This week’s profile is a little different – it’s the tale of two smart, talented and dynamic Byron Bay-based sisters – Isabella Pennefather and Elizabeth Briedis – who together have created a hugely successful modern-bohemian fashion brand that now has over 600K followers on Instagram (628K at last count) and a loyal, engaged clientele (they’ve got a database of almost 100K fans). Eight years in and Spell & The Gypsy Collective is adored by women around the world including celebrities such as Katy Perry, Alessandra Ambrosi, Miley Cyrus and Elsa Pataky. Famous for their ‘gypsy prints’, romantic vintage-inspired lace, tassels and embroidery, Spell is now a cult-classic at music festivals, road-trips and island getaways...
We should probably warn you that it’s almost impossible to visit the Spell & The Gypsy Collective online store and leave without purchasing something. A bohemian blouse (perfect with denim jeans) or a little lace sun dress – you want to look like a Spell woman. These women are clever content creators who know how to bring their brand to life. So who is the Spell woman? “We’ve been able to distil it down to this: she’s a woman who wants to feel beautiful and feminine. Age, size, shape is irrelevant!” says co-creator Briedis.
Spell & The Gypsy Collective started at Byron Bay’s local artisan markets, when Pennefather (whose childhood nickname was Spell) started selling her hand-made jewellery. Her sister Elizabeth later left her Bondi Beach home and career as a film editor to become Spell’s business partner. Together, they’ve gone on to become one of Australia’s most successful fashion brands and have since expanded into fashion, accessories and homewares. We spent the afternoon with the stylish sisters and their adorable tribe (Elizabeth is the mother of Indiana, 3, and Alushia, 2, while Isabella has Texas Jesse, 5, and Jagger Mac, 2) to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at Spell…
Sisters Isabella Pennefather and Elizabeth Briedis
What has motherhood taught you?
Elizabeth: It has taught me the secret handshake to the sisterhood and that more than ever, I need a community around me.
Isabella: It taught me to slow down and look at life, look at those special moments and enjoy them, appreciate them. I think after I had children, I actually woke up and saw life in a slightly new light. A brighter light!
What has been the most surprising part of motherhood for you?
Elizabeth: The dichotomies. That motherhood is everything. And also that motherhood alone is not enough, I need a creative outlet beyond my children.
Isabella: The newfound love I have for my parents, sisters, cousins and husband. I realised that family is the most important thing in life! Since having children, I have become so much closer to my mother in particular. I finally realised what she gave up in life to bring up my three sisters and I! She is an incredible friend and mother.
What is your advice to new mothers?
Elizabeth: Something my mum told me when Indi wasn’t settling was ‘don’t worry, you can’t die from tiredness’. I found it very reassuring!
Isabella: Try and embrace those early months and years, don’t try and do too much. Just enjoy that bundle of joy for a while, and then worry about doing exercise or getting back to work only when you feel ready. And for those who can’t stop working (like me) just do it at a slow pace and really give yourself time to hang with your other mother friends and keep those friendships going, as it really helps having other mothers to talk to through the early days of no sleep and breastfeeding!
What advice would you give your younger self?
Elizabeth: That pretty much every instinct you ever had was right. So keep following them and you’ll be fine!
Isabella: I’m so happy with my life as a younger woman. I studied, I worked in dream jobs, I travelled, I partied, and now settling down with my children and husband, I feel very, very satisfied that I truly lived life to the fullest, so I’m not sure what advice I would give to myself? Maybe to be in the moment a little bit more, and really appreciate those moments of utter freedom to sleep in, and travel whenever I wanted, really appreciate those young freer years of life.
How do you juggle work with motherhood?
Elizabeth: Not very well. It’s definitely my biggest challenge…
Isabella: To be honest I am still asking myself that question every minute of everyday. I’m not sure how I’m doing it? The last five years have been a bit of a blur, it has been the busiest five years – starting up and running our fast growing business, and doing it all while having two kids. I have a very supportive husband who looks after our boys now, which is an amazing help! But generally, I find when I go to work, I work! When I come home, I’m with the family and don’t look at my computer. I’m also very good at bringing the family along to photo shoots and inspiration trips, so mixing business and family gives me that extra time with them. It really is a nonstop juggling act, trying to fit in work, exercise, friendships, husband time, alone time and family time. So I’ve realised that I can only have a tiny bit of each of those in my week! So it’s about sacrificing some things, and learning to use your time very, very wisely! It’s hard, but I am very fit and happy, so I must be doing something right!
What makes you feel balanced and happy?
Elizabeth: Though they’re rare at the moment, my morning lighthouse walks. And when it’s just the four of us and everyone is happy – I feel so full of joy!
Isabella: All I need is a walk to the lighthouse once a week, a yoga class, a swim in the ocean by myself, and a night out with friends, and I’m happy as a clam. So it’s about allocating time for those things, to assure you are happy and balanced.
What makes you feel stressed?
Elizabeth: What makes you feel stressed? My inbox!
Isabella: When I haven’t allocated time for exercise during the week, it actually gets me a bit stressed. I really believe it makes you happy getting out and doing something good for your body. So that is the only thing that gets me stressed. Work is always busy and crazy but I love it… so it’s never stressful.
Do you have similar personal style?
Elizabeh: Spelly is 6ft tall and I’m a munchkin so we do dress differently. Though we both pretty much live in Spell mixed with a few denim staples. We just wear it all differently.
Isabella: My personal style is quite simple, I love wearing leather or denim shorts with a vintage T-shirt and of course some leather Spell boots. I especially love wearing Spell Slouchy tracksuit pants and dressing it up with a total contrasting item like a lace mesh duster or a sequin jacket. I love mixing textures.
How would you describe life in Byron Bay?
Elizabeth: Creatively, hectically, wonderfully charged! It’s a very busy life at the moment, but if I was this busy and living in the city, I think I’d explode. Byron is my camomile tea, it’s my anchor, it’s my Om.
Isabella: Life in Byron Bay is pretty much living a happy, calm and healthy life. Living on local produce is amazing, and living and working in a 2km radius is a dream. And being surrounded by the best oceans in Australia is heaven. After growing up and living in the city of Melbourne for 28 years, I am so happy to be in a small beach town full of like-minded healthy and creative souls.
Can you tell us about how Spell Designs has grown since you launched?
Elizabeth: A few years ago someone warned us that businesses can fail if they grow too fast, and I thought that was ridiculous. But I see now that fast growth can be really challenging for a small business – we went from 5 employees to 40 in a heartbeat! It’s been an exhilaratingly steep learning curve for us, especially having kids at the same time, but things have stabilized now. I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful as a brand is that the label flows from Spelly and I and everything we love, so it’s authentic. And it’s very easy to communicate a message to our customers when it’s authentic.
Do you think the future of retail is the end of wholesale? Do you think young fashion brands can bypass wholesale?
Elizabeth: What a great question. There was a time that I thought that may be the case, but no. I think we can all work together and create amazing content so that the retail/wholesale relationship is mutually beneficial. We have wholesalers like Turquoise Lane or The Freedom State who create amazing look book shoots around our collections. It’s great content for us to share on our social channels, which our customers love. Our customers explore their websites and discover other brands, which align with their styling and tastes. It’s win win! A lot of wholesalers have started to build their own vertical businesses, offering their own in-house designs, but still get a lot of exposure through stocking a label like Spell. And in turn, we get exposure through wholesaling at these social media savvy stockists. Again, win win!
How has the rise of social media benefited your business?
Elizabeth: Instagram is our most powerful tool without a doubt, and Snapchat has started to really infiltrate the social sphere too. I love that I can be on Instagram and find some amazing artisan selling their creations – it’s not about how big a label you are, it’s just about how authentically you connect with your consumers, and the content you’re creating! It’s such an exciting time for small business!
Most of your business comes though your online store – how do you generate such high engagement with your consumer?
Elizabeth: It’s a balance we work hard to maintain as it’s allowed us to stay 100% self funded. I said before that Instagram is our most powerful tool – I lied. Email is still king. We have a 90K strong email database and people are so receptive to messaging in that form (as long as it’s not spammy!). Our daily conversations with our customers on social media means that they can engage with us whenever they want – we’re open and honest and I think they find that really enjoyable and refreshing!
What is your advice to budding fashion designers?
Elizabeth: Don’t be afraid to start small! Develop an online store with even one amazing design so you can start your messaging to the world! Network with bloggers, influencers and other labels and be generous!
Isabella: Use social media to your advantage and have a strong identity and image online. Stay true to yourself and be authentic.
What has been the most exciting moment in your career?
Elizabeth: Recently I spoke at a few entrepreneurial conferences on the story behind our label and it was very exciting! I loved sharing our journey and seeing how much our story (the highs and the lows) helped and inspired other people in business.
Isabella: Highlights include a mix of celebrities wearing Spell. When we saw Sienna Miller wearing our singlet when we first began, I nearly started crying! Giving a package to Kate Moss at Splendour was a dream come true! The Spell photo shoots have been incredible … Shooting Erin Wasson in the desert in LA was amazing, and Rachel Rutt in the sand dunes in Newcastle was so much fun because I was there with Lizzy and we got to work our magic together which is so much fun, and working with Zippy Seven in a remote island out of Bali was probably the best experience in my Spell career!
What has been the most challenging part of running your own label and how do you overcome those challenges?
Elizabeth: The most challenging part is juggling motherhood with my work because there’s a big part of me who loved my mum being a full time mum and all the time she had with us. Though I said that once at a conference that my mum was at and she came up to me afterwards and said ‘you know Lizzy, I was actually a mature age student and completed a whole PHD while you were kids…’ and I realised that I didn’t even notice she was doing that, I just noticed what a great mum she was. So I remind myself that sometimes, I’m probably doing a great job at being a mum!
Can you tell us about how your pieces are made?
Elizabeth: We have started to move toward production in China and India because we needed to be able to work with more natural fibres. We love the gauzes, lace, cottons and silks we can access in China, as well as the stitch work and detailing we’re finding in India. These days we create our own artwork for our lace so it’s 100% original! We have had a lot of our customers ask about the factories we work with and we explain that we visit our factories regularly and are really happy with the working conditions there. We had lunch on the factory roof when we were there this week, they had a chef with a big wok creating the most delicious stir-frys for everyone, it was really awesome to see! We have also been thinking a lot about sustainability lately and it’s an area that we have a lot of room for improvement so it’s going to be an exciting few years working on that area of our business too.
What’s it like working with your sister?
Elizabeth: It’s really the best. I think that having a business partner you can trust and love to be around is invaluable when running a business.
Isabella: Working with Lizzy has been amazing and a dream come true! I do a lot of the creative side, working on prints and designs and Lizzy brings everything to life! She is the brand ambassador, she manages the business side, blog, marketing and pulls all the photo shoots together. Wow she is busy. We are both so busy most of the time, but sometimes we are lucky enough to get breakfast together at a cafe before work and say hello to each other! But generally we both just do our parts to keep the ship running smoothly, it’s so lovely to be in business with your sister, the trust and love that is there makes it just a dream.
What are your most vivid memories of your childhood?
Elizabeth: Watching thunderstorms and counting how far away the storm was, one one thousand, two one thousand. Camping. The smell of zinc (and because you only put zinc on your nose) the feeling of being sunburnt after eight hours at the beach. Isabella: I remember so much of my childhood, mostly playing with my sisters. We were all so creative and inventive. That would have to be the highlight for me, the games we would play and the fantasies we would create was incredible!
Elizabeth’s Little List of Loves:
Indi, Looshy and Johnny.
Having a personal assistant for the first time.
Tea parties on the floor with wooden food.
Being Heatwave when I play transformers with Indi.