When ultra-chic techie Susien Chong met semi-fashionable Luddite Nic Briand back in the late 90s, there was a bit of a language barrier.
For a start, Susien and her designer sneaker-clad mates all congregated around fancy computers — Nic, more of a lead pencil and sketchpad kind of guy, didn’t quite understand their dialect. And when Susien and her friends would sit around deconstructing the latest European runway trends, Nic was utterly lost in translation. “I would hear all her friends saying: ‘You just have to see this season’s Prada’ and I was like: ‘What is a Prada?’” He laughs, adopting a self-deprecating whine: “Tell me what a Prada is! I want to see a Prada too!” The trendy girls on computers just rolled their eyes. “They were like: ‘Oh, who brought the hippie? Who brought the art student with no money?’”
Almost 20 years later, Nic is well versed in Prada but those kinds of differences remain and they’re what make Nic and Susien’s relationship thrive. The long-time lovers are also the creative magic behind Lover, a Sydney label that’s become synonymous with lace but which eschews much of the floaty, flouncy daisy-chain romance often associated with it. It’s all about contrast and, as Nic and Susien say, different textures “rubbing up” against each other. Leather and lace. Canvas and lace. And, for 2015, slick tailoring and lace. “This season we’ve done a bunch of suiting that basically is derived from military-style detail, ” Susien explains.
Nic is insistent the lace remains edgy. “The issue is that when you say lace there’s a connotation that comes with it ... when we’re dealing with lace we’re like: ‘This could get into far-too-pretty territory.’ That’s the danger of lace but there are so many other pluses and possibilities. It’s a fantastic fabric to work with and we’re very lucky that’s become our signature because it’s timeless and it’s inherently feminine. There’s something about white lace that sends a good majority of women loco.”
Lover white lace midi dress. Picture: Rob Duncan
At last month’s David Jones launch, Lover’s lace certainly took centrestage: Jessica Gomes wore a black lace dress that illustrated Lover’s ability to straddle sexy and serene. Although DJs only invests in a select slice of each designer’s range, Susien says the store has always “very solidly backed” Lover’s lace.
Given Nic and Susien’s affinity with lace, it’s not surprising they also make a popular lingerie range, featuring elegant pieces that inspire some to wear their underwear as outwear. “We did a bra-lette and it turned up on Instagram quite a lot, ” Nic recalls with a chuckle. “I said to Susien at one point: ‘Did we make that as a top’ and she’s like ‘No, she’s just worn it like that’.”
The designers love to see women create a personalised look from their clothes. Beyonce Knowles caused a flurry of excitement last year when she teamed a floral Lover shirt with denim cut-offs and black tights — one of several high-profile women to have embraced the brand. Miranda Kerr is often snapped in Lover lace dresses, while Este Haim from the Californian group Haim and Julia Stone have both worn Lover on stage.
The concept of international celebrities as clients would have never occurred to Nic and Susien when they were hawking a small range at Bondi markets in 2001. The couple met while they were at university in 1996 and have rarely spent time apart since. “We live and work together so let’s add up all those hours, ” Nic says. “It’s more like we’ve been together for 36 years. Oh man. Look at the smile on my face!”
He says their often disparate visions create a tension that supercharges their creative relationship. “Sometimes it’s a perfect mix, other times it’s like, oh gee...” They talk about having their own special shorthand so that if they haven’t already anticipated what the other is thinking, they can work it out very quickly. “We’ve both got the same values and the same taste level but sometimes we’re just off on a different thing. We describe it as the same album, different songs.”
Both were always determined on a gradual, strategic growth rather than blindly rocketing to stardom. “I think we’ve just been very pragmatic, like it’s just slow and steady, ” Nic says. “We were around for 10 years before we went into David Jones and there were the odd discussions here and there of working with them and we wanted to get to a point where we were going to do it right.”
Susien admits their cautious business plan, which includes just two retail stores and a presence in almost 100 multi-brand shops worldwide, “can be less sexy” than the labels which covet Kardashian bums on their Paris fashion show front-row seats. “But then when we stop and reflect on what we have achieved in the 13 years and what we’ve built and the strength of the aesthetic and what people often say to us — ‘Oh, I saw this film and it’s really Lover’ or ‘There’s this great painter, their work is totally up your alley because it’s so Lover’. When we reflect on it, that’s actually something a lot bigger than showing in Paris or those other things that other designers do that are exciting and sexy and fun.” Nic adds: “And, you know, profit in the bank is really sexy too.”
Designers Nic Briand and Susien Chong. Picture: mystylematterz.com
The chilled-out designers make a concerted effort to nurture the creative side of the brand while ensuring the business side is well tended. They also make sure they get plenty of relaxation time, even if they fall asleep a few minutes into a foreign film. They both love collecting books and have been known to track down kooky, out-of-the-way bookstores on overseas holidays just to find that first-edition art book.
And they love their Potato — a British shorthair cat with a perennially nonchalant gaze. “We’ve been together for 18 years so we thought we need a third party in this relationship to receive our love and attention. But we got the wrong kind of breed because she’s like ‘Please, just leave me alone’.”
Potato, which the couple insist is “very fluffy” — not fat — has earned something of a cult following. “She’s better known than us, ” Susien says, laughing. “We went to US Vogue about a year and a half ago and we got there and the two editors came out to meet with us. They said: ‘So, first off: your cat, let’s talk about your cat.’”
© The West Australian