Down Under Denim

How a small—even naive—Australian denim brand made it big in London and Paris.

There must be something in the wash in Sydney because Australia’s biggest city has a knack for cranking out stellar denim brands.

Hot on the heels of Sass & Bide and Ksubi (formerly Tsubi) comes the latest big-buzz Sydney brand, 18th Amendment.

Launched by Rachel Rose in February 2006, it hit the ground running, selling to top Australian stores such as ELLE in Perth, Blonde Venus in Queensland and The Corner Shop in Sydney, as well as London’s Browns Focus and London Australasian-specialist boutique Antipodium in its first season.

The second season, the brand was picked up by Harvey Nichols Liberty’s and Matches in London, and Colette in Paris. At press time, Rose was in talks with department stores in the U.S., Japan, France, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

“It’s a real fashion jean, but it doesn’t have crazy grinding or crazy distressing,” says Geoffrey J. Finch, a director of Antipodium, which also looks after the brand’s U.K. public relations. “Liberty alone has 100 on their waiting list, which is phenomenal.”

After three years working in the London recruitment industry and furniture distribution, Rose returned to Australia in 2002 and acquired the local distribution rights to Rock & Republic. One year later, she picked up James Jeans (which she still distributes).

Spotting a gap in the market for a fashion-nosed brand in the median price range of 280 to 300 Australian dollars (approximately $225 to $235 at current exchange), Rose then tapped Sydney fashion designer Rebecca Dawson to design it.

Rose and creative director Dawson were inspired by the bohemian speakeasy culture of the Prohibition-era U.S., and thus named their brand after the repealed 18th Amendment to the American Constitution. To stay true to their namesake era, Dawson has researched vintage denim, and named each 18th Amendment style after a classic film icon. The back pocket winged logo was inspired by the Art Deco-era Rolls-Royce emblem. “The American brands, they’re very well made, beautiful fabric etc., but I just felt that they were lacking a bit of a fashion edge,” says Rose, whose first collection of eight styles included the still number-one best-selling jean, The Lollobrigida: a high-waisted, straight-leg style in five washes.

She adds, “It’s extremely well-cut denim. Having two women with completely different body shapes behind the brand [means] every single pair we do we grade up to my [waist] size, a size 29-30. The cuts always look fabulous on Rebecca because she is model size. But I don’t want to own a label that doesn’t look fabulous on everyone.”

Other popular styles include The (Rita) Hayworth, a basic low-rise; The (Claudette) Colbert, a high-rise Seventies flare; The (Carol) Lombard, a skinny-leg style in cord; The (Vivian) Leigh, a lean bootleg in pincord; The (Bette) Davis, a retro-look culotte-style short; The (Lauren) Bacall, a new, true high-waist, and The Wiseguy, a Twenties-look, boyfriend-style hipster jean. Some of the unusual details include limited-edition treatments of the winged logo, done in handmade trapunto embroidery, or quilted, or fashioned from nylon fishing line, which melts in the wash.

“If you look at Australian jeans, they just have a point of difference when you put them against European or American denim,” says Dawson. “There’s almost something a little backward about our denim, which I guess lends it something quaint, something almost hand-done, naive.”