Lis Harvey doesn’t buy into other people’s idea of sexy. The 30-year-old Brisbane photographer launched her own underwear brand, Nico Underwear, celebrating simplicity and minimalism, because nothing else felt quite right. “I felt very strongly that there was a real gap in the market, between that really over-the-top lacy stuff or just like everyday Kmart two dollar cottontails or whatever,” she says. “There wasn’t really anything in between. And for me personally, I felt like I didn’t fit into any of those categories.”
Drawn to minimalist visual communication and things that are “simple but clever”, Lis has released garments reminiscent of the most exquisite avant-garde art and, most recently, an understated collection of monochromatic basics, including bodysuits and tees, entitled (what else?) The Basics. But comfort, she stresses, is always the most important thing, influencing every creative choice she makes. “From comfort comes the things that I really want people to feel,” she says, “and that’s confidence and their own version of sexiness, whatever that is. For me, the Nico girl isn’t about being revealing. It’s about being confident, knowing who you are and being okay with that.”
Lis is committed to working with fabrics from sustainable sources and oversees the production of fibres into the final woven product. No small feat for a woman whose background in fashion, prior to conceiving of Nico, consisted of freelance fashion photography and childhood sewing projects. “I thought about studying again,” she admits, “but I just couldn’t hack the idea of three more years at uni. So I just sought out the classes that I knew that I needed, like pattern making, working with elastics and working with stretch fabrics, and just kind of curated my own study.”
She continues learning the tricky business of bra-making in consultation with a network of expert ladies previously employed by Triumph, who once boasted manufacturing facilities in Brisbane. The biggest challenge, Lis explains, is designing underwear to cover a large size range. “One design is never going to fit every size,” she says. “You can grade it to different sizes, but at a certain point it’s just not going to function any more. I’m pretty tiny myself in the boob department, so I think most of our products have been probably geared more towards that size range, just because that’s what I am and what I know and what I can design for.”
Nico’s designs come together in Lis’ home studio, a tranquil space suffused with the fragrance of jasmine from the hedges outside. Interns join her a couple of days of the week and manufacturing is outsourced to local factories, whose pay and conditions are accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia (Nico, in fact, was the first Australian underwear brand to ever attain the ECA’s accreditation). She brings more staff on board for pop-up shops and runway shows, but ultimately prefers to keep her team lean. “It’s very much an instinctual business,” she explains. “And being a very small business, it’s easy to keep it that way. Sometimes I think about how challenging it might be if we had twenty employees. How do you translate that same kind of instinctual process to a lot of other people? Now it works really well.”
Though the brand is still a baby, relatively speaking, having only launched in 2012, the international fashion community is already taking notice of Nico. To her own surprise, Lis won the lingerie and swimwear category at The Source Awards, the global awards for sustainable fashion, held in London. “I didn’t go,” she says, laughing, “because I really didn’t think we would win. No chance. They were live tweeting all the winners and I thought, I’ll just watch and see who wins. So I was watching in bed, because it was 3AM here. And then we won. I had to a have a quiet celebration by myself, silently screaming, so I didn’t wake up my boyfriend.”
Image: Natalie McComas
This article first appeared in Frankie Magazine issue 69 (Jan/Feb 2016).