By avi maxwel / in , , , , , , , , /

As online shopping became nascent, Mathews knew she had to “develop a language to tell people who we were, what we stood for”. She spent “so much money” on consultants, trying to articulate the Lee Mathews brand, she says.

“These were questions I’d never really asked myself. For a very long time it was just, you go to work, you make some clothes, you sell them. I never set out to start a business.”

Before she launched her eponymous label, Mathews was an art director at Vogue Australia and worked at luxury boutique Belinda Seper and at Country Road. She discovered a love of printmaking and, with the sewing skills she had learnt from her grandmother as a child, she began making clothes for friends and family – who urged her to take them to market.

An early Mathews dress, sold at Belinda Seper, from the early 2000s. Steve Baccon

She ran her own race then, and runs it still. Growth has been organic, but is often still scary, she says. “As opportunities presented themselves, they begat more and more of them,” she says. “And there was very little planning until we got to about the sixth store, I think.

“There were suddenly more people than I could manage, more inventory, more everything.”

COVID-19 and its lockdowns, ironically enough, presented a chance to recalibrate the business. Mathews cancelled almost all of her wholesale relationships, seeking to take back more control of the business amid the tumult of the pandemic.

“I’ve never worked so bloody hard in my whole life than during the lockdowns. I was not baking sourdough. I am hugely envious of people who slept in and got lots of exercise. I was treading water hard, with very few staff. We closed four stores. We shut the wholesale business.”

“Do we face the customers and expand retail in a really interesting way?” ponders Mathews. Louie Douvis

Online sales were “the life raft. We grew exponentially, which was a godsend, but we worked so hard to get those dollars in.”

Key partners remained and have become the linchpin of Mathews’ success. She still sells through e-tailers Shopbop, Matches and, importantly, Goop. Paltrow herself is a big fan, posting about Mathews’ pieces on her personal Instagram account.

“It’s great exposure. We have a good market in the United States,” says Mathews. She is toying with the idea of standalone retail there, but is characteristically hesitant.

“The goodwill of customers is so fantastic and encouraging. I wonder if that is the thrust of the next thing? Do we face the customers and expand retail in a really interesting way? With a cool pop-up? Things like that feel more tangible now. But…” she trails off.

Lee Mathews’ store in Paddington, Sydney. 

Mathews is passionate about making quality clothing, the kind that lasts and lasts. About a quarter of what she releases is made here in Sydney; the rest is produced in China, Portugal and soon, Poland. Earlier in the year she visited some of the Italian mills that provide her with fabric.

“People wanted to know how long the business had been around, and they were excited that we had been here for nearly 25 years,” she says.

She smiles wryly. Australia, she says, loves newness. “And that’s OK. It’s nice that everyone gets their moment. But there aren’t a lot of resources available in this country. We don’t have the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or the British Fashion Council. And there aren’t enough people in this industry with decades of experience. In Italy and France, you have people who have crafted their trades for years, over generations, passed down through families. We don’t have a lot of that.”

When I spoke to Mathews at the end of last year, she was planning to show at Australian Fashion Week in May. In April, she pulled out. She doesn’t think she will ever show there again.

Lee Mathews’ Resort 20 runway
at Fashion Week 2019. 

“That ship has sailed,” she says. “I mean… Afterpay? It’s so… low. It’s not a good platform for those young designers.”

The week, she says, has become more a platform for emerging designers, without an avenue for established brands like hers to be seen. “It means I’m not front-facing in this industry but… I’m OK with that. Maybe we will do something somewhere else in the world.” Again, she is just not sure.

When Mathews makes changes at her brand, they are subtle and judicious. In January 2020, she launched a workwear line called Workroom, bridging the gap between casual and corporate. With most of us working from home, it was an odd time to debut a range of clothing for the office, but Mathews stuck to her guns, continuing to produce the collection even as lockdown orders were issued.

The line is part of her permanent collection and is still evolving. There was once a lower-priced sister label called Tilly, named for her daughter, but that folded in 2015. Now, she says, her original customers come in with their daughters and buy from the main range together. Her store in Fitzroy, Melbourne was transformed last year into a lifestyle space, selling Mud ceramics and cookbooks alongside her archive pieces. She hosted dinners with cookbook author Julia Busuttil Nishimura, a fan of the brand.

Mathews with her dog at her Leichhardt studio. Louie Douvis

Does the business make money? “A small profit, yes,” she says. “But this is the most ridiculous business on the planet. Who would do it? You can have a nice life. But it’s hard to make money. If we dumbed down our fabrics we’d make more money. We will never be the business that blows up.”

She has seen those businesses, she says, and while some benefit from an injection of private equity funding, or the boost of heady press, many flail under the pressure. “I felt bad for Alice McCall (whose eponymous label entered liquidation in February),” she says. “It’s hard to stay in control of a business that is growing so rapidly and then, post-lockdown, contracting and changing. It’s very, very hard.”

The pay-off comes when she sees people in her clothing. I mention a pair of Workroom pants I bought in 2020 and wear still, and Mathews smiles. “It reminds me of something I heard yesterday,” she says, and tells me about a woman who likes her label because, in a neat subversion of Mathews’ motto, it represents “beautiful things by nice people”.

Eventually I tease out the name of this woman: Nigella Lawson, who Mathews has been quietly dressing “for years”.

The Lily Dress, as seen on Mathews’ longtime client Nigella Lawson. 

“She’s so lovely,” says Mathews. “She’s kind of the perfect person for us. She’s very normal but has a distinct personality. She really knows who she is. That suits our brand.”