Artist and designer Emily Wright is celebrating 20 years of Nancybird the only way she knows how – by continuing to design, make and collaborate on beautiful and sustainable pieces that reflect and celebrate the natural landscape.
Founded by Emily in 2002, the Melbourne-based fashion and homewares brand began life as a range of handmade bags and purses. She’s spent the last two decades building the brand’s reputation for quality, artisan made leather goods and nature-inspired prints.
“I started by making things in my spare time while studying printmaking,” Emily remembers. “I was just screen printing onto fabrics and making small purses and bags.
“I was really inspired by the growing independent design movement in Melbourne. It’s so widespread now, but at the time it was really new and unusual to see very small makers creating art-led products – design markets and online stores weren’t really a thing yet.”
Nancybird was strictly a leather goods brand for about a decade before Emily began to introduce new categories. This included a small range of printed silk apparel, footwear and homewares, allowing the brand to showcase its textile designs across more diverse products.
A lot can happen in 20 years, and Emily says there have been a few key moments that stand out in retrospect. One was the move into the brand’s warehouse in Northcote.
“I bought our warehouse in Northcote, Melbourne in 2008 after working from home for many years,” she says. “It was pretty special – a very big step in the business, and we’re still here today.”
Nancybird works with artisan communities and ethically certified manufacturers to produce its fabrics, garments and accessories, ensuring that every step of the supply chain is considered. Where possible, pre-COVID, Emily’s team would regularly visit the makers.
“Seeing our connection to the weaving community in central India – how it operates as an ecosystem of weavers, dyers, spinners, loomers, with everyone in the village working on a different part of the process – is very special. I love that we can be part of something so positive.”
Since the onset of travel restrictions, they’ve been leaning on social and/or environmental audits, insisting every manufacturer has an accreditation in either SMETA, SA8000 or Fair Trade to ensure that living wages are paid and supply chains are free from forced or child labour.
Emily says she sees the brand’s environmental impact in practical terms.
“Sustainability within Nancybird is a series of choices that we make, so it’s about making the very best possible choice – and this can sometimes mean not doing something,” she says.
“The main areas that we look at in our business are excellent material choices, from raw material through to manufacturing process and end of life; ethical making, in terms of working conditions and salary; preferencing sea over air freight; and careful ordering, to ensure we’re not over-producing.
“We also make good packaging and labelling choices by preferencing recycled, FSC, biodegradable, organic and so on; we use green energy in our HQ; and we make sure any waste is recycled or dealt with in the best way possible.”
The brand’s seasonal drops include artwork from collaborations with international and local artists, produced across a quality range of apparel, accessories and homewares.
“For many years we did one big range each Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer, and we would basically send out the full collection at the start of the season,” Emily says.
“We’ve since split those main ranges into four much smaller capsule collections that drop about a month apart. We’ve found it works better to focus on smaller collections – each piece gets a little moment in the sun.”
Ultimately, when Nancybird pieces go out into the world, the designer says she hopes they bring joy to their owners.
“I hope they’ll be worn for years and treasured,” she says, “or used daily and loved until there’s no more love to give.
“It’s important to me too that the ‘end-of-life’ options don’t mean going into landfill to never break down. Almost every component of our items is a natural material which will break down over a reasonably short amount of time, whereas synthetics, unfortunately, take hundreds of years.”
So what can we expect from the next 20 years? Emily says she tends not to look beyond a year or two ahead, but she does have her eye on a few artists she’d like to collaborate with, and she looks forward to more regular visits with Nancybird’s makers.
“I like the size we are now, so big growth is not what we’re about,” she says. “Evolving and getting better at what we do is the aim.”