It took a stint working in Paris at Yves Saint Laurent for Ephemera founder and designer Nicole Banning to realise that, as the saying goes, you really don’t know what you got til it’s gone. While working for such a prestigious fashion house steeped in history was undoubtedly a career highlight, it also cemented that the things she longed for - home, family, love - were the only things that really mattered in life. Here, she tells The Grace Tales in her own words how the course of her career in Paris lead her to everything she ever wanted back home in Sydney - son Lucien, partner Anders and a burgeoning fashion label that is making waves all on its own terms…
Photography: Grace Alyssa Kyo
“I’ve been told that the Chinese believe that a child is conceived when the energy, the ‘chi’, of the two parents come together for the first time. Looking back, I do think my son Lucien was energetically conceived that night my fiancé Anders and I found ourselves strangely and serendipitously brought back together one night in our late 20’s. Having first met when I was on exchange in Sweden at the ripe old age of 21, I found myself in a restaurant down at Bondi, recounting the story of my most treasured memory of Sweden; an end of summer Swedish crayfish party at a wonderful little lakeside cottage near Drottningholm, just outside of Stockholm. It quickly transpired that the party was in fact hosted by the man I was talking to, Anders, and I had been invited to his crayfish party roughly seven years prior, during an exchange year in Europe. It might be a cliché, but the funny thing is, sometimes everything we are looking for really is right under our nose. It’s sometimes it is a truth I’d prefer to ignore, particularly when the adventurer in me is busting to go off and explore uncharted territory. For me, becoming a mother was a slow journey of peeling back the layers of my onion skin to uncover what I really wanted and who I invariably was, rather than who I wanted to be. I do remember that first groggy realisation that perhaps everything I was chasing wasn’t going to quite work for me. At 28, in the staff lift of one of the most iconic fashion houses in Paris, Yves Saint Laurent, there I found myself chatting to my colleague Valentine. With bleary eyes, she recounted how she had been up all night with her teething toddler. Her voice faltered as she told me she had no idea how she was going to say alert, let alone ‘on game’, for her fitting with the Creative Director that day. I was at the epicentre of everything I had ever dreamed of: living in Paris and working as a designer amongst all the creative magic I used to watch from afar and long to be a part of. It was thrilling to walk through the atelier, to talk to the pattern-makers and watch the shapes they would create, to be constantly surrounded by so much joy and beauty. I had the great fortune of frequently travelling to the most remarkable French and Italian factories on a regular basis, working with people who generously shared their incredible knowledge and history. Being a part of the défilés (shows) at venues like the Grand Palais or Hotel Salomon de Rothschild are dazzling memories that I will forever treasure. But the hard truth was that I also had to put on an armour each day and go to battle. I had left my friends, family, a home town that I loved and missed terribly. I had in the process also pushed away a man who later turned out to be the love of my life. I started to watch the team at work as they worked long days and weekends. Slowly, I realised that this trajectory was not going to allow me to be the woman or the mother I wanted to be and this was the time that I started to dream up the idea of my own swimwear and resortwear brand, EPHEMERA, which I later started in Paris. I wanted to be the master of my own destiny, both creatively and in life. I wanted the power to set my own pace and to be present in my future children’s lives. Once that desire for a child was seeded, everything slowly reshuffled back into place so that Lucien could come into this world. The process of ‘conceiving’ Lucien, was an intense journey of self-discovery. At times it was a hot mess. I had the very hard and scary realisation that, in the process of stretching out to reach my dream of working in Paris, I had set up a life for myself that was not at all what I wanted. How could I have been so disconnected from myself? There were tears, broken hearts and a lot of therapy along the way, as I fumbled my way back to my home, back to Anders and back to where my heart longed to be. Along the way, I picked up mementoes to bring home with me, including Lucien’s name, which fittingly means ‘the man of light’. Now I sometimes laugh when I think of Lucien, who perhaps was conceived about 8 years before he was actually born, rolling his eyes as he patiently waited and watched me fumble my way back home so that I could finally meet my magical little boy.”
You studied fashion in Sydney but ended up forging your career in Paris - how do you think your time in Europe shaped the sort of designer you are today?
I think that working in Europe taught me the power of restraint when it comes to design. The old adage of ‘less is more’ really does ring true when you have the privilege of working with the very best fabrics, pattern cutters and manufacturers. I learnt to be confident with simplicity and to let the quality of the work speak for itself rather than having to put bells and whistles on something to attract attention.
Ephemera’s aesthetic was clean and minimalistic and focused on quality at a time where more was more, particularly with swimwear filled with prints and frills. Were you following your gut with this pared-down vision or was it more a matter of personal taste?
I was definitely following my instincts, I am a very intuitive designer and I was responding for my desire to strip back all the frills and prints at the time. No one was making clean and minimalistic swim back then and I really felt there was a gap in the market, though that gap was quickly filled by a wave of minimalistic swimwear brands that did follow later.
How would you describe the Ephemera vibe today now that you’ve introduced cute prints like gingham, polka dots and florals to the collections?
I would say it’s a little less serious, a little more optimistic, modern with a nod to the 50’s and 60’s.
Has living in Sydney changed or inspired the direction of the label in any way?
I don’t think so, I think I am more influenced by the own levels of optimism in my own life which funnily enough are reflected in the collection.
You’ve recently introduced some ready-to-wear pieces to the line, has this always been in the works? Can you tell us about what’s to come?
Yes this has always been waiting in the wings! A swim buyer who I have a lovely relationship with sat me down in Paris last year and told me that I really need to build resort wear into the collection. I showed her some of my preliminary sketches and she was really excited about it and encouraged me to go for it so here I am! We’re launching a fun capsule of dresses and separates that are not strictly resort wear, they are pieces that you can wear to a garden party or a wedding or on summer holiday. Our separates are also perfect for everyday wear – I’m particularly in love with our floral safari suit! Everything is 100% linen and ethically made in Australia.
How are you approaching the work/baby juggle at the moment?
At the moment I work four short but very intense days Monday to Thursday and take three days off. Life does feel very busy and sometimes overwhelming with this rhythm and I am hoping to be able to slow down a little more, I don’t quite feel that I’ve got it 100% right yet!
Do you have any mum hacks or tips you swear by that make the days and nights run smoothly?
My primary hack is being ultra productive at work. Sometimes I’ll only have a 5 or 6 hour working day so I make sure I take a healthy lunch to the office so I can power through a full working day, condensing it down into 5 hours when I need to. I aim to be as productive at work as possible so I can get home to Lucien the earliest possible. The sooner I finish my day, the sooner I can get home to my family. I also regularly see a psychologist/psychoanalyst, acupuncturist and try to practice yoga at least twice a week, this eats into my working day each week but I find it invaluable in keeping myself centred, otherwise life can quickly feel like it is getting out of control.
What has been the most surprising thing about motherhood so far to you?
I didn’t have too many expectations so not many surprises! I know it sounds cheesy but I am astonished by how much I love this little human, it truly is a love affair.
Nicole wears Ephemera skirt, $350, and top, $350
Has your personal style changed since becoming a mother? What do you love to wear?
Not too much. I have always liked to dress with my own sense of style but comfortably so I haven’t had to abandon mini skirts, spaghetti straps or the like. I channel all sorts of looks depending on my mood, you can find me floating around in a floral dress some days and other days I can be more of a tomboy in jeans and a t-shirt.