When the idea of sustainable fashion comes to mind, nothing quite correlates with the ethos more than secondhand and vintage clothing or recycled clothing. Sourcing unique and rare vintage and upcycled pieces is an art form, and with a sharp eye for spotting one-off finds, Australian-born Alice Roberts is a true artist in the field. Driven by her love for American vintage clothing and sustainable fashion, 33-year-old Roberts launched Brahminy Exchange, a vintage store and clothing exchange in the heart of Byron Bay. I caught up with Roberts to get the inside word on the industry.
When did your love for vintage clothing begin?
At a very young age, actually. My mother used to make us kids trawl secondhand shops all the time, we never had a lot of money and never had anything new. Me being the youngest and the only girl I would always wear my brother's hand-me-downs. It was the only time we were allowed to skip school - was to hit the oppys on Tuesdays when the best stuff would go out on the racks. My mum wanted first dibs.
How was the idea and vision for Brahminy Exchange born?
I studied fashion design when I turned 30. I always had an obsession with fashion and all things old and new. I never had a particular style – I always felt like I never really fit in anywhere. And I struggled with self-identity, which I soon realised for me was portrayed through fashion. After completing my studies I wanted to start a fashion label specialising in one-off leather jackets. When I further researched into the industry and its fabric construction, it overwhelmed me and broke me to tears. I couldn’t believe that I had such a false idea of fashion my whole life. I realised then I wanted to make a change in the world but still hadn’t come to any concrete ideas...until I visited New York and my first ever Buffalo Exchange – a clothing exchange. They are huge in the USA, and Australia just didn’t have anything like it. Having focused my studies on fashion history I combined the two ideas and created the business – a vintage clothing exchange. Where I could educate my customers on where their clothes were from, which era, and how they were made.
Where do you source the vintage clothing for your stores?
All from the USA. Mainly from California. The history for me is so rich, the music and drugs, the hippie movement, and the Vietnam War and the uprising of People’s Park. I find the pieces from these eras and bring them back to life in Byron Bay. The clothing is filled with rich history of bygone times.
What do you love most about your job?
I can express my mood and personality through my clothes everyday. My wardrobe is endless. And that I finally feel like “me,’’ unique in every way and not conformed to a particular style. I make my own. This is the style I encourage – an extension of one’s personality. To stand out and wear what makes you feel good, not what society and social media tell us that’s ‘in’ and trendy.
What made you decide to open your store in Byron Bay?
I moved to the area about five years ago, and like most people – struggled to find a job that was satisfying. I ended up as a cleaner because it paid better than most jobs and I could work my own hours. But it wasn’t sustainable for my mental health whatsoever. Especially being a creative Sagittarius, I needed more. There’s only so many ways you can clean a toilet. Although black Sabbath made it very easy! I realised the only way to live in this expensive paradise was to utilise the industry that is here – Tourism. And Byron was crying out for recycled fashion. I always wanted my own shop since I was a little kid, I never imagined it would be in fashion. I just knew I wanted to be my own boss and make my own money doing something I loved. Byron Bay was the perfect choice. So I began the hunt for the perfect little slice of my own paradise.
Did you grow up on the north coast?
I’m actually a born and bred Cairns girl. But having a father that was a ships master, we always moved around a lot. I have the gypsy feet and have never settled anywhere for more that two years – until I arrived in Byron Bay.
Do you have a favourite fashion era?
Ah yes! The late '60- '70s era. The hippie movement and People's Park are the stories that liberate me. These stories of people uprising against conformity, the fashion, the music, all of it. It makes me cry and smile all at the same time.
How would you describe your personal style?
Like a sunbleached rainbow. My favourite style is vintage flares and a really old buttery soft vintage tee, but today I'm wearing a 1960s lurex maxi dress with leather slides and my mum's gold jewellery. Tomorrow probably a stonewash denim skirt with a linen blouse and my vans with striped '70s socks. After all these years my style still makes no sense to anyone but me.
What are your thoughts on the importance of sustainability within the fashion industry?
I deal with the sadness of this industry day in, day out. Seeing people trawling the shops with all their plastic bags and 2-for-1 t-shirt deals. The majority of clothing in fast fashion shops are made with only unstainable methods. The purpose of these so called ‘trends’ is for you to feel the ‘need’ to ‘want’ and have the next newest thing. Only to find it falls apart within a few months and then it goes to landfill. This is on purpose. So you buy more and so it goes on and on. And the majority of society are completely unaware of this method. I let this affect me way more than it should. But even I was apart of that way of life once upon a time. So I believe in education. Making my customers aware of the benefits of purchasing vintage and pre-loved clothes, and the environmental impacts we face with this industry.
Here at Brahminy, we have no wastage whatsoever. If its broken we fix it. If it doesn’t sell in store we sell it at a huge vintage market we have every three months. And if it doesn’t sell there then we donate it to local charities that are doing their part to help the environment and raise awareness. In the three years I have had Brahminy, I have never thrown a single item away. I import over 300 kgs of clothing a month and stand tall knowing each and every piece serves a purpose in our community.