Growing Up

kylie_obus_portraitAustralian native Kylie Zerbst is in New York for the first time. Though the wanderer in her is itching to see the sights and discover the hidden nothings that end up as more than something in her designs, she has work to do. Part of an Australian round-up sponsored by Ford's annual model competition, Zerbst's line Obus is dictating the travel plans this week, a fact that the demure Zerbst says, "is an adventure in itself."
As a former graphic designer who studied and taught at Melbourne's RMIT, Zerbst was never that big into fashion. But after a 3-month trip to India, she became inspired to find a more hands-on medium—work that would satisfy her desire for movement and adventure. In the winter of 2000, she launched Obus, a label bearing the name and symbol of a German trolley car. The growth of the line since then has been gradual, natural, and at Zerbst's own pace.
A classic example of Zerbst's homegrown philosophy happened just a year after Obus's launch. Invited to Sydney's Fashion Week, Zerbst turned down the opportunity for a 2-month roadtrip through Australia. As she explains, "Things happen when I'm ready for them to. I'm not much of a forager. My business and my designs have grown organically, with one small idea feeding another. I like to keep things that way."
Forager or not, Zerbst is not afraid to be bold, playful, and adventurous, characteristics that also define her line. Over the course of 14 collections, she's developed a vibrant but earthy palette, an assortment of geometric patterns, and versatile pieces that she throws together in surprising ways. The spring/summer collection, titled Personal Library, undoubtedly falls in line with the Obus tradition, with zig-zag leggings, play-time dresses with blocks of color, and a variety of layering tricks that make the pieces instantly recognizable.
Obus spring/summer 2007 collection
The business path Zerbst has found herself following (or not following, rather) is also reflected in her design process. Unlike many designers who have an entire collection planned before they've cut the fabric, Zerbst looks at what pieces from the previous season worked best. She re-creates that piece, sometimes changing very little, and then builds from there. The result is fluidity in core elements like Zerbst's study of volume and her commitment to making practical cuts that recognize the feminine form, but don't overexpose or exaggerate it. The winter collection she's brought to New York highlights these fundamentals, but unsurprisingly, it also takes off in new directions.
Obus fall/winter 2007 collection
The most drastic departure in color so far, Asphalt Dreaming, is decidedly dark. Gray, black, chocolate, ochre, and midnight-blue compose the palette, and while it may look nothing like the Obus you know, it maintains the foundations of the label—the sophisticated elements that occasionally were overshadowed by the pizazz of the past. Like all the other collections, it uses only the best natural fabrics and keeps the production of signature bubbled bottoms, high-cut vests, long sweaters, and transformative shapes at home in Australia. These are the grown-up characteristics that give the winter collection and the label as a whole such a varied fan-base, a fact that Zerbst noticed after opening a store in Melbourne in April of 2006.
Obus fall/winter 2007 collection
"I originally had an idea of the Obus wearer as a young, adventurous woman in love with life. When I opened the store I realized that my clothes are worn by this same type of person, but that she comes from all generations," she says. Perhaps this realization is what prompted the more sophisticated slant in Zerbst's new collection—seeing that the line she started seven years ago as a girl for a girl, has grown up and become something that any woman can be happy wearing in every season of life.
Obus is available in New York at Blush, 333 Bleecker Street, 212-352-0111; and at Otte, 121 Greenwich Avenue, 212-229-9424. For more information, go to
Australian designer Kylie Zerbst bids girlhood adieu.

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