If you don’t already own a pair of St. Agni slides, chances are you will soon. The iconic woven shoes can be seen on everyone from stylish influencers to busy mums, with ease of wear and effortless style merging to make, quite simply, the chicest shoe (which somehow manage to look good with everything) to wear from day to night…
Lara Fells is the woman behind the brand, who together with her husband Matt, has utilised her passion for artisan design and timeless style to create a label that bypasses fleeting trends but manages to stay at the top of the fashion game.
We caught up with Lara to find out more about the history of St. Agni, how having a baby has impacted the way she approaches business and work, and what part living in Byron Bay plays in nurturing a slow fashion brand that is making serious waves all around the world.
Can you tell us how St. Agni came to life? Was your background always in design or footwear?
The name St. Agni – i.e. ‘Saint Agni’ is a tribute to my Nona Agni. She is a saint in my eyes and has always inspired me. Nona grew up in Corfu, Greece and then migrated to Australia in the 1960’s.
To be honest, I genuinely couldn’t find the items I wanted out there, anything I liked I still wanted to refine somehow, so that’s when I began designing things for myself. I’d always wanted to have my own business and so when the timing felt right my husband and I started the label as a passion project and we ran everything out of our apartment for the first couple of years whilst still working full-time elsewhere. Eventually, we simply ran out of space at home and that’s when we moved into what is now our Byron Bay head office and Boutique showroom. I’m a retail girl at heart! I have always worked in retail and even now spending time on the shop floor in our boutique is one of my favourite things to do!
Your slides and mules have developed a cult following and are a hit with local Byron Bay mums as well as the high-end fashion pack. Can you explain a little about where your inspiration comes from?
We first became well known for our Bunto Woven Loafers. This original woven style was inspired by the traditional Indian Kolhapuri Bunto’s. We wanted to create a design based on a contemporary take of this classic style shoe and make them accessible for the modern woman. Our knitted leather styles are an extension of this and I love working with leather and exploring different techniques that are not commonly used to create footwear. When people first see the knitted styles they don’t believe they are leather, as it’s a very unique material to knit with. The leather is cut into fine strips and spun into cord, then naturally dyed and dried in the sun. Once the cord is supple the artisans bind it together with a manually operated loom and finish the ends by hand. The sole is cut by hand and then all the elements are assembled together and checked and packed.
How does living and working in Byron Bay influence St. Agni and the business overall?
Byron Bay offers a quintessential Australian lifestyle and this relaxed way of living influences everything we create and the way we run our business. We are so lucky to be immersed in this network of creatives – It’s such an inspiring place to live. There is certainly a unique energy in Byron that fuels the entrepreneur.
You work alongside your husband and also have a small baby, Jude - what’s it like running a family business, working with your partner and throwing a baby into the mix?
Matt and I work well together as the business is a shared passion of ours, so we’re lucky. I see the business as being something that helps bind us together and because we enjoy it so much we never really experience conflict.
Jude has just slipped right in with our flow, I think parenting with someone shares really similar qualities to running a business with someone with a little less sleep. Although at times it can be stressful having so much on it also has its benefits. It’s so nice to have that flexibility at work when we need it!
Describe a typical day.
Everyday is different and I love that! But most days we all wake up together at around 6:30, I jump in the shower and fill up a big bucket of water for Jude to play in while I shower and then I jump out and Matt jumps in, our life is a constant tag teaming game of looking after Jude and managing the business.
Once we’re all showered we have breakfast and Ebony comes over to watch Jude while Matt and I go off to work. At work there is no set day – we check our emails, we might have a meeting or travel up to Brisbane to check in on the new boutique, or I’ll spend the day working with our Designer Erika. Then we come home and have dinner as a family and jump in to bed for an early night.
How important is the artisan element of footwear design to St. Agni and does this process make the make the entire design and manufacturing harder? How do you logistically make the behind-the-scenes elements to the business work, e.g. travel etc. ?
Matt and I have built relationships with our artisans and we enjoy visiting and watching their businesses growth with ours. We were traveling to Indonesia 3-4 times a year, but since having Jude we have slowed the travel down and are trying to work via correspondence.
We really value the handmade element of our designs, it entails a slower process and is a beautiful craft. There are challenging aspects such as keeping up with the demand or the fact that every piece varies slightly due to the handmade process.
Do you think the typical Byron Bay aesthetic - linens, neutrals, handmade - will forever be in style or is it more a trend of the moment that you need to adapt and reinvent every season?
It’s important to try and utilise natural materials and handmade pieces, there should always be room for these. I’m not really driven by fast paced trends and try to stay true to what I genuinely love and value in clothing and accessories. I think every brand needs to continue to evolve and grow – to keep your customer interested but also to keep yourself interested!
Do you see St. Agni extending into other areas of fashion or lifestyle products or is the main focus always on footwear and accessories?
We are just about to launch our apparel globally. Up until now our apparel has only been available in house. The Apparel category has really grown for us over the last year, so I’m really excited to build on this. I would love to do a Bridal Collection later down the line – but I’ll try to focus on one thing at a time.
Has having Jude changed your approach or perspective on work and business? If so, how?
Our approach towards business has remained much the same since having Jude, however we have been forced to slow down and concentrate on maintaining a balance.
What’s next for St. Agni?
We are working on a really exciting project at the moment, It’s probably a little early to say but I’m terrible at secrets. Our plan is to renovate a run down boat building shed, and turn it into a new HQ, Boutique, Warehouse, coffee shop & Air B&B. The building was built in the 1970’s so we have a lot of work to do!