How laid-back Byron Bay is becoming Australia’s boutique fashion capital

Byron Bay, between Sydney and Brisbane, has long been a favourite with hippies and surfers, and now a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs are moving in, leaving behind the big cities and embracing beach town life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2018, 5:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 August, 2018, 6:15pm

Once best-known for being the most easterly point of mainland Australia and for its surfers and hippies, the sleepy coastal village of Byron Bay has been so inundated by urban hipsters of late, it’s been nicknamed “the new Bondi”.

Located 800 kilometres north of Sydney, a two-hour drive south of Brisbane, the town of 9,000 and its environs are now home to some of Australia’s biggest music festivals. These can see Byron Shire’s wider population of 30,000 easily double and even quadruple during events such as Splendour In The Grass and Bluesfest.

With a dozen surfing beaches and luxury resorts and Airbnb rentals, Byron is also a popular tourist destination, attracting more than two million holidaymakers each year.

But beyond the ephemeral visitors, more people are choosing to make a permanent move there – Among them, a swarm of creative refugees from Australia’s booming big cities.

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KPMG demographer Bernard Salt calls them ‘Lifestylepreneurs’, identifying the region as one of Australia’s top entrepreneurial hotspots in a report released last August by the federal government operated NBN, which is rolling out Australia’s National Broadband Network. Salt noted a four per cent uptick in Byron Bay start-ups since 2016 and 18 per cent business growth in the Byron Bay Hinterland towns since 2014.

Saasha Burns and Samuel Leetham are among the latest arrivals. The duo relocated their boutique vitamins business Bear – which launched in Lane Crawford’s beauty department in July – from Melbourne to Byron just before Christmas.

Paradise home...

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Burns, a model-turned-blogger, and Leetham, a former marketing executive at Mercedes-Benz Australia, wanted a quieter life – and less traffic.

“When I was working for Mercedes-Benz, I would spend two hours each day commuting, and that two hours is time that Saasha and I can spend on the business” says Leetham.

Adding to the town’s appeal, he says, is the influx of hospitality players, that are creating a foodie nirvana. They include sustainable produce specialist The Farm Byron Bay, the cafes Wood, Folk and 100 Mile Table and the award-winning restaurants Three Blue Ducks and Fleet.

“Connecting with those people and seeing what they’re achieving and their commitment to not only quality, but also innovation, trying to lead the world in a small beachside town in northern NSW, is really inspiring,” says Leetham.

Noted for its luxe bohemian aesthetic and tiered, print maxi dresses and rompers, Spell & The Gypsy Collective is Byron’s best-known fashion start-up, with an international celebrity clientele and 1.2 million followers across Instagram and Facebook.

The brand was initially launched in 2006 by Isabella Pennefather as a handmade jewellery line out of the Byron Bay Markets, after the former assistant to Melbourne designer Nicky Burkill gave up her day job.

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Traffic, once again, was a key motivator.

“I was sitting in the car on Punt Road [Melbourne] and I went ‘Nah, I don’t want this to be my life, I’m sick of this traffic’,” says Pennefather, who knew Byron after ringing in several new years there and attending Bluesfest. “I quit my job a few days later, rang up my girlfriend, hopped in my Toyota Corolla that was falling apart and drove up.”

In 2009 she was joined by her sister Elizabeth Abegg, who quit her video editor job and home on Sydney’s Bondi Beach to move to Byron and work on the brand’s marketing side.

Abegg’s storytelling skills immediately came in handy, literally selling the Byron Bay lifestyle by shooting images of herself and Isabella in the brand’s newly launched fashion line around spectacular Byron locales. She then posted the shots to the Spell & The Gypsy Collective blog, that was attached to the brand’s fledgling web shop, from which they sold direct to their customers.

The birth of Pinterest and Instagram at around the same time helped them grow quickly.

“The fashion industry is an old industry that still has a lot of old business models playing out, especially in 2009 and 2010 when wholesale ruled and where there were all these big brands in Melbourne and Sydney that were kind of ruling the roost,” says Abegg. “By being up here in Byron Bay, it’s like we were liberated from that old way of thinking. I don’t think I would have ever started it in the same way in Melbourne or Sydney”.

Adds Pennefather, “I think when you’re designing in a city, you end up creating the clothes that you’d wear in a city – lots of slacks and leathers and tailored things. When I go to Melbourne it’s kind of hard to wear Spell sometimes. In Byron, we just make everything so light and flowy and beach-oriented.”

Spell’s Australian and US online boutiques account for 70 per cent of the business, with the brand’s flagship store at 15 Browning Street accounting for 10 per cent. Wholesale, with over 200 stockists in the USA, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Japan, accounts for 20 per cent.

In April 2014 American actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens put the brand on the map when she wore its long-sleeved red ‘Desert Wanderer’ playsuit to the Coachella music festival – with the product selling out overnight.

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In the same year, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth relocated from Malibu to Byron Bay with his Spanish-born actress wife Elsa Pataky and their three children.

Pataky has since become one of Spell’s biggest fans – not only frequently photographed in the brand and talking it up in interviews, but also recommending it to other celebrity friends whenever they are in town visiting the Hemsworths. Miley Cyrus, the fiancée of Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Matt Damon’s wife, Luciana Barroso, have both been photographed in the brand.

Husband-and-wife duo Lara and Matt Fells established their sustainable luxury leather-goods brand St Agni in the town after arriving in 2014.

“Matt and I were really attracted to the lifestyle Byron Bay offers as there really isn’t anywhere else like it,” says Fells, who hails originally from Tasmania, where she met her husband, a UK expat.

“The main advantage is the obvious one – you can work so hard all week, but the minute your weekend starts you’re on holiday,” she adds. “I don’t even know if St. Agni would exist if we were based anywhere else”.

Chloe Dunlop conceived the idea for her ethically sourced, hand-crocheted swimwear line She Made Me during a week’s holiday in Byron Bay in late 2012.

A former assistant buyer at Brisbane-based swimwear and street wear chain City Beach, Dunlop had just quit her job and was looking for a new direction, when a week-long artist residency came up for her former artist boyfriend at a beach house in the nearby hamlet of Belongil.

She tagged along, sketch pad in tow.

After drawings progressed to the first samples – crocheted by her grandmother – Dunlop moved to Bali, where she built up the artisan community that now handles the line’s production.

Eighty per cent of She Made Me’s sales are online, with the US, France and Spain the brand’s biggest markets.

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Wholesale stockists include Moda Operandi, Barneys New York, Shopbop, Stylebop and in Japan, Ron Herman, United Arrows and Iena.

In 2016, Dunlop and her new partner decided to return to Australia.

Sydney was their first choice as a new base – until they realised how expensive it had become. From 2012-2017 property prices in the city surged 75 per cent.

“The thought of moving back to Australia, the rent in Sydney and then getting a beautiful space … it was really overwhelming and it was like ‘Wow, we’re not going to have a very good lifestyle if our cost of living is tripling,’” says Dunlop.

“So then we were like, ‘Well, where do we want to be?’ Because the majority of our business is online, we don’t really need to be anywhere. I’m from the Gold Coast originally and my partner’s from the Sunshine Coast [both in southern Queensland]. We wanted to be somewhere that’s inspiring, somewhere warm and Byron’s just where we decided to come back to”.