Lillian McKnight • 31 July 2012

It’s rare that creativity merges comfortably with a social conscience. Designer Brianna Hallihan of jewellery label mettle – Fair Trade, however, has succeeded in forging a label that is as ethically minded as it is fashionable.

Based in Melbourne, Hallihan’s covetable wares are a runaway international success. Most recently, mettle – Fair Trade was selected to present at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Miami, and the label’s list of offshore stockists continues to grow.

But what makes mettle such a unique and exciting prospect in a flooded industry? Apart from a fresh and finely considered aesthetic, every piece of the label’s output is limited edition, hand made and, most importantly, fair trade accredited. Constructed from recycled materials by Cambodian and Indonesian cooperatives, it makes you feel as good as you look.

We talked to designer Brianna Hallihan about the evolution of her career, forging an ethical fashion label in a profit driven climate and her latest collection.

pages: When did a career in design first appeal to you?
Brianna: My grandmother was a tailor and my mother worked in fashion design when she was younger, so it was an art that was always encouraged. My high school afforded me the chance to start focusing on design and art at an early age.

I was so focused on gaining entry into the RMIT design degree, I skipped a year level in the process and was offered a place on the spot within the entrance interview. I remember almost having a mental breakdown during the degree— it was such an intense workload. After a summer of being up to no good, I moved into a full time design assistant role with a womenswear company where I learned the ropes of the fashion industry that gave me the grounding to go and work abroad.

What did your experiences with fashion labels such as Alexander McQueen and Martin Grant teach you?
All the different companies I have worked for, whether it be commercial or high-end, have given me invaluable insights into the mechanics of the industry which aid in the running of mettle – Fair Trade. The overseas experience is vital as the industries operate so differently to one another. It’s great to get that insight and step outside your own bubble of networks.

What compelled you to focus on jewellery?
I was definitely ready for my own project and I think I travelled the world and worked for the companies that I did to try and find my place within the industry. This was an opportunity to offer something new to design driven fashion which enabled me to put my skills to something that was bigger than me, bigger than the next wave of throwaway fashion— something that could actually make a difference in the producer’s lives.

Tell us about the ethos behind mettle – Fair Trade.
As far as the design aspect, I try and step away and allow space to develop and nut out the ideas, so I’m offering something fresh to the market.

For the fair trade ethics, the co-op themselves are fair trade accredited which means that you adhere to a number of measures which make for a fair trade workplace. For example, fair wages, safe working environments and a percentage given back to the community in which [mettle – Fair Trade] operates from.

When did the importance of fair trade first strike you and why?
Coming from an education background that harvested social responsibility and respect for others, I was always at odds with the world of fashion, but I loved the creation and visionary aspect of fashion design. It’s just become so much a part of me that I can’t switch off.

Can you tell us a bit about the unconventional materials you use in crafting your pieces?

I try to gain a better understanding of the material each season, which allows me to push its boundaries. We use recycled bombshell meta which gets donated to us by local NGO’s in Cambodia, and recycled lucite in Indonesia.

I can sense a need to change in the way we consume. We live in a throwaway culture and it seems timely to be re-using discarded materials to give them a new life.

Describe the production process of your range.
My mind is always on the next idea. Ultimately my customers have the final say on whether something is a success or not. It’s usually quite an organic process. I become obsessed with a theme or idea and then everything reminds me of it and flows into the next idea. I read and watch films, start experimenting and looking into new techniques. I finalise the design, create the proto sample and design spec, then have my co-op make the samples. From there, we make the tweaks and then go into production. Voila!

What inspired your latest collection?

I drew on inspiration from Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element. The collection was influenced by the themes surrounding the survival of humanity and the human form.

Many pieces were created using body casting techniques set against rigid geometric forms, to symbolise the evolution of our past and the science of our future.

Which is your favourite piece from the latest collection?
That’s a tough one! I like the simplicity of the new season metal Saturn Tube Belt— it comes to life on the body. The Pluto Bone Cuff speaks to me also. I think it is a real statement piece and quite unique.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for  mettle – Fair Trade?
We have some exciting happenings in the coming months. We are being used in Miami Fashion Week, and then we have a project in Las Vegas. We decided to base ourselves in LA for the next three months to explore these international opportunities. It’s an exciting change and hopefully we can draw on some fresh ideas from our surrounds across here.

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