On a gentle summer Monday I take the tram to Brunswick to visit fashion designer Caitlin Shearer at her studio—Toast Workroom, a female run communal space. Warm, smiling, she invites me in and makes me a cup of lemongrass tea. She looks like an Italian movie starlet from the 1940s, dressed in a black knee-length dress she’s made herself, paired with a red swipe of lipstick that could be Dior but she bought it from Kmart for ten dollars.
As she pours the tea, I admire the studio. There are maidenhair ferns in blue pots, posters and pictures, mirrors lined with silver and gold, and long white curtains designed to give everybody privacy yet all are drawn open today. She shares the space with four other women; a textile designer, a painter, a ceramicist and a jewellery maker named Rosaleen Ryan, who has pink hair and glittery earrings and is Caitlin’s housemate and friend. As we sit around the long wooden work table and talk, Rosaleen works quietly at the table, cutting gemstones for her jewellery. The colour pink is everywhere; in the bunches of dried flowers left over from Caitlin’s VAMFF show, in the pink calendar taped to the wall, full of events and meetings and across one week the word, “Mum”. My favourite dress from Caitlin’s latest collection, The Cupid Arrow Dress, hangs from a wooden beam, brilliant red and soft pink. Caitlin’s label, Caitlin She, is full of soft linen dresses and camisoles, shorts and skirts, silk jumpsuits and kimonos, all covered in her drawings and designs: native flowers, plants, nude bodies, couples kissing, squiggles and shapes, whatever she’s feeling and the colours she likes that week filters through her work. ‘I’m always watching visuals of clothing and hair styles and makeup and movements, I get lost in cinema three times a week, it’s a compulsion.’ We talk about Judy Garland films and how we both like watching Meet Me in St Louis because it’s the film where Vincent Minelli fell in love with her. ‘She just looks so beautiful in that film, and she was so good in it too, because she was in love.’ For Caitlin, reading biographies about powerful and creative women, their experiences and their approach to making helps her reflect upon her own life. ‘It’s important to read about how they felt and how I can relate my own problems and worries, because someone else has been through it too.’ Caitlin is endlessly creative in a way that is not overbearing, but inspiring. We talk about millennial pink, the colour of the moment, and Caitlin worries about how everything in her life is pink and if the colour goes out of fashion she’ll be inundated in these soft hues. But there’s more to pink than pretty girlishness. I’m reminded of a fairy dress I wore when I was younger, a wreath in my hair, glitter on my cheeks. For Caitlin, the colour eludes to an idea of softness; an approach to life and fashion that embraces nostalgia. Like dancing back to a different time.
Caitlin will soon celebrate her first Melbourne anniversary. One year ago, on a whim, she applied for a scholarship that would bring her to live and create in Melbourne. At the time she was tucked away in a house in the Blue Mountains, and then, suddenly, she had just three weeks to move herself and her cat, Mimi, to Melbourne. She’s thrived here, acclimatising to the work and lifestyle, being social, presenting herself as the face of her label, Caitlin She. Through Instagram, her online diary, she models the clothes herself, along with a vast group of talented and creative Melbourne friends. We talk about how Instagram has changed the way she can connect with others, and how she can present and sell her brand. ‘I’m presenting myself to the world in a way which I never had to do before, I want people to know me through the things that I make and how I make them. I use Instagram as an advertising platform in a way that is personal, and not pushy, like “everybody buy my stuff”. I’m investigating what being the face of Caitlin She means, I have a lot of feelings and moments that happen in my life that I don’t put on Instagram and the bigger Instagram becomes, the more private I am. I’m engaging with the world, but some things can remain a mystery.’
Last year at Christmas, Caitlin went home to her house near the beach in Copacabana, New South Wales. ‘I spent a lot of restorative time in the sun and by the water, going for walks with my Mum. It’s always nostalgic, thinking of home,’ she says. ‘Everything that you love so much is in a place that you’re not. Home is where there’s no pretence, it’s a part of your being.’ I empathise with her, it seems like me, she misses the ordinaries of home: the local shopping centre, the path near the beach, the back garden. Coming back to the city is always hard, the crush of people, deadlines and pressures, so to slow down away from the fashion world, Caitlin spends a lot of time going on day trips. ‘My friends and I formed a group we call The Adventure Women’s Club. We pack lunches, get in the car and have a day away from everything in nature.’ Her Instagram is full of these adventures. The group wear dresses and straw hats as they bend down to scoop water from a running stream, they have picnics in rose gardens, they actually run through fields. There are no phones and no distractions, just streams of sunshine. Caitlin says to me that she always cries going back into nature ‘I always forget that there are birds! There are trees! Everything is beautiful.’ She thinks for a moment, remembering a summers day. ‘We went to a place called Alfred Nicholas Memorial Garden in the Dandenongs one Sunday afternoon. A gorgeous picnic spot by the lake and everything felt soft. It was a minute to breathe and think, there were other people there sitting on picnic rugs and drinking wine and couples kissing. We haven’t done another Adventure Women’s Club in a while.’ But, a couple of weeks later when I look at the white blue light of Instagram, The Adventure Women’s Club are there in jeans and raincoats, walking through ferns, collecting water from a waterfall and sitting around a glowing fire. The joy they experience in nature takes me back to when I was little, hiking with my Dad, setting up the tent and eating dinner, the fire crackling, the night stars. For Caitlin, this way of life and fashion is all about softness and slowness, about caring for something, taking the time, appreciating everything. ‘I think to be pliable and vulnerable enough to let your emotions out is important, something that’s delivered with sincerity and truth with no aggressiveness.’ ‘Softness is without ego,’ says Rosaleen from her desk. They smile at each other, linked together through making, through life. Caitlin agrees. ‘Making softness is allowing things to come and be as they are and accepting things as they are. It’s important to be soft on yourself.’
My friend, Nura, comes to take photographs of Caitlin, and she moves around her studio, gathering up dresses to hold and notebooks to write in. Caitlin is serene, even though she says she doesn’t always know how to pose for photographs, and sometimes gets uncomfortable. As Nura snaps away, the outside sun hits the windows, Caitlin smiles. ‘You look so beautiful’ says Nura, showing her the camera. Caitlin looks at the photograph. ‘Oh!’ she says happily, ‘I do’.
Photographs by Nura Sheidaee.