Australian Fashion Week

Nicol & Ford Honours Sydney’s Extraordinary Queer Community In Their AFW 2024 Show

Photographed By Liz Ham.
“Narrative, technical, hedonistic.” Those are the three words Lilian and Katie-Louise Nicol-Ford use to describe their eponymous label, Nicol & Ford. They launched the brand seven years ago with the simple desire to make clothing for themselves. From a design standpoint, the label is a reflection of the era they grew up in.
“As ‘80s and ‘90s kids, we were deeply influenced by John Galliano and Alexander McQueen,” the pair tell Refinery29 Australia. “Both their renegade spirits and the way in which they could create entire worlds on the runway.”
In the seven years since launching, they’ve presumably achieved the former (and absolutely achieved the latter), while also honouring the diverse and “extraordinary” Sydney queer community through their intricate, demi-couture designs — all while becoming the benchmark for diverse casting at Australian Fashion Week.
None of this has happened by accident, and you could never accuse Lilian and Katie-Louise of doing anything to tick a box. Take their casting process, for example. The pair explain that they’ve always felt “embraced and held” by Sydney’s queer community, emphasising its rich diversity and multitude of subcultures. This inclusive ethos inspires Kate and Lilian as they meticulously curate their yearly collections and runway presentations.
Their approach is to cast first and construct second, which pays off enormously in their shows. It’s also a testament to them that some models in this year’s show have walked in every one of their shows to date.
Nicol & Ford has become known for conceptualising immersive runway shows that are impossible to look away from — even for a moment. Last year, the cohesion of the music with the models’ choreography, not to mention the haunting pacing and set design, put the entire audience into a trance-like state. The models' movements were slow and deliberate, taking up space in our days that they rightfully deserved.
The 2024 show was similarly mesmerising, and the standing ovation was more than earned — the show was a triumph. It began with a haunting performance that can be summed up in two words: witchy and possessed. The 25-look show that followed was a celebration of the life and work of underworld Sydney figure Rosaleen Norton, an artist and occultist who was misunderstood and persecuted for her liberal lifestyle. Her tendency towards 1950s kink and demonic artworks were reflected through both the garments and the beauty looks. Skin marred with whip marks, "sex lips" and "orgasm cheeks" to give the look of blowup dolls, were all hallmarks of the show, according to the show's lead makeup artist Nicole Thompson, who spoke with Refinery29 Australia backstage before the show. Ropes and chains featured heavily on the runway, in wrist binding and literally woven through long plaited hair.
The show didn't feel rushed, and in fact, the pace felt luxurious. The final look epitomised this, with a garment made from 350 sourced, cleaned, sanded, drilled, linked, and draped oyster shells and slowly shuffled down the runway, with the sound of shells clattering together and scraping along the concrete runway. As Lilian and Katie-Louise returned backstage after accepting their standing ovation, the joy was palpable as Lilian laughed and leaned down to pick up two stray oyster shells that had freed themselves from the bias gown, before returning to Katie-Louise and the rest of their cast.
These are just a few of the reasons that Nicol & Ford has become one of the most anticipated shows on the AFW schedule. Ahead of showing their 25-look THORN collection at AFW 2024, Lilian and Katie allowed Refinery29 Australia to peek behind the scenes at their atelier in Newtown, explaining exactly what inspired the collection.
Refinery29 Australia: Can you share the inspiration behind your THORN collection?
Lilian and Katie-Louise Nicol-Ford: THORN takes its inspiration from the life and work of Australian artist Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979), infamously known as ‘The Witch of Kings Cross’ though known to her friends as Thorn. Tirelessly persecuted in conservative 1950s Australia, Norton exemplified the unwavering outsider. The 25-look collection approaches her world in three chapters: underworld kink aesthetics of the 1950s; the human-animal hybrid bodies of her artwork; and the history of witchcraft and persecution.
How do you want people to feel when they see the collection go down the runway next week? And importantly, how do you want your models to feel?
We want our audience to feel fully immersed in a rich and layered world. Our models, whom we cherish and work with very closely in the design and fitting process, have been invited to feel a sense of weaponised beauty, to embrace a hedonistic aggression in their presentation to take ownership of the space they occupy on the runway.
You’ve explained in the past that Nicol & Ford is a celebration of your community. Can you please explain what this means to you and how it inspires your collections?
As individuals we both feel embraced and held by Sydney’s extraordinary queer community, which within itself has many subcultures and points of difference. We are passionate about sharing this diversity and complexity, challenging the contemporary tendency to create one palatable ideal of queer experience and identity. In doing so, we assemble our cast with a view of showing a broad range of bodies, genders and identities, working with each individual to understand where they connect with the inspiration and suite of designs.
During your panel discussion at AFW last year, you mentioned that you cast the show and then create custom garments for your AFW shows. Why do you approach it in this way, rather than creating garments and then finding models to fit those clothes, like so many other labels?
Our beautiful cast, a number of who have walked for every one of our AFW shows, represent a broad range of physicalities. In casting diversely, we see it as our responsibility to ensure that the technical pattern making is perfect to each body, with all garments graded, samples and made by us in our Newtown atelier.
For this reason, making the garments prior to casting is simply not possible — it is important for us to understand how individuals move, the parts of their body they embrace or conceal; this is simply the reality of human relationship to clothing and we love to reflect this conversation on the runway.
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