Our sweeping obsession with all things Australia is nothing new. The nations tourism represents 3 percent – the same amount as in the U.S. – of Australias total GDP, with an average of 7.4 million annual visitors flocking to its shores, deserts and reefs.
St. Agni, founded by couple Lara and Matt Fells, offers up luxurious leathers and minimal wares out of the iconic coastal town of Byron Bay.
But fashion is playing catch up. With an influx of fledgling creative talent and innovative retail experiences cropping up across Sydney, Melbourne and beyond, the U.S. has kept a close eye on the Land Down Under for several seasons now. It certainly doesnt hurt that the Australian design aesthetic – easy, minimal pieces one could wear to both the beach and the office – is especially appealing as we look to streamline our wardrobes. And thats not even mentioning Australias famously rigid commitment to sustainable manufacturing.
St. Agni, an Australian label that specializes in womens clothing and handmade leather footwear, is doing all that, and then some. Based out of the iconic oceanside town of Byron Bay, 470 miles up the coast from Sydney, the brand is the brainchild of married couple Lara and Matt Fells who started it out of their home while each maintaining their full-time jobs. The whole thing is, for lack of a better descriptor, just very Australian: simple, vaguely earthy silhouettes that evoke afternoons spent in the sun – which explains why it caught my eye while deep in an Instagram Explore pit. I scheduled a phone interview with the Fells that very next day.
Lara, Matt and I – and technically, their newborn baby, whom I can faintly hear cooing in the background – start off our call by talking about how they met while each was working in retail. Matt, originally from the U.K., was on a working visa in Australia, during which he met Lara in her native Tasmania. The couple went back and forth between the U.K. and Australia – a 20-hour flight – before together relocating to Byron Bay where they continued to work in retail. But they had always wanted to do their own thing. In 2014, St. Agni was born.
“Initially, we really didnt have any funding to start the business, so it kind of started on a whim,” says Lara. “We were like, Lets just do it – give it everything weve got and just see how it goes.” Lara explains that because they didnt have the capital to launch in multiple categories, the pair maxed out a credit card with a $10,000 limit – “thats all we had to put into it” – and debuted with a tiny range of bags, followed by shoes and eventually, clothing.
That “less is more” mentality in both business and design carried them through St. Agnis earliest days. Both Lara and Matt stayed at their full-time jobs for at least two years, operating the label from their house and fulfilling orders on nights and weekends. Matt says St. Agnis bags were initially kept in one box in a cupboard, which then grew into several boxes in the laundry room, which then ended up in their bedroom – and soon, it grew to a point where they just couldnt do it on the side anymore. So, they took the plunge, left their jobs in phases and locked down a warehouse with office space and a showroom downstairs. That was when the brand really took off.
Lara notes that the showroom allowed for people – buyers, consumers, whomever – to connect with St. Agni better than had been possible while they were operating from their house. In Australia, people largely wear what they really want to wear – though of course, there are exceptions – and to be able to check out the goods in person is a huge draw. “Its a very laid-back country, isnt it, Australia?” says Matt. “Were so lucky to live in Byron Bay, which is such a relaxed, beach-type town. But I think that stems from having that laid-back look; it can be dressed up when you take it down to a city like Melbourne or Sydney.”
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Though Byron Bay has a permanent population of just 9,000, it has a booming tourism scene that sees more than a million visitors a year. Much of this, Matt gathers, may have something to do with the artistic juices the town is brewing. “There seems to be lots of independent fashion labels emerging from Byron Bay,” he says. “I think that the creativity of this area is contagious; everyone really supports each other.” In addition to St. Agni, theres Auguste (for flirty dresses), Arnhem Clothing (for “free-spirited,” Bohemian types) and Amilita Boutique (for the eco-minded, ethical consumer). But there are more, and probably more to come.
St. Agni does all of its production locally, in Indonesia – which is technically local in relation to Byron Bay. Lara and Matt stumbled into it almost by accident when, years ago, they began going to Indonesia on vacation, and each time, theyd get a few pieces made.
“We decided that we really wanted to try to source all of the materials from there so we could lower the impact of having to import products and materials into Indonesia,” recalls Matt. “It can be very challenging at times because, obviously, they havent got the scope of somewhere like China or India, but their craftsmanship and their quality is really, really good.”
Over the last four years, their Indonesian production team has become family, growing from just three workers in the very beginning to 35 now. Matt notes that its been nice to see the production teams business grow hand-in-hand with their own. “Its a small community,” says Lara. “I feel like if we went somewhere in China, you could go to an office and you wouldnt get to see anyone, but were really involved.” When Lara and Matt are in town, they have a big group dinner with the entire workshop.
Their leather comes out of Indonesia, too, but from an equally small, 50-person tannery and factory on the island of Java. When it came time to decide on St. Agnis tannery, their vetting process was extensive. “That was really important to us, to find out that information before we continued with them,” says Matt.
At both factories, they only produce to meet demand. Lara explains that theyll wait until something sells out completely before they re-order, if they re-order at all. “It works well for us, as well, because obviously were not spending money where it doesnt need to be spent,” she says. “Were only spending money on products we know people want.” All of this is only really possible at a smaller factory where they can have that communication with the workshop.
In a sense, St. Agnis intentionally itty-bitty production may limit its size; Lara says that in an alternate universe, they probably wouldve moved to somewhere bigger by now. So, when I ask where theyre headed, Matt responds by saying thats a question theyre constantly asking themselves, too. “Just naturally, its growing on its own, so how big do we want it to be?” he says. They certainly dont need to make it “massive,” or to have it at every department store. Lara admits theyre happy if they can keep it at this pace and level, where its still boutique-quality, but isnt completely accessible or mainstream.
“Were still so involved with the business, even now – packing shoes in boxes, putting labels on boxes…” starts Matt. “We still cover pretty much every area of the business; we do our own accounting, we do everything. If we go to that next step, then we start employing general managers and CEOs.” Theyre rightfully wary of that, too, because then the label they started to strike out on their own isnt quite all theirs anymore.
Right now, Lara and Matt are perfectly content doing what they do best: creating beautiful, responsibly crafted goods that look and feel like Australia. They had to hustle to get St. Agni to where it is today – why not sit at the top of hill for a bit and enjoy the view?
“Its really hard when youre starting out, especially when youre starting out small,” says Lara. “But I think the really important thing, something weve done, is just try to make the right decisions along the way. It doesnt stop here. Every time youre faced with a decision or you have that chance to improve, take it.”
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