‘We were accused of all sorts’: Lisa Gorman on learning from old mistakes

The exhibition includes works by many of the artists who have collaborated with Gorman over the years including Miranda Skoczek.

As a new exhibition opens at Heide museum, the designer reflects on 20 years in fashion, devoted fans and colourful collaborations

Lisa Gorman is celebrating a milestone few Australian fashion designers get to enjoy – the 20th anniversary of her label. “The fact that we’re still here is a good thing in this volatile industry,” says the Gorman founder and creative director.

Gorman is one of Australia’s most successful womenswear labels, but there’s more to it than brisk sales. Dedicated fans, aka Gormies, gather in Facebook clothes-swap groups 8,000-strong. Non-fashion people have opinions on the brand and can drop a casual “is that Gorman?” as if a peck on the cheek when greeting a brightly attired acquaintance. In certain inner-city areas of Australia, Gorman products seem more ubiquitous than Nike and with more enviable brand recognition, relying on nothing so obvious as a logo.

The label is known for its fun take on women’s clothing, unconfined by the expectation to be sexy or even conventionally flattering. Brooke Babington, curator of a new exhibition, Gorman: Ten Years of Collaborating, at Victoria’s Museum of Modern Art Heide, says the brand has become known for its “playful and inventive approaches to colour, pattern and form”.

Gorman donated this delicately embroidered dress to the museum as a tribute to artist Mirka Mora, who collaborated with the label.

“Geometric and botanical imagery, bold juxtapositions in colour and imaginative treatments of traditional materials are all part of Gorman’s distinct and recognisable design aesthetic,” she says.

The label began in 1999 with eight unisex pieces that Gorman made in between nursing shifts at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and sold through her friend’s store, Fat. Aided by its 2010 part sell-off to fashion conglomerate Factory X, Gorman has grown to 40 eponymous boutiques scattered through the shopping centres and cafe strips of Australia and New Zealand.

But success has been a double-edged sword. The low point for the company came in 2016, when Baptist World Aid Australia’s Ethical Fashion Report gave it a failing grade . Gormies were gutted. They had not paid $300 a lobster-print dress for this.

Speaking on the record about the incident for the first time, Gorman is careful to acknowledge the good work done by charities in the sector but describes their case as “extraordinarily unfair”. The label’s grade was awarded not on the basis of the company’s policies or practices but for non-participation. She feels they were made an example of because of their passionate fanbase.

Gorman has collaborated with a number of artists through the years including close friend Rhys Lee, whose work is seen in the background.

“It was personally kind of harrowing because I knew that we worked with good factories, I knew that we weren’t using children,” she says. “We were accused of all sorts of things.”

Gorman takes all this to heart – it’s her name on the product, and she still sees the company, even under Factory X, as a small “family business”. Remote factories are also trusted collaborators – the company prides itself on working consistently with the same manufacturers (64% for more than five years, 31% more than 10).

But consumers need more than the word of a company’s creative director, and in the years since, Gorman has worked to enable NGOs’ systematic auditing. It publishes factory and suppliers details, communicates more with watchdogs, and has been trending ever upward in subsequent reports, scoring above average.

Fair or not, Gorman’s shaming had an impact. Not only has the company improved its practices, so have many in the industry. Gorman says other brands ring her for advice now, wanting to avoid the same mistakes. In tangible terms, Baptist World Aid reports that when it started auditing in 2013, only one-sixth of companies were publishing supplier lists. Now it is double that. For organisations in the field, this is what matters.

“The key starting point for ethical fashion is transparency,” says Gordon Renouf, co-founder and chief executive of independent ethical fashion aggregator Good On You. “Consumers have a right to access relevant and accurate information about how brands impact on the issues that matter to them, such as workers and the environment.”

A Gorman outfit on display at the Heide Museum of Modern Art

For now, Gorman is focused on celebrating ten years of the brand’s artist collaborations – the subject of the Heide exhibition as well as a new 50-piece collection. Guest artists, typically one per season, have provided a vital injection of fresh ideas for Gorman. These have included 1950s legend Mirka Mora, large-scale muralist Rhys Lee and the Melbourne Museum, who turned over their gem collection for a rare 3D starting point. Gorman hopes to feature ethnic or Indigenous artists one day, but to avoid appropriation, she says it will likely happen with a different, more careful process.

Sustainability remains another priority for the brand, which has been a long time champion of sustainable fabrics. 25% of its clothing has come from certified organic textiles, although that’s on track to double to 50% this year.

The jump is substantial, although it might not win back the hearts and minds of Gorman’s drifting fans, who see new brands entering the market with a wholly green proposition. Everyone has different expectations now. “If I was starting a business today, I would say to myself, ‘100%[organic] every product. It’s got to meet very high sustainable standards,” says Gorman. “Often it’s harder to shift a business into an environmentally sustainable model than it is to start one with a sustainable model.” For now, she’s working on making things better for the next 20 years.

  • Gorman: Ten years of collaborating is on at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Victoria until 17 March