, Suits and Singers
Tell us about any standout moments in your career…
So often I’ve had to pinch myself when I think about the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of my heroes. It was such an honour to work with Kaylene Whiskey. Her artwork brings me so much joy! It’s also been incredibly satisfying being able to be in touch with feminist punk music pioneers like The Raincoats. I once wrote to the band as a teenager to tell them how important their music was to me. Several decades later, my feelings remain the same, but the dynamic has slightly changed. I’m still a total fangirl though!
And collaborating with Noel Fielding! What is this surreal, niche career I’ve found myself in?!
left WAH-WAH X NOEL FIELDING right WAH-WAH X THE RAINCOATS
What are your favourite pieces to wear?
I’m going to be living in my Ramesh sweatpants. They are THE MOST comfortable pants in existence. I think it will be fun to wear them with my extensive collection of band t-shirts. In a weird way, I think that because they’re so full on, they will actually work with most things in my wardrobe. A bit of backwards logic, but I’m running with it!
I also find myself reaching for my Plantasia jumper all of the time lately. It’s based on artwork from Mort Garson’s plant-friendly album from 1976. So often when I wear it, someone will stop me because they’re a fan of the music, so we invariably get along and have a good chat.
Sustainability is a shared responsibility – not a competition!
Who are a few of your favourite local designers?
Gary Bigeni was the first designer I ever interned for and we are good friends to this day! He is making the most beautiful, made-to-order, hand-painted garments. I invested in a few of his dresses and wore nothing else while I was pregnant last year.
I love what House of Darwin are doing. They have the best graphic tees and they invest profits back into social programs in remote Indigenous communities.
I’m also dreaming up a custom embroidered suit from Reigner Clothing, a la Gram Parsons!
left WAH-WAH x KAYLENE WHISKEY right WAH-WAH x REG MOMBASSA CLIMATE ACTION FUNDRAISER
What do you think needs to change in the Australian fashion landscape?
I think brands need to start sharing more information – among each other and with customers! If you find a great sustainable packaging option, why not share where you sourced it from? If you find a small, ethical manufacturer who could benefit from more work, pass on their details. Sustainability is a shared responsibility – not a competition!