I remember the first time I heard about Carlie Ballard’s label. I had been desperate for clothing that didn’t repurpose dirt-coloured hessian sacks or create frumpy silhouettes but sympathised with my determination to avoid buying from brands with questionable supply chains. This was a few years ago now, and the ethical fashion scene was pretty lacklustre, with only a few Australian labels truly giving ethical fashion a proper design aesthetic. And then Carlie created her namesake label and the ethical fashion heavens opened up.
Carlie and I bump into each other from time to time at various events, and I get a glimpse into her busy life through her social media feeds. She’s an impressive lady. Prior to starting her label, Carlie was working in adventure travel. From trekking in Nepal to ‘Free the Bears’ community trips, Carlie was inspired by seeing people with nothing so content. She combined that passion and a background in fine arts to create her own label. But she’s also a co-founder at Clean Cut — Australia’s Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Association and co-owns The Darley Store in Manly — a store dedicated to stocking ethical brands.
There’s no doubt that Carlie is dedicated to the cause of creating a better world through the clothing we buy and wear, so I managed to catch up with her (whilst she’s on maternity leave, enjoying time with her new son), to hear about her busy world of ethical fashion.
“I’m pretty passionate about people wanting to value themselves, and I think that the garments we buy represent who we are,” she says. “Fashion really does give you that first impression of someone, even before they speak. Wearing brands that align with your values really is important from a philosophical level. It’s a really powerful tool for creating change. Wearing a beautiful dress makes you feel amazing, and if it has a good story, that’s just the cherry on the top.”
It was this belief that sent Carlie off to India to find and create clothing that reflected her values and beliefs. She had connected with an Australian woman, Penny, who had started a workshop in Lucknow to empower women in the local community who were living in slums.
“Penny trains the women to become tailors, so they know how to sew the whole garment. That doesn’t always happen,” explains Carlie. “Usually, they only know how to create part of the garment. I have two girls who do my tailoring and they earn a higher salary than they would if they had only learnt to do embroidery, which would often happen in these cultures.
“It’s a real family vibe there. Whenever I go to work on my collections I stay at the workshop. When I last went, I was pregnant and the girls raced down and brought my bags up for me. It brought tears to my eyes. They bring you tea and make sure you’re really looked after.
“I always think, ‘am I making a difference here?’ then I walk in and see how happy they are. They enjoy working there, and each day they put out a sari and have lunch together. I know it’s making a difference.”
Carlie’s voice beams with pride as she describes the women she knows who are making her clothes.
“It’s not a factory supply chain. One girl makes my whole Best Friend dress. This means it’s a bit challenging for me to increase how fast things are made, but it means they have skills to carry elsewhere.”
Carlie has also just started working with an organic cotton supplier and knows the community who hand-weave her other fabrics. “The man who runs it is such a lovely man. He is a family man and is really warm and understanding.”
And the clothes speak for themselves. The carefully crafted shirts, Ikat print trousers and shift dresses are made to last. Casual, everyday wear, that’s designed to travel with. Throw them in a suitcase. Wash and wear them. “Great for mums,” laughs Carlie.
“It’s different fashion from the high street. But that’s what makes them special. I do think my pieces are underpriced, just because of the work that goes into them. I don’t put big markups on my pieces. I want them to be accessible.”
It’s this kind of attitude — inviting people to be a part of the ethical fashion journey — that has lead Carlie into her two other ventures; The Darley Store and Clean Cut.
“Ethical fashion has come leaps and bounds in recent years. It used to all be in Europe. Now there is so much in Australia. And that’s what lead us to create Clean Cut. We wanted to start celebrating brands that were starting to make changes and being more transparent. We can’t all be purists. There’s no room for purists because we’re all producing a product that has a footprint on the world. So we wanted to make it more achievable for people to be a part of the ethical fashion movement.
“I was reading an article the other day about how Obama has a policy that bans products in the US made with slave labour. We’ve been talking at Clean Cut that the government needs to step in and create more policies. That will be a game changer. A tough one to monitor but I think that transparency is so important!”
Carlie with co-founder of Clean Cut, Kelly (left)
Carlie is clearer a leader and dreamer in the ethical fashion space. But she’s also just had a new baby boy, Kit. “I’m really enjoying being a mum. My partner, Chris and I, love spending time together as a little family, going to farmers markets on the weekend and catching up with friends.”
I personally couldn’t be more inspired by Carlie, a woman who has followed her passion, launched out into her own ventures and is forging the way for ethical fashion in Australia.