Sarah Ellison is one of the defining personalities in Australia's interiors scene. As an interiors and fashion stylist, she hails from Real Living, where her distinctive style influenced the way Australians decorate their homes.
With a modern aesthetic that nods to international trends, while maintaining a distinctive down-to-earth simplicity, Sarah has recently gone on to create her own label, which is all about great design without the ego.
We spoke to Sarah about her collection, how she managed the leap from a corporate career to launching her own business, and of course, her tips on creating a beautiful home.
Tell us about your journey to set up your own business. How has the process been?
Setting up my own business has been a wonderful experience. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fraught with challenges but I’m very lucky to have a fastidious and clever business partner with whom I can navigate through the problems and get to the other side. We are lucky as we can both draw from our skill sets, which are quite different to achieve what we have so far. Neither of us sees failure as an option so there’s always a strong drive to just keep moving forward, it’s very motivating. It’s been a slow process, it took us a year to conceive, a year to develop the first collection and nearly another year to produce the second so up until now it’s been an uphill climb. Now that we are heading into our third year we are feeling like there’s some momentum and things are falling in to place. The biggest challenge starting your own business is that you still have to work in your existing career to pay the bills.
Having had such a wonderful career, what prompted you to pursue your own passion?
It’s pretty simple for me really, the need to create is my driver above all else. Although my career as a stylist was highly creative I always had the urge to make actual products that can be felt, touched and used. Also working as an editorial stylist is really hard work and quite demanding, once my son was born it became overwhelming at times and not manageable long term.
What has been your greatest success thus far?
My most recent collection Golden. I feel confident about this collection, for the first collection it was my first foray from Stylist to Designer so I wondered if people would take me seriously. I have had a really positive response so it’s given me a lot of confidence that I’m on the right path.
What about any challenges or hardships?
The biggest challenge is juggling motherhood and a creative career. Both are very exhausting and take a lot out of me, it’s getting easier as my son gets older but I constantly feel like I can’t give either of them enough time.
Can you tell us a little about your new brand?
It’s an Interiors brand born out of the need for design-led pieces at an affordable price point. As a stylist, I worked with a lot of incredibly beautiful high-end product with an incredible price tag to match! I wanted to offer something fresh and new to the market that was exciting and directional design wise that was within reach price wise.
You have such beautiful pieces - what has inspired your collection?
My collections are inspired by my version of the Australian coastal lifestyle with a refined sensibility. I draw from international trends, vintage pieces and just whatever I’m in to at that point in time. I’m also designing things I want for myself that I can’t seem to find.
How did you approach the branding process?
This is where I drew from my styling experience and contacts. We called on some of our very talented friends whom my business partner and I had worked with over the years and got some great advice. One thing I knew was that the photo shoot campaigns for the collections had to be incredible, if I didn’t get that part right then there was something wrong! So we knew the brand would be image focused, therefore our branding had to be strong and simple. As I have a fashion design background I also wanted the brand to have a slight fashion-house feel to it. Making it different from other interior brands.
How are you marketing your business? (And how do you feel about social media?)
In addition to my media contacts from my magazine days, my business partner is from a PR background as well so we have been very lucky to be featured on some very high profile local and international blogs and also editorial print features. On-going Instagram is a great selling tool. Social media is a wonderful thing if used correctly. For my brand, as image-driven as it is, social media allows me direct access to my followers to show my pieces in different settings and it also acts as a constantly evolving mood board for me creatively. I feel its very important to be authentic online and engage with people so you don’t get lost in all the noise!
Do you have any business hacks? Any tools you can’t live without?
As a creative, I am actually super old school (I still sketch with a pencil and paper when I design) and I think something as simple as list making and setting timelines is super is critical to success. Technology really is a game changer for us though. I am not much of an app user, however I am an avid Whatsapp convert and have huge group chats with my production teams overseas crossing multiple time zones. It’s essential though so I can get things answered, check samples and quality control in real time and maximise everyone’s collective productivity. Lastly, I am a sucker for an inspiring TED talk or a creative autobiography. I find reading other peoples stories can really motivate me when the challenges (problems) start to mount on the tough days!
How do you currently manage your time?
Monday – Wednesday are my son Blaze’s daycare days so I pretty much knuckle down and try and get a week’s work done in those three days. Thursdays and Fridays are my days with Blaze, he is a very energetic 4-year-old so there’s pretty much no possibility of getting any work done while he is around plus I try and be present and not on my laptop when he is there. This often means that I don’t get back to people emailing me for quite a few days, it’s frustrating but that’s just how it is right now and I know it won’t be like this forever. My evenings are also used to catch up where I can on phone calls with my business partner. Weekends are family time.
Where does your passion for interiors come from?
My mother. She is wonderfully creative and proud of her home. Built by my father, it’s been a work in progress for around 30 years, constant new paint colours, upholstery updates, new treasures being added and the most incredible garden. I feel the same way about interiors now. They are always a work in progress, not something that can ever be “finished”. The story of your life constantly evolves and changes and your environment changes with you. I was also an 80s child so there was some pretty brave interior choices being made then, ones that in some ways permeated my creative psyche.
What are your top tips on designing a beautiful home?
Always start with a strong visual plan for yourself. Spend a lot of time creating a mood board that really resonates with the kind of home you want to live in. Once you have this stick to the plan, keep it with you when making important design decisions.
Don’t be too precious about things and don’t try and copy other people’s style, try and work out what your design DNA looks like.
Let your home tell the story of YOU. Try not to buy into fads, buy things because you truly love them.