Rowena Doolan is one of our industry’s most valuable assets. She’s a fashion veteran, a visionary, a designer, owner and director, and a resilient woman. Over the past two decades, Rowena has steered her Australian made fashion label, FOOL, to success, while the local retail scene around her has ebbed and flowed. Surviving the first few years for any brand is a feat in such a competitive industry, but Rowena has opened her doors every day for the past 18 years. Her determination has helped, but her distinct aesthetic and niche method of design are the traits that truly set FOOL apart.
Just five minutes at FOOL’s Greville Street store in Prahran will leave you feeling revived, inspired and motivated to get creative with your own wardrobe. Influenced by global and cultural diversity, Rowena’s love of colour, texture, shapes and patterns are embodied in her designs, and each piece communicates a philosophy which is bright, bold and irreverent.
“When I finished my studies in fashion design I spent a lot of time living and working in India. The colour in India is incredible – that place just vibes with colour! Colour makes me feel excited; it gets my brain moving. Colour is one of my biggest inspirations, as is the figure of ‘the fool’, which is where my label name comes from. Fools are ludic, they play, and they make people laugh. They are very serious about having fun, and I love that idea. I’m also inspired by the idea that fashion can draw out people’s own creativity. My customers inspire me. It’s incredible to see garments worn and paired in ways I hadn’t imagined.”
This sense of open-mindedness and inclination to find inspiration from the unlikely is what sees the FOOL aesthetic continually evolve, and the organic process from vision to finished piece is a cathartic one for Rowena. Each season reflects her mood, her interests and the world around her at that moment in time. Drawing on the incredibly diverse realm of design both locally and globally, Rowena gathers images, swatches, patterns, fabrics and garment shapes to create an inspiration board, before putting pen to paper to draw up the full look, complete with hairstyles, shoes and makeup. FOOL’s local supply chain is just as meticulous as the design process, and it’s one that Rowena is proud of.
“I design each piece and work closely with my pattern makers. I also oversee all alterations, and I coordinate and oversee all garment production. All FOOL garments are designed in the studio above our store in Prahran and made within driving distance. Our cotton and wool knits are knitted at a mill in Brunswick, and I also have a local maker for my denim, print and patch pieces. It’s so important for me to have close relationships with my makers. I love creative collaborations, and it’s vital to support our local industries. For us, local manufacturing is both an ethical issue and an issue of practicality. We want our local fashion industry to thrive. We want to use people’s skills, and it’s essential to us that we can work with people face to face, regularly. We have so many talented people here in Melbourne that it just makes sense to us to engage with them. We also like to be hands-on in the making process, so we need to be able to get to our makers on a weekly basis.”
The cost of quality and local manufacturing is reflected in the price of each unique FOOL piece, but the question of ‘cost’ and ‘expense’ and who is impacted, is a matter of beliefs and values. Rowena infuses her ethics into every element and area of her business, and it’s never crossed her mind to compromise on quality or fair wages for her makers. Ensuring that humane manufacturing methods are always adhered to, is fundamental for FOOL.
“Fast fashion is a problem for so many reasons; it’s a problem just how many clothes are being made, bought and sold at the pace some brands are working. It’s very strange. Clothes are assets, they’re tools – they shouldn’t be disposable. You need to choose them carefully, use them wisely and make sure you keep them in good condition so they last a long time. Sustainability is about longevity, re-using and minimising waste, and I apply these things practically to my design process, from my choice of fabrics to the way I use those fabrics and their off-cuts. Sustainability is also about being dynamic and tenacious, and that’s one of the things that makes it so exciting! We believe that people should be paid appropriately for the work they do, and our customers agree, so while price point is a challenge for some brands, it is a real strength of ours. We work closely with our customers to make sure they know that they can pair and clash their new pieces with their older ones, and this way, the idea of slow fashion is embedded quite organically into my design process.”
Rowena’s reflections on her brand are modest, but from where we’re sitting, the unique aesthetic of FOOL could easily slide onto the Paris Fashion Week calendar as a highlight showcase, or steal the spotlight at Berlin Alternative Fashion Week. There’s much more to this Melbourne brand than its clashing prints and bright colours; FOOL is fashion with a purpose, a way of life, an expressive form of wearable art, and this is all too rare in today’s fast fashion world of churn-in-churn-out cheapness. With a label like FOOL, Rowena could open stores in every capital city if she wanted to, but she’s content with creating for her loyal local customers in a setting that she loves.
“Prahran has a village feel, particularly with regards to what goes on behind Chapel Street in the smaller streets. It’s a vibrant and creative neighbourhood. You have to know where to go to get some good independent fashion, but once you do, there’s quite a bit on offer. We have an online presence, of course, but many of our customers prefer the experience of coming into the store to play with the textures, fabrics and shapes that we produce. Which brings us to customer service; this is KEY to our ongoing success, the loyalty of our customers, and their personal evolution into full-fledged FOOLS. Being a FOOL is about feeling good in your skin, and a big part of that is about feeling good in your clothes. We always think about the ways fashion communicates; it says so much about who we are, what we do and how we feel. Because of that, we’re interested in using fashion to nurture a sense of joy, playfulness and fun in everyday life. We want people to wake up and use their imagination when they’re getting dressed! Our garments start conversations, and we think that’s a hugely important and positive thing.”
Images shot by Matt Ware Photography. Makeup by Andi Coventon.
The Fashion Advocate x