Danielle Sanders is the creative and business mind behind the Australian fashion label, Ella Sanders. Since Danielle started it in 2011, Ella Sanders has developed a cult following for its timeless designs and beyond-beautiful knitwear.
Danielle is in the midst of her busiest time of year in the run up to Christmas. She is also starting producing on her summer line for 2018 (keeping in mind that the Australia summer is this time next year) and already designing her winter 2019 collection.
On a sunny December afternoon, she took the time out from her hectic schedule to meet with me for a coffee near her store in the bayside Melbourne suburb of Brighton to talk all things fashion, career and inspiration. What shone through from our conversation was Danielle’s passion for and knowledge of textiles, and letting the construction and flow of the textile itself inform the design of each garment.
What did you study at University, prior to starting your career?
I initially did a Visual Arts degree, majoring in photography. I then took a gap year, during which I made scarves and headbands. I knitted them with huge knitting needles so they were thick and chunky knits. I literally went knocking on boutique doors around Melbourne and sold them myself. From this experience, I became interested in the construction of knitwear, so I went on to study textile design at RMIT, Melbourne, majoring in knitwear. During my three year degree, I did an eight month exchange to Finland, where I continued my studies of fashion and textile at UIAH in Helsinki.
On finishing your studies, what was your career path from there?
I started working at [Australian fashion and homeware brand] Country Road, working as a textile designer across all departments, including menswear, womenswear, childrenswear and homeware. I then moved into the Country Road homeware department for another three years. After that I left and worked for my sister who had a childrenswear brand here in Melbourne. At the same time I freelanced for an Australian beach brand as well as for Country Road. It was during this time that I started up Ella Sanders on the side.
From your studies and early days in your career, what are the things you learned that have stayed with you, either from a technical or personal point of view?
Learning the technical side of knitwear has flowed through my entire career and business. The pattern, colour, texture, the 3D form of the textile, so many different stitch combinations. That’s what appealed to me so much, which is why I chose to major in knitwear. Working in textile design in homeware at Country Road really reinforced that interest for me. I was able to focus on the construction of the textile and could create a much more considered colour, pattern and texture. This is what Ella Sanders is based on.
Did you always know you wanted to start your own business and fashion label?
Yes. From the days when I first started selling my scarves and headbands I knew I wanted my own brand. My brother and sister both have their own businesses, so I suppose it has always been in my family and in my own career plan.
What were the biggest challenges to starting your own business?
The biggest challenges are just getting the ball rolling. In fashion, you start off with a range of designs, get the samples made and then try to sell them. I initially started out by knocking on doors with my first Ella Sanders designs. But it was from exhibiting at trade shows, followed by finding a good agent with key relationships that the growth came.
In the early days, it wasn’t possible to employ anyone. So the challenge was doing every aspect of the business myself. It was a completely different experience to negotiate with suppliers for my own fledgling brand, compared to the streamlined processes and buying power that I experienced during my time as a designer at established companies like Country Road.
What do you find most rewarding about having your own fashion brand and business?
It is always exciting to get recognition, whether it’s online or social media, but especially seeing someone in the street wearing one of my designs. That’s very rewarding and quite cool. Having gained a good reputation, especially for my knitwear, is incredibly rewarding.
When I started out, I wanted to grow the wholesale business and start up my own shop. And to have achieved those things has been wonderful. I’m now ready to take the next step!
What is that next step for Ella Sanders?
We want to open another store in Melbourne. We are also working on making our online store a much more global presence, as we are receiving more and more orders from international customers every week.
How do you describe the Ella Sanders style?
It’s timeless, with a Scandinavian vibe. This probably comes from my time in Finland. Overall, the focus on the quality of the fabrics is what makes Ella Sanders stand out from other brands.
Tell us about your creative process, and where you get your inspiration from.
Since having children (Danielle, has two young children under the age of 4), my creative process has not been as “streamlined” as I’d like it to be!
In terms of inspiration, social media provides endless inspiration, but I always go back to my visual arts training, and look to art, vintage fashion, nature… Even looking back at my most successful designs and thinking about how I can improve, adapt and update them.
The creative process starts with me sending an A4 sketch of my stitch idea to the textile manufacturer. They make it for me and send back a swatch. I can then see how thick it is, how it sits on the body, how it drapes and moves. A lot of time goes into the construction of the stitch and how it all flows in the shape of the garment. I start with the textile, and it is the textile itself and its construction that gives the direction and inspires the design.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own creative business?
As a designer, there as so many online sources of inspiration, research & ideas these days. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to get off Instagram and follow your intuition. Also some of the biggest mistakes can be the best ones long term! Expect some things to go not as you planned and roll with it.
If you weren’t designing for and running Ella Sanders, what would you be doing?
I struggle with this question! I don’t think I would want to go back to designing for a big global brand. I would want to be working with a company like Woolmark, focussing on the textile itself, the yarn, the construction and technical side of textiles. Perhaps working with other designers behind the scenes in that context.
Ella Sanders is providing free shipping worldwide from now until Christmas. Check out her designs here.