FASHION Declare Denim’s unique, handmade denim jackets are conscientiously and sustainably put together for those who consider themselves disruptors and part of a cultural shift. Jack Yan interviews its founder Clare Hamilton
Photographed by Matthias Carette
Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.
Declare Denim is getting internationally noticed as a new fashion label based in Melbourne, Victoria, thanks to those in the know who seek something that’s literally unique—everything they do is a one-off—and good for the environment, which is not often easy given how much water is used during denim production.
The brand, founded by Clare Hamilton and Damon Mayoh, had a running start last year during the pandemic, and has met with growing success, along with the beginnings of international recognition. Their handmade commissions, denim jackets that bridge the worlds of sustainability and performance, have already met with rave reviews. And these aren’t shabby jackets that look as though they’re made from reclaimed materials, even though at the core they are upcycled: each original Declare Denim piece has both structure and strength, a look that its creators call ‘rock ’n’ roll chic.’
‘Declare Denim fans are disruptors,’ reads the official introduction, ‘ready to join a cultural shift and look good doing it.’
Declare Denim spun off from the already successful Coffee & Clothes Belgrave, a sustainable fashion boutique run by the duo, who are also a couple outside of work. They had gained a reputation for practising what they preached when it came to sustainability—from how they live every day to the materials used in the shop as well as in the fashion—and their customers loved them for it.
Mayoh, with his background in building, fitted out Coffee & Clothes’ Parisian-style boutique with mostly reclaimed materials, with stunning results. And Hamilton was already making Declare Denim designs there, where the brand found its first fans. During the pandemic, Hamilton and Mayoh believed it was strong enough to stand on its own—a move that has proved to be the right one in the months that followed.
As Hamilton explains, ‘Like many other businesses during COVID, our sustainable fashion boutique was hit hard and did not survive. Damon and I love silver linings and by this time Declare Denim had already taken flight as part of our boutique’s clothing line. We were already selling our jackets regularly to much applause, so the moment our boutiques doors closed for the very last time we discussed Declare’s next move. We loved the brand with a passion, people loved our fledgling brand. We don’t do things by halves, so it was right then and there we decided we were going to take it global.’
As Coffee & Clothes shut, Mayoh set to work with the new space. ‘There was shelving up and workspaces within 24 hours,’ says Hamilton. ‘He is my cheerleader, partner in design and without him this brand just would not be what it is.’
The couple’s history goes back to their teenage years and is one of those love stories usually associated with romantic films.
Growing up in the UK, Hamilton watched her New Zealand-born mother make and design her own clothes. ‘I would watch starry-eyed when she would leave the house in some amazing dress or another that her Mum, my Nan, had helped sew her into at the last minute to attend a grand ball with my Dad.’ Her Nan, once a seamstress at the Co-operative Clothing Factory in England, was the one who taught her to sew (Hamilton made clothes for her dolls); and going back another generation, her great-grandmother sewed costumes for the Old Vic.
With the Thatcher government in power (‘ruining the place’, Hamilton recalls her parents saying), the family decided to emigrate to find better opportunities than were available in the UK.
She recalls, ‘When I first arrived in Australia I was 15 years old with a very strong English accent. I went to the local school in Melbourne’s southeast and was introduced as “the new girl”. It was in that very first class on the very first day, the first kid I laid eyes on was Damon, sitting there sheepishly staring back at me beneath dark eyelashes. It was literally love at first sight and we were inseparable for almost two years. Kids are kids and we went our separate ways.
‘Fast forward almost 30 years. Damon had been looking for me for a decade and had got in touch with several Clare Hamiltons, none of which were me. He was living in Darwin when he found me, I live in Melbourne. After just a few long phone conversations we realized our deep love for each other had never left us. He literally got in his car, drove across the country to me and we are now engaged to be married in the UK next year. We still can’t believe it ourselves.’
That reunion had other positive effects. Hamilton had established a career in business training, sales and management. ‘It wasn’t until I reconnected with Damon four years ago that he encouraged me to start indulging in the more artistic side of my personality that was bursting to get out. This has been a breath of fresh air that came at the perfect time in my life. I felt like not only did I have the passion and ability to design, but I was ready. My background in business management and training was also key to starting Declare, it gave our plans for the label a strategic backbone.’
There was no looking back with the label. ‘I have so much inspiration for my creations it’s hard to decide which one takes priority! I’m inspired by so much. Whether it be a song, a particular base jacket with amazing panels or even a small piece of appliqué, I often conjure the deep and multi-layered story in my mind before setting to work. There are invariably half a dozen designs or more at various stages of production in the workshop.’
But do the available materials limit her? How difficult is it to source the items to upcycle? Hamilton responds enthusiastically: ‘I love this question! I’m sure all those out there reading this who love to rework their own garments face similar challenges. It’s what makes what we do so unique, varied and sometimes very time-consuming! I believe it really all comes down to the creative’s imagination. This is one of my absolute favourite parts of what I do. Sometimes a piece all comes together with the right bits that I might have in the workshop, sometimes a jacket will take six months while I try and source what I need to bring the garments story together, sometimes it will all fall in a heap and I need to completely start again!’ Being based in Australia, which has managed to keep COVID-19 under control compared to many other nations, she is able to get out and source jackets and embellishments.
With every piece hand-selected, the time that each jacket might take varies greatly, from a couple of weeks to months. Number six, dubbed The Serpent, took 10 months to finish. Hamilton calls it ‘a labour of love’: ‘the embellishments were cut from a vintage satin cocktail dress and the song to the garments story was “China Girl” by David Bowie. For anyone who loves this song and has seen the video clip, they will notice that the jacket is part-glamour and part-military.’
At the time of the interview, Declare Denim had its 35th design in the works, also with a song—music is very important to Hamilton. ‘We keep an “authenticity register” of each piece created. All our garments have a Declare label sewn into it, with that creation’s name, number and my signature handwritten on the back before it’s attached. When an item is purchased, our customer’s name and contact details are linked to their unique garment on the authenticity register. Although it would be almost impossible in the first place, it ensures that should their garment ever be reproduced, they have the original,’ she says.
She says she has had a lifelong love of music, drawn to ‘songs with a story,’ and feels that we are all affected by vibration—a belief held not just by ancient cultures but by a fields of scientific study. ‘Dermot Kennedy and Tash Sultana are making a big appearance right now, although when it’s just me in the workshop there is always a solid core on my playlist which is the older, more alternative stuff I grew up with, like Kate Bush, Chris de Burgh and Peter Gabriel. You’ll never catch me listening to jazz though, jazz makes all my cells go in the wrong direction,’ she says.
‘One other sound you’ll hear in my workshop is me jumping up and down clapping my hands together and squealing, “I love it, I love it!” because a creation is coming together fabulously. But yes, music and our jackets are inextricably bound, saturated in feeling.’
Ninety-nine per cent of each creation, including its embellishments, has its foundation in vintage or pre-loved fashion. Hamilton adds, ‘The majority of our finished creations are PETA- approved vegan, unless a particular jacket is marked otherwise, which is very rare. We are also in the process of gaining accreditation through Ethical Clothing Australia which is extremely exciting.’
‘As a slow-fashion brand, our mantra is “No seasons, no collections.” We’d like to think rather that in the future each garment will not only hold its value due to its high-quality uniqueness, but potentially increase in value. We make these jackets to last a lifetime.’
Hamilton believes that everyone has a role to play in living more sustainably: ‘I do think with climate change, plastic pollution, poor governance and deforestation being such major topics, the issues feel so hugely overwhelming that it can paralyse us. We wonder what we as one person can do to effect change. I recently read something very inspiring which I’d love to personally share with your readers with my hand on my heart: if every adult on our planet does just one single thing every day to live a more sustainable life, that’s billions of changes in just one day toward a cleaner future for us, our kids and the planet we call home.
‘The next question of course is, “But where do I start?” Hop on to your search engine and type in “easy ideas for a more sustainable lifestyle”. I would love your audience to share with me on our Instagram [@declare_denim] what they chose to do for that day! We need to tackle these issues individually but know that we are part of a global collective all doing the same.’
She sees the pandemic as an event that has given people some ‘much-needed down time, rather than running on that hamster wheel without taking a breath. The world has become so frenetic and people are struggling to cope. I don’t feel it’s a reset, so much as a wake-up call for the world to start asking questions on many fronts. What are we doing all this for? What’s really important? What do we really want? I think as a result humanity is waking up to the need for a slower life. Slower food. Slower fashion. Slower consumption in general.’
Future plans will still be centred on denim, says Hamilton, with ‘a tonne of inspiration for how to use this versatile and historic fabric,’ especially as they would rather consumers not contribute to the high water usage in new denim production. Expansion is on the cards for the second half of 2021, with a bigger workshop and greater staff numbers. And they foresee keeping the core of the Declare Denim brand exclusive. Working with Wear the Future in Los Angeles, Hamilton is looking forward to seeing US celebrities don her creations. They’ve also teamed up with the Canvas, which has sustainable fashion houses in the US and Belgium. It’s a particularly exciting time for this Australian label, which proves that taking chances and finding those silver linings can be some of the best choices one can make. •
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