“Products need to be beautiful, they need to be practical and they need to be loved in order to be sustainable. People need to value their clothing.”

Those are the words of Lis Harvey, the designer and founder of Brisbane-based intimates label NICO. She’s squeezing in a phone chat with me between running two fashion labels and managing a household with a little one.

Her brand is known for its unwavering ethics when it comes to production and use of sustainable materials. But the designer says it’s been a long journey to get there.

“As a photographer I was always involved in great creative projects but generally I was called in at the last minute to execute on someone else’s vision,” Lis says.

“I wanted to be a bit more involved in the development of the creative projects and oversee them from start to finish. I was craving that.”

NICO Underwear

Lis went through a number of ideas but kept coming back to her own personal pain point, which was an inability to find the underwear she was seeking.

Identifying a gap in the market in the early 2010s, she decided to put her passion into action.

She spent the next two years learning the practical skills required to start and run a fashion label.

“My education as a photographer taught me a lot about design and visual communication and understanding how to present something visually. I think that was all really valuable. But I also needed some more practical skills.”

The self-taught fashion designer got to work on the first range of the NICO products, creating the range by hand in her Brisbane studio.

As a one-person band, Lis’s ethics and sustainability were pretty clear. It wasn’t until the label grew that she saw some red flags in the industry that needed to be addressed.

“At the beginning it was pretty simple because I made the first range myself. But as we grew and I started seeking out suppliers, it became clear that there were some pretty serious issues in the fashion industry.”

Nico plant dyed basics

At this time, in 2012, there wasn’t as much information available about the fashion industry’s treatment of workers and the impact it was having on the planet. But for Lis, it was a matter of personal ethics.

“I didn’t want the garments to be made by factories which I didn’t know or have any control over how they treat their workers. At the end of the day, it came down to how I wanted to run a business,” she says.

“NICO was a project that was born out of wanting to create something beautiful. To tarnish that with a dodgy supply chain would have defeated the purpose of it all.”

The NICO products include underwear, bras and basics in a number of sustainable fibres including Lensing Modal, recycled and organic cotton, and recycled nylon for swimwear.

The garments are made ethically in Australia and India, and NICO shares detailed information about its suppliers and partners on the shop website. Lis also visits the factories annually as well as relying on third party audits and certifications.

She says it’s been a journey to get to where they are with their suppliers.

“I did a lot of research into suppliers around the world. We made a shortlist. I went over and spent some time with them, hung out at the factory. We hadn’t commissioned any work, I was just hanging around, getting to know them, and explaining our values and how we want to do business.

“These days we have amazing partners who are also on a sustainability journey and equally as invested in creating quality garments with minimal environmental impact.”

Lis still uses her photography skills to produce and publish a beautiful photo journal of the NICO garments for the NICO at home series, which you can find on the shop website.

Nico intimates

She’s also launched the sister label Little Elinor inspired by her baby girl, through which she produces plant-dyed organic cotton staples for babies.

The NICO collection continues to evolve as Lis explores different fabrics and new ways to lower the brand’s environmental impact.

You can keep up to date with the brand’s movements and shop NICO here.