Photo by Saskia Wilson
In Australia’s Byron Bay, you can’t swing a hammock without hitting four start-ups.
The sleepy beachside town in northern New South Wales has been roused by a business boom, with a surge of young upstarts choosing to put down roots in the sand, far away from their contemporaries in Sydney and Melbourne.
“Physically it’s not that different to when I moved up,” says Elizabeth Abegg, one half of the duo behind Byron Bay-born fashion brand Spell & The Gypsy Collective (or Spell, to its devotees). “It’s more the different people, the businesses and the micro-fashion industry that’s blown up there. That’s been incredible to watch.”
Since joining forces with her sister Isabella (nicknamed Spell) in 2009, Lizzy has been privy to the transformation.
“For a little rural town, it is somewhere you could take your fashion label and just have everything you need. It’s not just that creative labels are being born from Byron, people are now moving their labels there as well,” she says.
The fashionistas aren’t the only ones turning their heels on the high street. Soon after launching in 2011, Jack Media, one of the Asia-Pacific’s fastest-growing technology companies, relocated their offices to Byron, turning over AU$6 million in the four years since. And while Spell was spawned offline, its growth owes thanks to the internet’s boundless virtual playground.
“One of the biggest things I would attribute to our success was those early decisions to focus online,” says Lizzy, grateful that her sister had the foresight to start a “dodgy old html website”.
“On top of all your little grassroots, hand-painted signs,” she smiles at Isabella, who launched Spell with her handmade jewellery at the Byron markets.
“Somewhere along the line she got a website, and as part of that, a crappy blog as well,” which, Lizzy, utilising her film editing background, set about populating with photo shoots of their whimsical wares. It was right about the time blogs like Oracle Fox and Tuula Vintage were taking off. “It was just this really fun, new world and we just jumped in.”
Spell’s digital sales started climbing – today accounting for 70 to 80 per cent of their revenue.
“It seems everyone else at the time was wholesaling, and then they’ve grown their online presence later,” adds Isabella. “We were the opposite way around, and focused on online first – something that wasn’t as common back then as it is now.”
But in the early days of the business, the duo did try their luck with retailers – stashing their feathered and gem-stoned jewellery in pillow case-lined Tupperware containers and trawling the streets of Brisbane.
“One of the stores did actually make a big order,” Lizzy recalls. “But at the time, it was a pretty fruitless effort. I could sit at home on my computer and do a blog post and make more money than what we would have made [pounding the pavement]… Rather than getting to know 20 wholesalers, we were getting to know 1000 customers.”
That was before Instagram, which like so many fashion brands and blogs, took Spell to ridiculous new heights, today enjoying more than half a million followers.LabelK
“Businesses aren’t necessarily starting at the markets anymore,” says Isabella. “It used to be that they all started at the markets and then went online and then maybe got a shop. But it’s like the businesses now are just starting on Instagram… It doesn’t matter if you’re in a small town, everything’s online.”
Born in Melbourne to two creative parents, with a bathroom that doubled as a darkroom, the girls say it was little wonder they chose this path.
“We both, at one point, had these corporate jobs calling us,” says Isabella, who studied fine art and almost found herself in graphic design before landing a job with a fashion designer in Collingwood, Victoria.
“I’d have to sit in traffic for an hour to get to work, and I had this epiphany on Punt Road. I was like, ‘No, I do not want to have this life’. So literally packed up my car, quit my job, and drove up… That was before Byron Bay was on the map. It was just this cute little hippie town.
“I just was one of those people that was searching, you know?” says Lizzy, who left behind a home in Sydney’s Bondi Beach and a 10-year strong career in film. “I just booked a flight to Bali, met Spelly there and we had our first design meeting. Within about a month, I’d moved to Byron.”
They were flat broke, so Lizzy got a job at a cafe while Isabella worked at a hostel.
“We had a shop in the industrial estate to start, and even that, to me, was mind-blowing,” says Lizzy.
“But it was so cheap. It meant that we could have no money and still get a space, and have a studio.
We started off sub-letting it to four other artists, and as we grew, we had to get them out and expand.”
With 40 staff, a fully-fledged lifestyle brand and a flagship store that’s become something of a tourist attraction, Spell now shares the hood with similarly bohemian brands Arnhem and Goddess of Babylon, begging the question: Is there competition brewing in Byron?
“I’ve just always had this attitude of, abundance is better,” says Lizzy. “If everyone helps each other, we’re going to create a better space here that’s more conducive to creative processes.
“We don’t own the boho thing… if you’re sitting there being annoyed at someone next to you, you’re not moving forward. You’re not being innovative, you’re not trying new things – and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Their focus is currently on the US, where Spell’s presence on Free People, Revolve and Shopbop has garnered them attention on the ground, but they say Spell’s home will always be Byron, where the only drawbacks are the two-day shipping lag and not having manufacturers on hand – an obstacle they address by producing in Bali.
“We’re not in the city fashion world,” says Isabella. “We don’t know what the world is doing. We just do our thing.”