I’d never given much thought about clothing as a storytelling medium until I met Sarah Conners.

I met Sarah on the branding project for Found by Cafs - CAFS, Children and Family Services had a series of op shops (locals will recall Wozzles) that they wanted to rebrand and turn into a single fashionable store that sold curated second hand clothing. Sarah was the project manager and her experience as a fashion designer, maker and educator brought the style and panache required to make FOUND pop. 

Sarah introduced me to the storytelling properly of clothing. As someone who pretty much exclusively shops in op shops I was already on board with the sustainability and cost effectiveness of buying preloved but Sarah exposed me to the ingrained meaning that clothing has. I’m sure everyone has at least one item of clothing that holds more value than the sum of its parts - a favourite leather jacket that you’ve had for years, a band t’shirt you got at that gig or a pair of jeans that are just perfect in every way.

Unfortunately the FOUND store never materialised as we expected and I thought all the work we’d done would sit in my Dropbox unused, forever. Then earlier this year, as I was walking through Ballarat town, I glimpsed my FOUND logo! CAFS had a pop up store for a couple of months. The store was amazing since Sarah had curated most of what was on sale. 

I brought a few things, a new (old) coat, a black corduroy cowboy shirt that’s 4 sizes too big and a few pairs of clip-on earrings for Alice. I was really pleased to see all of the design in use, especially the tags. We designed these swing tags that we imagined people would write on when they donated their outfits. So many people have special items of clothing that they never wear but are too precious and meaningful to donate to an op shop. We thought that by giving people the opportunity to share their story they’d be more likely to donate those special items and when the next person buys the dress/coat/shoes they’d have this beautiful little story that went with it.

Mock up of Swing Tags

The pop up store only lasted a couple of months and the last few days were a frenzy as they tried to sell as much stock as possible. I had picked over the racks quite well so I was sure I didn’t miss anything but I went in one last time just to make sure. With everything being $1 my fashion sense got a touch more adventurous. I ended up buying a few dresses and one of them happened to be ‘The Dress’.

‘The Dress’ was probably in peak fashion in 1982, the year I was born. It’s magenta with a black pattern that only the 80’s could conjure up. It’s a mixed bag of diagonal lines, black spots and cross hatching. The silky material forms a long sleeve top with ¼ sized shoulder pads (giving just the right amount of edge) and bellowed sleeves that finish at a tight buttoned cuff. Along the shoulder line are buttons made of the same fabric as the dress. The top of the dress gathers at the waist where it meets the skirt which is shin length and has a tight pleat the whole way round.

When I brought this dress home Matt asked me if I’d got it for the dress up box. Feeling a little embarrassed and said yes but put it in my wardrobe just in case. To be honest the dress was so well made that I felt bad chucking it in the dress up box. It really is a piece of art.

Fast forward to last weekend and I had invited Sarah Conners to the Poco Film Festival which is Ballarat’s first ever Short Film Festival put together by Mass Motion. I was excited to go with Sarah because she would appreciate ‘The Dress’, I could hear her egging me on to wear it. Unfortunately she couldn’t attend at the last minute so I rang another Sarah (I have a thing for Sarah’s) and bravely wore ‘The Dress’ regardless.

When I brought tickets for Poco months ago I just got General Admin and when I arrived with my new Sarah we went in the GA entrance but something wasn’t right - the outrageousness of ‘The Dress’ didn’t belong in GA so we just asked the attendant if we could just mosey on upstairs where all the mingling and free bubbles was happening. She of course let us in because we looked VIP as fuck!

We fit right in with the chit chat and were enjoying the hustle and bustle of the party. At one point the professional photographer for the event started pulling people out of the crowd to take photos in front of the Poco photo wall. She was squeezing past us in the crowded room and stopped in her tracks.

‘That dress’ she exclaimed! 

Before I had time to blush we were posing for shots in front of the photo wall! Sarah, knowing I was in my $1 dress was delighting in the attention just as much as I was! I wish I had a copy of the photos we took but I couldn’t find them! We continued mingling and until Rob Carlton who was MCing the event came in and welcomed all of the directors, film makers, actors and VIP’s to enter the theatre because the screening was about to start.

I put my hand on Sarah’s shoulder and she gave me a knowing node acknowledging that we weren’t supposed to be there. We weren’t VIPs. We were a couple of local Ballarat ladies who had gone to see a few short films on a Saturday night. The dress, the $1 dress up box dress had got us in - we were convinced of it! Why else would someone wear such an amazing outfit? ‘The Dress’ had just weaved another wonderful story into its shiny, 40 year old fabric. 

Given the option of an item of clothing with a unique story attached or a trendy one off hit, I’m always going to go for the outfit with meaning. I love spending time in old, weird op shops looking for a hidden gem amongst the rough. My fashion involves investment, I love the thrill of the hunt. The opposite of course is Fast Fashion which is a massive problem in today's consumer society.

If I do happen to wander into a regular clothing store I find myself completely disconnected from what hangs on the rack. Apart from the obvious socks and jocks I really do try to buy all of my clothes preloved - it's a simple and small way I can personally reduce landfill and while updating my wardrobe with weird and wonderful things. 

From a design perspective it's the equivalent of the chosen typeface and colour palette used to represent your brand. Coincidently I worked with Sarah Conners on her personal branding after our work together with FOUND. Her expertise in the fashion industry and commitment to slow fashion over fast fashion was inspiring.

When you bring awareness and purpose to your wardrobe you’re essentially creating a memory box filled with stories and experiences. Every item of clothing you wear says something about you and if you're lucky, that collection may even have a $1 gem that will get you into the VIP section. 

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