On the peak of a mountain in alpine Victoria, a horde of models piled out of heated cars, stepping out from thirty degrees inside to two and rapidly dropping.
Some had voided eyes consumed by black contact lenses, others were made vampiric red. Some had teeth gritty and befouled, like they’d swallowed a mouthful of diesel. Fingers and toes had been airbrushed black, like their owners had crawled to the location through sulphur and brimstone. Three of the models were without shoes, wobbling on the frozen ground cracking under each step, as they headed towards the runway that lay waiting through the trees. I gathered a spare scarf, arm warmers, and earmuffs from my car and followed them, freezing my ass off in four layers, waterproof boots, and three pairs of socks. Someone was gonna lose their toes.
We were at the summit of Mount Donna Buang, in the dead of Melbourne’s winter, for the debut collection of emerging designer Jules Bramley. The concept was out of its goddamn mind – ambitious, extravagant, and excellent. Snow shoots are a right of passage for winter collections among Melbourne’s independent designers, but this was a runway, to be captured on 16mm film, VCR and digital video. The final result would be a fashion film, collection preview, and piece of art in one.
Past the car park, off the tarmac and into the woods, five Persian rugs formed a runway descending down the mountain. The footing they covered was treacherous – holes, tree roots and slippery rock. The models were to climb, trudging up the slope, and hit their mark at the runway’s end.
Flanking the mark were ghostly white plinths, covered in candles. The flames kept going out, and Slam Ross – DJ, designer, Melbourne icon and friend-slash-assistant on the day – shuddered over to re-light them as they sputtered and flagged in the occasional chill gust. Facing the set were the tech team, lighting rigs, and three big cameras. It was getting dark. Scarves, gloves, spare jackets and heat packs were distributed amongst the shivering models. There were technical problems delaying the shoot. The air thrummed with panicky energy, frustration, and excitement.
Jules has been designing since lockdown, launching their brand in 2020 with a capsule collection built out of wool offcuts. The pieces – handcrafted, draped, asymmetric, garments referencing muddy, decaying organisms, mosslike in form – resonated quickly, picking up stockists including APOC Store and Terminal Six, as well as a devoted Instagram following.
Now close to completing their fashion degree, the runway on the mountain’s summit was to be an official Fall/Winter 2023 debut titled “wergild”.
“I guess it all kinda started with the rugs,” Jules told VICE.
Inspired by a nostalgia brought on by the rugs that filled their Arabic grandparents’ house, Jules was drawn to the juxtaposition of placing that warm sentimentality into a haunting, hostile setting.
“I grew up mainly with my grandparents, and I find rugs so beautiful, hand tied silk and wool… They’re such an interesting textile, they’re found objects that I can work with and they hold such a significant place in my heart. They have that very homey, grounding feeling but then there’s something so haunting about them at the same time,” they said.
“I thought it would be beautiful to lay the rugs out in the woods and create this scene, like, this indoor-outdoor uncomfy-comfy scene.”
When Jules invited me to watch I didn’t know what to expect. Driving to the mountains at dawn, as the sunlight refracted off fog that filled dark green valleys, I was excited. The shoot had been scheduled for 9:30am, so as to catch what was remaining of the overnight snowfall. Arriving at the cabin, where preparation was taking place, it became clear pretty quickly that the morning shoot wasn’t happening. The runway was to be shot on VHS, 16mm film, as well as digitally, and the one-take nature of 16mm meant everything had to be perfect, especially the light. And good light wouldn’t be on offer until 5pm that day. Sunset.
As the day waned on, I sat in with Jules as they did last minute fittings in the master bedroom of the cabin. Josiah, stylist and consultant, helped Jules deliberate on the final details – which shade of sheepskin to use for leg warmers, what leather offcut to attach to shoes, which spiked leather bag paired best with a long fur skirt and hood, the cream or the tan?
At this point, Jules had at least five pieces they needed to sew. All day, they had been ripping, rearranging, glueing and stitching final details on the old sewing machine perched on a table’s edge in the living room, where one by one each model had been peeled off from couches to have their hair and makeup done. Outside, paint fumes mingled with the crisp air as fingers and toes were airbrushed. The models gleefully compared their blackened extremities.
“I was looking at a lot of Yohji Yamamoto and his jacquard coats that he did in the Fall/Winter 2000 collection,” said Jules. “They were Persian rug-themed coats and gowns, and I was super inspired. I was like, I need to reinterpret this, and I felt like it really connected with me and what I wanted to do.”
Jules’ collection featured a big Persian rug crafted into a coat, faux fur hoods and skirts, woollen leg warmers, leather offcuts turned bodysuits and leg warmers and bags. All were genderless, flowing and ghostly, tailored to the models’ bodies. The main themes of the collection, Jules said, were “the wilderness, exploration and loss”, contrasted by “tradition, comfort and home”.
The collection’s title, “wergild”, is old English, meaning “blood money”, the term for the amount paid by a perpetrator to a person’s family upon their injury or death.
“I’m kinda referring to it in a sense of paying your dues,” Jules said. “The journey of loss, and the courage, remorse and guilt that comes with that. I found out about the word as it’s the title of a Grimes song on the album Halfaxa – if this collection could have a soundtrack it would be that album.”
“For the runway, in particular, I wanted alpine, almost ritualistic visuals, something kind of nostalgic, but stark, with horror influences. I wanted this juxtaposition. It’s something so nostalgic and comfortable that it felt like home, but also completely out of place.”
“In my past work, I’ve kind of tried to create this slightly uncomfortable setting or world or space, but finding the comfort in that. Like finding the beautiful in something ugly, but more like finding the safe space in a dark place.”
Since beginning their practice, Jules had worked with deadstock pieces or found items. Their first collection was inspired and made out of a tub of damaged wool offcuts they’d found near their house. The rips and tears in the discarded materials became design signatures for Jules Bramley, and the inherent approach was to make something new out of the old, embrace natural forms and create art out of what can be found. It was authentic: zero-waste fashion, naturally.
“Everything in this collection was locally sourced and locally made. I basically travel around locally just finding a bunch of shit over time. And a majority of the pieces are made from upcycled upholstery fabrics for couches, or rugs or pillows. And then everything else is deadstock from the wool to scrap leather, offcut leather. There’s definitely a big emphasis on upcycling in my practice and the intention was to create more of a polished collection with a wide range of products that I can produce and keep producing. It’s sometimes hard to do so when using found materials, but it’s something I’ll always manage to do as it forms my practice.”
For Jules, inspiration often comes from the finds themselves.
“I’ll be on the hunt for something with crazy texture and usually I’ll find something like upholstery or in a random bin that is so unconventional to use that I’m like I need that.”
“I’m definitely a texture babe. For the runway, we were finishing pieces up until we left – airbrushing and decaying… so I wanted the garments to look like relics in a way, like they’ve lived forever. I wanted that natural distress that they would get from being in the woods for ages, everything scoured, everything decayed, airbrushed, just to create more texture and layer different textiles. It’s all about the texture.”
Back on the mountain it was nearly 6pm. The sun had already begun its descent by the time we’d made it to the top. The failing light cast an eerie glow across the woodland, and the last sheets of golden sunset were consumed by encroaching fog. Patches of snow stubbornly left from the morning’s powder littered the ground, waiting to join the evening’s promise of a fresh blanket.
Dusk was slowly turning to evening. The set was ready. The practice run was nixed because the models were in real danger of freezing to death. The non-models on set rushed to turn the heating on in cars, ready to scoop up frozen bodies after the walk.
As music played off a portable speaker, each model took their turn up the runway. Jules called directions. Feet numb, many slipped. With the sun set, all comfort had been sucked out of the scene, save the Persian rugs and candles, which bounced their light against the fog. Mist crept through the gnarled trees. It was ghostly, strange, and beautiful.
“It was a very full circle moment,” Jules told VICE.
“I love curating the imagery and doing shoots, it’s honestly really stressful and kind of painful, but such an enjoyable thing, seeing everything come together. Shooting on location is gonna be worth it. It looks so beautiful. But yeah, organising 25 people to go to the snow and travel interstate, it was a really big project. I couldn’t believe I did it, I’m really proud of myself.”
The conditions were fucking awful, but it was clear that no one was there simply sticking it out for a paycheck. Almost all of the models, stylists and assistants were Jules’ close friends. Some had been flown down from Sydney to attend. And on that mountain – despite the horrors – an energy of love, of commitment to the vision, and of seeing the end result prevailed.
“It was a pretty hectic day. I think everyone’s probably traumatised. And driving back I was like, everyone’s probably gonna hate me now,” Jules laughed.
“But I have the best support system. I have so many people that believe in me and constantly motivate me, I’m literally so lucky. Without that I couldn’t have done this. And I definitely have so many close friends that don’t even sew say, “I’ll hand sew the buttons on that”, like people going out of their way to help me finish everything. It was so fun doing it together with my friends and having that support, and community coming through, like all the models who came and walked.”
Everyone was just so excited and wanted to be there. And I was like, wow, all these people actually want to be here. So it’s crazy. I’m super grateful.”
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