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MEET SYDNEY: A fashion brand founder creating Milan-inspired statement pieces with a conscience

I sat down with Sydney (our resident MWN photographer) who captures beautiful moments at our events. A creator driven by values of ethical sustainability + celebrating the feminine (and still new to the city), we were curious to know more about her and her Italian experience thus far.

Written by: Ché Milani

 
 

Ethical & sustainable statement pieces drive Sydney’s growing business

(have you seen her yet?) and with photography, fashion, and embroidery as her creative pursuits, we wanted to know more about her artistic adventure here in Milan.  


And, of course, her experience of finding her place in Italy’s fashion capital (a hub of creativity, but one that hasn’t yet made space for sustainable fashion? Only time will tell.)


From brand photography to event photography (and even a wedding or two!), from sustainable hand-hemmed scarves to the intricacies of embroidery, her artistic life is in a constant state of evolution.


We’re curious to see where this journey will take her, and understand what brought her here to Milan in the first place…


Over a few pots of rooibos tea, we chatted for a couple of hours, sharing laughs over the quirkier things in Italy (including their men!).


Here’s what she had to share about her journey, her business, and her creative pursuits in the fashion capital…


 

Ché: How did you end up in Milan?


Sydney: Okay, let's see…I left the States about 6 years ago after I graduated from university and I went backpacking for 6 months.


I went to England where I was doing a work exchange that I found on the internet, and that’s how I met my now partner Jacopo, who’s Italian.


He didn't really speak much English yet and he was quite young at the time, so we were just friends, but then we ended up traveling together a few months later.


We went to Australia for what was meant to be 3 months, and then Covid hit!


That turned into 4 years as they kept renewing our short-term visas and travel was still limited at that time.


I really wanted to come to Italy, but he wasn't too excited about that.


But I thought it would be…well, I wanted to learn the language and I thought it'd be good for him, for his career, because he needed to get his foot in the door and do something he already knew.


It was very hard in Australia for him to do that, especially on our temporary visas. So now he's got his foot in the door and he's doing programming, and I'm loving it here!


I don't know how long we'll stay, maybe five to ten years if I can get my visa worked out.


That’s a long time, actually! But we also know how fast time goes by and one or two years wouldn’t be enough. But…we also know how plans can change!


Yeah, I said three months for Australia and look what happened!


I don’t think he’s as keen on staying here as long as I want to.


With the wages being lower here than in Australia or the States for the job he’s doing, he's a bit like ‘Why would I do the same thing here and get a quarter of the wages?’


It's not quite so romantic for him to be here, but I'll take a bit of a wage cut because it's fun for me!


I’m curious to know what kind of visions you had in your mind, or what preconceptions or expectations you had before moving to Milan?


Well, I had visited here once before.


I was a nanny in the south for a few months and then I came up to visit Jacopo and a mutual friend for a couple of days, and I didn't really like it too much.


Compared to other places in Italy, I thought it was a bit boring, it wasn’t quite so cute, charming and romantic and so,

I wasn't really looking forward to living in Milan specifically.


But now that we're here, I love it!


Jacopo had told me it’s a more livable place compared to the south.


He was like, ‘What are we going to do there? You’re not going to be able to get any supplies for anything.’


The more I'm here, the more I really love it.

 
 

So, it sounds like we've had a similar-ish experience.


Having been here before, I also wouldn’t have said this was the first place on my list - but then when you actually live in a place and you discover it, you realise there are many layers.


Do you feel that the city has in any way exceeded your expectations, or that you've discovered more negative aspects…how's your perception changed?


I think…well, because I don't speak Italian very well yet, I was emotionally prepared to come here and be very lonely for a while.


That's what I had accepted.


Obviously I knew I had my partner and his family, but in my mind I was like, ‘It's not going to be so easy to build a community for myself’, because it had been hard in Australia.


That wasn't even a fear, it was just something I'd accepted.


So I was very pleasantly surprised when I met the group (MWN) very early on.


And maybe that's the power of accepting things!


Instead, now I have quite a big circle here already full of wonderful women so that's been amazing. I'm sure that's part of why I love the city so much!

Another thing I was surprised about was the cafe culture.


In Australia there’s such a cafe culture and even coming from the States, there’s such a cafe culture.


I just always imagined I'm gonna sit in all the beautiful cafes in Milan! There are beautiful cafes here, but it's nothing like places I've lived in and that really surprised me.


I have to travel a bit further from my apartment to find an aesthetic cafe.


But I've gotten used to that.


Lowering my expectations sounds bad, but I've let go of my expectations of what I think a cute cafe is supposed to be, and I understand this is what they are here.


It’s fine, this is their aesthetic, it doesn't have to be the perfect, flawless, Scandinavian design that I had in my head - which doesn't make sense here anyway!


Fair enough!


Let’s talk about fashion.There are all the mainstream brands, independent business owners such as yourself, and the luxury brands all mixed together.


How are you finding this dynamic?


I had a gut feeling that turned out to be true…I don't know, I told people I'm moving to Milan and they were going on about how my brand is just going to take off, I’ve made it etc etc, - but at the back of my mind I felt it wasn’t going to be that way.


Italians in Milan - and maybe all of Italy - love their established designers, their famous brand names, but I find that for emerging, especially emerging sustainable brands, there's not so much of a market for that here.


I think.


For someone starting out, I probably would’ve gotten more traction faster in Australia and in the States, because there’s more of a market for that.


People want to support ‘the new, cool thing’.


Here I think it's a bit more of a challenge - which is fine, I knew that coming in - but it's definitely proven to be true so far.


 
 

That’s an interesting point.


And I agree with you that they’re very brand conscious.


It's not to say that there isn't a market for creatives like you, but I think people need to be made aware of the fact that now these kinds of small, independent businesses headed up by younger

(possibly foreign) people are coming up - and it’s worthwhile paying attention to!


Yeah, for sure!


I guess this is the case anywhere, but with the wage gap here, I suppose it’s more complex.


When I go to markets, I see other designers selling their stuff for really low prices. I think to myself there's no way they’re making any money, but maybe they think they have to price this way, otherwise people won't buy… or it could be something psychological on their end, who knows.


I didn't have a problem with asking for my prices.


I did a market recently here in Milan, and people didn't have a problem with paying over 100 euros for something…but also I feel like most of my customers weren’t Italians. A lot of them are here on student visas or traveling through.


And then I feel the people who have money want to buy, you know, Valentino or whatever.


I know you've been here for only six months and you’re still feeling it out, but for someone who's in a similar position to you, do you think a market is an avenue to go down?


For me it's been the most profitable thing I've done so far in the city, and even in the States actually.


I feel like to get noticed online you need to put in so much ad spend before you start to see any kind of results.


My margins are pretty low, well, the margins are average for the products, but I guess my budget's a bit low, so it's a bit hard to find places where you don't need to put that much money in to see big results.


I think if you're starting and you want to gauge how a certain target market responds to your products, I think a market is the easiest and most affordable way to do that.


We did one in Nashville before coming here. We sold so much and even though Jacopo is so supportive and helpful, he still doesn’t quite understand the benefit of being at a market!


I was like, ‘I don't understand why the money's not talking to you!’


With the best intentions, he thinks he knows my business better than I do! But he’s a great support.


It’s so worthwhile for my business - to build it, to build my email list, for brand awareness and to network with other small business people.


Definitely long-term it's not what I want to be doing - I'd like to be a bit more of a player but, dang, if it ain’t broke…


Now that summer’s coming, there probably won’t be too much market activity, so I need to focus more on the online stuff.


Exploring these other avenues is great - it’s either that, or you’re spending absolute hours creating content to share on Instagram, Tiktok and all of that, and that feels like a full-time job!


I've been doing Tiktok the past two weeks.


I wanted to try it, because I’ve been doing a blog for the past year. I've only been able to post like once or twice a month, but I'm putting all the pins on Pinterest.


My traffic's better than it was, but it's not converting the way I like and so I decided to give it a try.


I've been doing it for two weeks, once a day.


Earlier I was laying on my bed trying to make Tiktoks and I was like, this feels like such a massive waste of time!

This is ridiculous!


I know, it's difficult!


I don't even know how to articulate this, because we can't generalise and say that creative people have this aversion to social media…but that’s the pattern I'm noticing.


We have things we want to share, but it somehow feels really uncomfortable having to publicise what we’re doing.


It feels insincere!


Exactly! So, your blog - is it still active now?


Oh yes! It began as more sustainable fashion tips and then as I've been trying to get more promotion for the scarves, it's been a lot about how to style your scarf and such things.


Also different vintage shopping guides for different cities, things like that within the sustainable fashion field.


I’m trying to find a way that's going to deliver more ROI. I don't mind putting in the work, but there needs to be something in the end.


I'm in a little group for business owners and I feel like any time someone's asking how social media’s working right now, the answer is ‘it’s not working’.


Then if someone asks about ads, ‘oh, that’s not working either!’


I’m like, well, what is working?


So, in the end, I come back to markets!


Absolutely.


After having discovered MWN and meeting people through events (and being there as the photographer) have there been any unexpected benefits for your business, or creative pursuits?


For my fashion business, yeah… I’ve met several other women who are bringing their fashion and design businesses from other countries to Milan, so we can navigate that together…because you know that's a pain in the ass.


So that's been huge.


And then it’s been an incredible networking opportunity for my photography.


For example, there’s Candice, a model who’s also new to the city, who is a huge advocates for sustainable fashion and so we're planning an editorial shoot together to promote the cause.

And then with another woman, Helga.

We were talking about doing some collaborative work, because she has a candle company she started. 


And then with Vani, who’s a papier-mâché artist, we want to do markets together in the future.


So I think collaboratively, there are so many opportunities.


But first and foremost it's just nice to have people who know exactly what you're dealing with!


It’s too easy to get stuck in your own head and think that you’re the only person experiencing a certain thing or problem.


And then you start talking to people and you realise that even though we come from different backgrounds, we have completely different lives…we’re having the same experience!


I’ve experienced that with this group, especially!


Everyone's just so collaborative, everyone wants to help each other, everyone knows whatever everyone's dealing with to a degree.

 
 

You work in English, you’re exposed to a lot of English here, but tell more about the Italian side of things - your partner’s family, your partner, all of that!


I love it! They're wonderful, they're great.


I was really nervous that it would be too much emotional and mental labour for them, especially when we were staying with them when we first arrived.


They're working all day, they come home and I'm quite sure the last thing they want to do is put up with me trying to find the words to communicate!


But they’re so patient.


His mum would invite me to her salon to give me facials, so we could talk.


Long family meals can be a bit much for me though.


I had an incident over Easter…as I mentioned to you earlier, I'm not very touchy. I wasn’t raised that way - I don't mind it, it doesn't bother me but I'm just not used to it - so when I go to the grandparents house and there are 15 people and I have to kiss everyone on both cheeks in this crowded space, it can be intense.


Anyway, this particular incident…I was just so overwhelmed and frustrated at not being able to communicate as I’d like, and though I tried to be as composed as possible, it did get the better of me.


When lunch time came around, as soon as they put the pasta in front of me, I burst into tears and ran up the stairs. I was so embarrassed, because it’s a family holiday and I'm this new person who's being so dramatic.


I eventually went back downstairs and his mom was so sweet.


I apologised, explaining I was very overwhelmed and she was so understanding, telling me it’s okay to cry,

I’m family etc.


Afterwards I felt fine - because I did the thing that I was scared to do - the horrible embarrassing thing that I feel too old to be doing, and it's fine.


They still want me there and will accept me.


So now I feel so much lighter when I'm there so that's good!


Sometimes it takes these experiences for you to realise that you’re the only person putting pressure on yourself.


So you have the opportunity to practice your Italian with Jacopo’s family - what else are you enjoying or finding useful as a way to learn the language?


Podcasts and YouTube. I enjoy those the most. 


I'm not studying as much as I want to be unfortunately, but I'll put on something in the morning when I'm doing my yoga like a YouTube video or a podcast, and listen while I'm stretching. 


For a while I was using Netflix to casually watch something in Italian and then I got locked out of my Netflix!  


But I think having conversations is the best way. 


It's a bit hard for my partner and I to get into that routine, but when I hang out with his sister, we both benefit so much from that. Her English level is about the same as my Italian level, so we help each other a lot. 


Let’s talk a bit more about your photography…


This is sort of new…when I got here I started that more or less with MWN.


I was already photographing my brand and I did a couple of paid events in Australia.


But when I got here, I wanted to find a way to meet people and network. I saw MWN on Instagram and I thought I could offer my services.


So through that I've been meeting people and building that little side hustle…it's all a side hustle right now!


I also wanted to be able to contribute to something so cool.

So I chatted to Katia, we arranged all that and then I started going to the events.


It feels really good to know when I'm at the events, I'm always - for the most part - contributing and helping to build something.

My fashion brand is the most important thing - that's what I would really want to take off, but just knowing that I'm getting to work as a creative and work for myself…I'm happy. I'm solid.


Hopefully I can build it into something bigger, but now I'm just feeling very grateful to have these creative opportunities.


I imagine that every time you say yes to something here, you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone…

 

I guess it’s no different to what I was experiencing before when travelling so much.


But when I got here, I made a conscious choice to build my own social circle and to network.


But I'm quite an anxious person, so to go to the events and have a camera is a blessing!


If I start to feel like I don't know how to act in a situation, I can be like, ‘Oh, gotta go, gotta work!’


But I enjoy pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.


I guess I have to - any of us would have to if we're the kind of people who move to a new country, have our own businesses etc.


We have to like that challenge.


From what I’ve gathered since meeting you, you have all these skills - fashion design, photography, embroidery - but you’re in an exploratory phase trying to understand where to next from here.


Can you share where you’re at right now, and touch on how it’s all connected?


I started developing my fashion brand while in Australia, but because we weren’t sure how long we were going to be there for, what with the visa situation and Covid etc, I wasn’t really in a space to focus on it full-time.


Also, Brisbane wasn’t the right place for it either.


Maybe if I had’ve been in Sydney or Melbourne it would've been different.


Now that I’m more settled here, I can start to put down roots and really focus my energy on building it, connecting with people, exploring how it’ll all work here in Italy, and thinking bigger about it all.


Embroidery has always featured somehow - it was part of my senior thesis project at university too.


I taught a few workshops from uni onwards and so I’m keen to do that here and share all of that with others.


It’s not part of my current product line, but it’s something I want to get back into with the workshops. See the response here and how it goes, and see if I can create a bridge and connect it to my brand.


Sometimes I get embarrassed when people ask about my brand and I say ‘I make scarves’

It’s odd, because in reality I am proud of what I’m doing and the designs are beautiful. I know how much goes into this sustainability aspect and the ethics, that’s a lot on its own.


But I also know what I’m capable of making and what I've done in the past.


And then to distill it down to a piece of fabric with a drawing on it that I hand-hem, sometimes feels like I'm not fully expressing what I can do.


I'm worried I’m dulling myself down too much - but maybe I just overthink things.


I think my plan makes sense - right now, the scarves are a building block.


 
 

Sometimes I think the building block should be the embroideries…but I know that probably wouldn't have been sustainable in terms of mental health, because they're so labour intensive and sometimes I even end up hating it, because I’ve been looking at it for so long!


I get that.


Your plan makes sense - often it’s good to have these various ways of channeling creativity without putting pressure on the one creative pursuit that’s ‘supposed’ to make you money or make you famous.


Considering your upcoming embroidery workshop that you’re hosting soon, can you tell us more about your project featured in Italian Vogue?


It was actually my senior thesis project at university.


I was doing mainly lingerie design at the time, and when I proposed to do lingerie for the thesis project, the idea was rejected, because it “wouldn’t be appropriate for the school fashion show” (which the donors attend of course).


I also lived in and attended school in a very conservative area, and so it just felt like at every angle I was being preached to about how “inappropriate” the female body is.


Which is, of course, such an insidious and psychologically scarring message.


And so I decided to go ahead with my lingerie project anyway, and to base it around the theme of the sacredness of female sexuality through religious lenses - you’ll see a bit of Catholicism and Buddhism in the embroideries - as well as through basic biology.


It’s really meant to “desexualise the over-sexualisation of women’s bodies”

Although desexualise isn’t really the right word either… maybe to honor the sexuality of a woman’s body, rather than shame and hide it.


But anyhow, it was too good in the end not to exhibit at the school’s show. I then collaborated with another very talented student to shoot the photos. She submitted them to Vogue Italia and they got featured!


I’ve seen those images and the artistry is amazing - the work itself and the conceptualisation. I know that there are quite a few women looking forward to your embroidery workshop!


 
 

Here at MWN we’re definitely looking forward to seeing where Sydney’s vision, creativity and courageous attitude will take her in Milan! No doubt you’ll meet Sydney very soon in person at one of our events, if you haven’t already!


But in the meantime, why not connect virtually?




 

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