20 Years with Nancybird's Emily Wright

As we celebrate an incredible Twenty years of Nancybird, we caught up with our founder, the one and only Emily Wright! Many of you have grown up alongside us; along the way, we've had many new friends join us too! Thank you for your support and for making Nancybird what it is today! Read on as we travel back to the beginnings, the return to a love of painting, our mutual love of Australia, the evolution of artists collabs and the women that inspire us with Emily Wright! Photos captured by Jess Tremp.

Pictured: Founder of Nancybird, Emily Wright

Why did you begin Nancybird, what were your first designs, and how did they evolve along the way? 

I started Nancybird in a very low key way – making things in my spare time while studying printmaking – screenprinting onto fabrics, and making small purses and bags. I was inspired by Melbourne's growing independent design movement with stores like Alice Euphemia and Fat 52. It's so widespread now, but at the time, it was new and unusual to see very small makers creating art-led products – design markets and selling online wasn't really a thing yet!

I felt way more excited to create in this way than the more traditional route of being an artist exhibiting in an art gallery (although I have incredible respect for artists doing things this way!)

Initially, I made fabric bags with simple screen prints, but I quickly experimented with using soft leathers and different materials – antique Japanese fabrics and offcuts with overprinting. It was a stage of learning about the materials, the functionality needed and how I could create something that was a bit of an art and design hybrid.

We remained a leathergoods brand for quite a few years – maybe about 10 years – and then slowly introduced new categories – a small range of printed silk apparel, footwear and homewares. It took a while to stabilise the business to be ready to do this – getting all our systems a bit more streamlined and adding extra staff to our team – but once we did, it was a tremendous change! It meant we could centre our textile designs and create across much more diverse products.

In terms of evolution, our design has certainly changed, but the same themes remain – our interest in the natural world and celebrating art. These two things are really at the core of what we're about from the beginning to now.

Over the last couple of years, you've come full circle, picking up the paintbrushes again. Can you tell us how this came about and what it felt like going through the entire design process again?

It's been exciting to come back to creating textile designs again! In the beginning, I was using found imagery and screen printing it, more like collages - only small parts painted from scratch. Now that we almost exclusively use digital printing, we can print full colour paintings with excellent colour reproduction, which brings so much flexibility to our work.

Textile design always felt like something I wanted to do more of but didn't have time for, but as the business grew, I knew we needed original textiles to really be able to expand our ideas and identity.
The first part of our design team was a textile designer – Sarah Strickland. She's a talented illustrator too, and we worked together for many years to create textile designs. It was a great collaboration!

The first lockdown in 2020 gave me the space to start painting again. It was quite a productive time and a revelation that I could combine painting into my design process after a long pause.

Another nice part has been painting places and things that I love – I spend lots of time in South Gippsland, so sharing those things in our collections and seeing how others respond has been special. Our home collections, in particular, allow lots of space to feature our prints – it has been a fun project!

In our apparel collections, we've come to an excellent combination of me painting some of the textiles and working with other artists in capsule collaborations. It's a lovely mix now, and I feel lucky that I have a better balance of these things after all this time - it only took 20 years!

The Nancybird studio lounge features the Banksia artwork by Nicola Woodcock from our infamous AW22 Artist Collab.

Can you share your relationship with the Australian landscape and how it's shaped Nancybird's signature look?

I grew up on the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne and spent my childhood summers in Kennett River, along the west coast of Victoria. I've always gravitated towards natural surroundings and felt a sense of peace in these landscapes.

I've also felt strongly that as designers and artists, we need to reflect our place in the world. So in creating our textiles, we use identifiable local species in our florals, and the landscapes are always places we've been – Walkerville, Yanakie, the Bay of Fires, Mt Field NP, Kata Tjuta.

As I've introduced my paintings into the collection, especially the HOME range, it's been so lovely seeing the reaction to the landscapes – places people love, care for, and have had experiences in. It has been a tiny bit of a surprise to me - how people respond. We are so connected to the natural places we spend time in.

The Nancybird customer has grown up with you. Why do you think they resonate so much with your work and keep returning?

I love that our customer has stayed with us – I have heard so many beautiful stories of the special pieces that were bought or given at significant moments in people's lives over the years – so lovely!

I think we've kept our relationship with our customers along the way because we've held the same values and interests – the love of art, nature, and using natural materials – but we continue to evolve our designs each season, keeping things fresh.

In recent years I've been so happy to also cater our apparel to a broader customer base. Perhaps customers have previously enjoyed our homewares or leathergoods – but our size range hasn't allowed them to wear our clothes until now. This has been such a positive change.

Design Manager Sarah Kourim and Emily discussing the upcoming collection and the skilled hands at work of Production and Wholesale Sales Manager, Colette La Fontaine 

When did you start collaborating with artists, and why?

Our first collaboration was many years ago with my art school friends – Jess Irvin, Anna Reidy and mutual friend Clare James back in 2012, I believe? We did a little collection of endangered orchids printed on bags and purses, with part of the proceeds going to Bush Heritage.

We then picked up collaborating with artists again in 2019. It felt like we needed new energy in our textile designs, and it felt like the right time, with the growth of our apparel range, to add this element.

It has been one of my favourite parts of designing in the last few years! I love working with artists and the new sparks they bring to our collections. It's really been a joy, and I believe the feeling has been mutual – for artists seeing their work in another context, used differently, is really special, I think!

Emily and Marketing Manager Monique Plunkett working on shoot details.

Twenty years on, Nancybird has expanded. Where to next?

I feel like at this moment in time, after the covid lockdown years we've had, I'm interested in getting the balance right between work and home life and making sure all our team feels the same. It's been a challenging time, and we all need to take a breath and regain our balance!

There are some areas we'd like to improve on, though – our expanded size range has been a significant evolution over the last few seasons – we keep adding styles to this as we work with fits on larger sizes, and we hope to keep increasing this as needed.

I'd like to spend more time painting and working with oils. The lack of a separate studio prevents me from using oils, as I don't want to fume our main studio out with turps. Hence, acrylics it is for the moment, but eventually, I'd love a separate painting studio at home.

I'd like to collaborate more and find different ways to do this - I'd love to work with other types of makers and artists of different disciplines.

I would like to continue improving the environmental and ethical areas of the business – there are always small and sometimes large improvements we can make along the way.

The Nancybird team pictured left to right Sarah, Emily, Claire, Bethany, Monique, Michelle, Steph, Laura and Colette.

How has the Nancybird team grown and remained true to its beginnings?

We have recently expanded our team to 10 women, but for a long time, it's been a team of about 6! I like working with a small team with a friendly vibe – it's essential to me that everyone gets along well.

Staffing and creating a great team are among the most critical factors for a successful and harmonious business. It's something I always strive for! We've been lucky to have had great people along the way, which I'm grateful for. I've learnt to be a better manager over the years – it's not something that initially came naturally to me. 

We have a good culture in our team and working conditions – everyone works four days or less to provide some work-life balance, often juggling family responsibilities or side projects!

I love our team.

Our Customer Service and Fulfilment team, left to right Michelle, Laura and Claire.

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