How Sophia McMahon is Building a Brand
From the Ground Up
It takes a lot to build a fashion brand. Creativity, hard work and know-how for starters. Our conversation with fashion creative Sophia McMahon, the designer behind fashion newcomer autark, reveals more about what’s involved right from the get-go. Sophia was awarded the inaugural Premier’s Design Award at the Adelaide Fashion Festival in 2015. Autark has exhibited at the Virgin Australia Fashion Festival, the Melbourne Fashion Festival and the Adelaide Fashion Festival and the brand has only been operating for three years. Surprisingly, Sophia shares how she didn’t even think she COULD become a designer, let alone start a fashion label.
Sophia McMahon always had a love for fashion, aesthetics and design. But it was only as a mature age student that she finally decided to pursue her interest as an actual career path. With almost no knowledge about the industry Sophia enrolled to study Applied Fashion Design at TAFE SA to learn about the industry.
Says Sophia: “I was so grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the industry and all of the different roles within it. They are so wide and varied! The more that I learned about the fashion design role, I was able to see that this was the best fit for me, in relation to my skill set and the areas in which I’m not as strong. That was incredibly helpful for me.”
It’s a huge step to go from student to launching your own label, but that’s the ambitious move Sophia made upon completing her course. While many graduates opt to work for other brands before starting their own collection, as a mature age student, Sophia was impatient to get started. Sophia launched her label, autark, immediately and has continued to learn about the business of fashion on the job.
The name autark was chosen because the designer loved its sound. It’s meaning, from the German word for self-sufficiency and independence also resonated because Sophia always intended her label to be an ethical and independent label. “I think choosing a name is a really important part of piecing a brand together. It reflects the feeling that you want your brand to emote right from the outset. I was glad that the word autark has little meaning in the English language – I wanted a word to which I could bring my own meaning.”
Autark garments are designed and made in her home town of Adelaide, using 100% natural fibres. “I consider autark to be a slow fashion label, in that we produce one collection a year. Our aim is therefore to make the pieces as trans-seasonal as possible, while still playing with proportion, silhouette and details.”
Sustainability is incredibly important to the designer, both for her label and as a consumer. “It thrills me so much,” says Sophia, “to see more and more consumers demanding more of fashion brands in terms of sustainable and ethical practices. It gives me so much hope and optimism for the future of the fashion industry.”
Ethical, inclusive and transparent practices are central to autark’s brand. It’s important to Sophia that autark is a brand recognized for its integrity. To that end, Sophia’s biggest lesson about branding is that consistency is vital across all aspects of the business.
Surprisingly, designing her own clothing range and building a brand wasn’t a particular goal of hers when Sophia embarked on her course.
“I actually didn’t think I could be a fashion designer because my sewing skills weren’t strong enough. But I learned more about the industry, and also learned that I could bring others with other expertise in to help with the areas in which my skills weren’t as strong. Upon reflection it’s near impossible to do it all yourself, even if your sewing skills are impeccable! Although I do know of some incredible slow fashion designers who are able to manage it all.”
So how well prepared does she feel for each new step involved in building a brand?
“I think you can try to be prepared to a certain degree, but you can never be completely prepared for change. There’s a beautiful thing about unexpected events popping up, and figuring out how to navigate them.”
There’s no doubt it’s challenging, of course. And satisfying.
The most challenging? “Realising how many different areas of knowledge are required for the job. It’s a steep learning curve. The fashion and design aspect is obviously a huge part of the work, but the business side and everything involved in that respect is significant, varied and can be challenging. And new challenges pop up all the time. But it feels like an achievement to be able to navigate through them, and to learn more along the way.”
On the other hand, one of the most rewarding aspects of Sophia’s work is “without a doubt” seeing people living in and enjoying wearing an autark garment. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to how wonderful that feeling is.”
But it’s not all glamour, as most people seem to think. While there are definitely aspects of the industry that are fun, alluring and beautiful, the most common thread according to Sophia is hard work. Her view is that success comes with incredibly hard work. If that’s accompanied with strong convictions about the brand being built, it can be something that brings pride in the achievement and pleasure in seeing how others enjoy a designer’s creations.
The secret ingredient for anyone entering the fashion industry and wishing to establish their own fashion label, according to Sophia, is passion! It’s the passion that will be important in sustaining anyone in the industry through tough times. Tenacity, professionalism and initiative will also go a very long way. On top of that, it’s also important to enjoy successes as well, to sit back and reflect on achievements.
Sophia’s advice for new graduates? “Back yourself, take a risk, and more often than not it will pay off for you.”
– Follow Sophia’s journey on Instagram