In Conversation with Silent Arrow Founder Kelly Barrett
I was ready to take the step into doing my own label and for ages I was wondering the name. I knew I wanted it to be strong and tomboy, not too girly sounding. I had just returned from a trend trip overseas, my first in ages, it was like waking up again being immersed in fashion. I hadn’t gone away because of being pregnant or breastfeeding. I spent a couple of days at an old friend’s house in Brixton, where I used to live in London. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we walked together through Brixton market and had a rad day together. I found a choker that day that was an arrow, it was hand made by the jeweller that sold it to me. That necklace represented the start of a new life for me. I love my kids, but for the first time in ages I remembered who I was again.
So I was back in Australia and was wondering what the name should be and everyday when I brushed my teeth or did my make up I was staring at this necklace, one day it just jumped out at me, arrow lingerie! We weren’t able to register arrow, so we were back to the drawing board, but I didn’t want to lose arrow, I felt like that had spoken to me right from the mirror.
I had been reading a lot of Rumi poetry and the word silent evolved from that.
// Start at the beginning. Were you always going to be a Fashion Designer?
For some reason fashion is in my blood. My mum is very into fashion, but didn’t sew.
At about 8 I discovered the alchemy of sewing, if you had the fabric you could have anything you wanted! It was an amazing power that let me wear my creations.
My dad worked in a printing factory and he started bringing home rags from their bags of fabric cut offs. I started making slippers for the family, but got bored of that really quickly and moved on to making clothes I could wear. I remember making a hot pink layered dress. I would make up the pattern and hand sew. I was desperate for a sewing machine! Every Friday night we would drive into the city to pick up my mum from Myer, where she worked in sales. I would dress up in a different outfit I made and ask her every time, ‘guess where I bought this from?’ and she would pretend every week that she didn’t know. Who knows how I looked! I wish I had a photo. I don’t think I hemmed or made anything properly.
I found that I could express who I was through clothing. Money was tight and I didn’t have access to what I wanted, so sewing became an amazing way to have exactly what I wanted.
In suburbia I was often told that my choice of fashion was ‘weird’ because it was different. I quickly learned that it was good a good sign when people, who I didn’t admire their fashion style, didn’t like my look.
// So was it something you always wanted to do?
I told my mother from a young age that I would be a fashion designer.
A talented fashion designer, Penny Grandy, took me under her wing after I did work experience with her. I was at risk of leaving school at 15 due to family break down and moving from place to place. I’m lucky that she saw something in me. She took me to RMIT open day for Fashion Design degree, where we made a plan to get in. I was told that I needed an excellent drawing folio and to do a Fine Arts focused year 12 program.
I did that and was taught by amazing artist Poppy O’Connor to draw. I organised fashion shows at my old school Malvern Girls’ and had a massive folio of work. I went to my RMIT interview prepared and they didn’t even look at my folio! These days I would not put up with that, but back then I knew it was over.
// So how did you end up in Fine Arts?
When you study fine art, people looked down on commercial design. I tried to hide that I even went to that interview. I was accepted into 2 amazing (hard to get into) fine art degrees! It was crazy. I decided to do a gap year and travel to Europe with my best friend. It extended to 18 months and when I came back I struggled to stay in Melbourne, it felt so small. I loved the freedom I had in London to be whatever I wanted to be.
After returning I started a fine art degree in Print Making and minor in Painting at Monash. I loved print making. I went to lots of gallery openings, like you do as an art student and saw a massive divide between poor students and artists and the patrons of the arts, who were wealthy. I didn’t like that one person only could own a painting, it was so exclusive. I loved that with print making you could decide on your edition and many people could have your work, it was so much more fair.
So how did you end up back in fashion?
After a year in Fine Arts I got a student visa to work in the States. I settled in NYC and did various crappy and unsafe jobs. That’s a whole other adventure. Whilst I was there I saw a hip-hop beanie trend that wasn’t in Australia. I came back and started a business with my friend. We sold them to Surf Dive & Ski and loads of other street stores. It did well, but we had no idea how to scale up and manage a business.
Then I started a b-girl clothing range. I was skating and liked the tomboy style of clothing that was easy to wear. I was also heavily influenced by Bikini Kill, heavy drum and base and Byork at the time and lusted over her pump fury’s that she wore on the cover of ID early 90’s.
Again, scaling was an issue. I still made all of my own patterns by eye and sewed everything myself.
I decided to go travelling and moved to Tokyo for a few months and got into the intense trance party scene there! Then moved on to the States and back to London.
I was planning to stay in London for a while, so I called the London College of Fashion to get some info on short night courses. I knew to move forward I had to learn pattern making skills. It was a massive turning point in my life because the college accidentally sent me the wrong prospectus, the 4 year BA Hons degree in Product Development for Fashion. I flicked through it one day and time stopped, I had to do this degree. I had become really interested in technical aspects of fashion and I knew RMIT had a very poor offering in this area, this degree had subjects I had never seen before!
I applied, went for the interview and was accepted!
// Oh that was perfect! How did you support yourself through Fashion College?
I started a business selling burlesque costumes that I sourced from NY and sold in London. This paid for my fees, which were huge. I later sold the business for about $30,000, which paid the rest of my fees.
I loved studying! I fell pregnant with my first child in the third year, which was mainly industrial placement and due to my previous industry experience I was able to be exempt and have my baby without effecting my degree.
// Wow. So you had a baby and didn’t take any time off Uni?
No. I moved to Glastonbury for a while and lived the ultimate hippy life with a big belly. I was happy, I ate a raw food diet and collected water from the local spring. No TV, no car, just walked around with my sling to see my friends. Things didn’t work out with my partner and I found myself back in London as a single mum finishing my 4th year, doing my thesis and research project.
I’m not one to compromise, I wanted everything. Attachment parenting mum and first class honours degree. It got tricky and my lecturer warned me that if I was lucky my thesis was a third, no fucking way! I didn’t work my arse off with an 85% average for years and pay 1,000’s of pounds to graduate with a third!
My mum came over to live with me and help with my daughter, and I got my first-class honours degree, top of the year! It was difficult and I worked so hard I ended up in hospital, but I was not letting go of that goal. Sometimes you have to dig really fucking deep.
// Holy shit! That’s incredible. So now you have your first and your prestigious degree. And a new baby. What did you do next?
I graduated with lots of opportunities, but they were just out of reach because I couldn’t actually take them! My daughter was going to have to go into child care for 60 hours a week for it to work and I just couldn’t face it. My mum said ‘I’m not working, come home and I will look after her and you can start your new career here’.
So 6 years later with my 2 year old , I packed up and left my home in London. It was hard and England still feels like my other home, I will never get over her. She gave me my career, my first born and she supported me in all my craziness, she didn’t judge me she said ‘hell yeah! give me more of you!’
I needed to be a responsible parent now, I needed a corporate job and stability. My goal was to buy a home and make sure my daughter’s life was awesome.
I took a job at a homewares company. The pay was good and the hours not crazy. I was desperate to get back into fashion, so moved to Pacbrands (Holeproof) and became a lingerie designer.
I met my partner there. I found out at my Grandfathers funeral that he and my Grandmother also met at Holeproof! So weird!
// How did Starcorp come about?
My partner and I had both worked at Holeproof for years. At this stage I was the Design Manager of underwear and he was the National Sales Manager. We were ready to move on and decided to start a business together.
In our front room we grew from zero to 20 million in 6 years, with 2 more kids in the mix. We have an office now and an amazing team of experts. We avoid as much of the corporate traps as possible. Minimal meetings, flexible working hours, office dog. We try to respect what each person brings and let them shine, rather than control them.
// Sounds amazing. So why launch Silent Arrow?
So 15 years after graduating I feel like I am finally coming back to myself. Silent Arrow is my creative project, it is a reflection of me and my values. At the end of the day it is just fashion, but I want it to be more, I want it to be a platform for women. I want to discuss feminism and subversion. I want to look at why women edit and who they really are. Some of the strongest most amazing kickass women I have ever met have been in the playground in their trackies, Don’t judge a book by its cover.
// What makes Silent Arrow different?
There are loads of bralettes around at the moment and I like them too. However, after 3 kids, I really like a bra that can also give me support and a good shape. Bras are not just undergarments; they can really rock some simple outerwear. A thin white t-shirt with one of our strappy bras looks amazing and is a relaxed way to bring fashion into casual wear.
When I wear our range I feel rad! I feel like it is an effortless way to be on-trend with interesting layering. It is striking without needing much effort to be honest!
I absolutely hate narrow wires that dig in, our bras are always on the wider side and the shape is never pointy, we use very thin foam that forms to you.
// Have you had a moment yet where you’ve felt it all come together?
I recently went to a women in business networking event and debuted wore a Silent Arrow super strappy bra and really low cut vest for the first time. It was the one bra in the range that I thought was too young for me, but it suited my outfit that day and I thought, fuck it, I’m going to wear it.
The first conversation I had the woman said ‘I saw you walk in the room and I thought, I want to walk into a room like that!’
Such a compliment! I want every woman to be comfortable when they walk into a room and be themselves, own it. Really what is there to lose.
The process of starting this brand has finally made me understand that you should only ever be yourself, I know people say that, and I have said it too, but there is no one else like you. You really sell yourself and the world short walking around being someone else.