Wynn Hamlyn: A Play on Practicality

Wynn Hamlyn: A Play on Practicality

Designer Wynn Crawshaw riffs on utilitarianism through an artistic lens. We caught up with him to talk about his creative process and the team that helps him bring it all together. 

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Wynn Crawshaw is en route from Saint-Tropez to Paris. It’s the early morning when he dials in from a car that’s winding its way through the gorges and riviera towns that make up the path to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. The sun has risen but isn’t yet high enough to make the shirts stick to the backs of the cyclists and pedestrians that line the road. It’s market week in Paris — a flurry of sales, wholesale orders and textile trade shows. It’s the label’s “bread and butter”, Crawshaw explains. More of a keen observer than a showman, the designer describes himself as a mere witness to the chaos. The real architect of the trip, he insists, is his sales agent Kate Killey, an industry veteran and Director of The Known Agency.

“My reason for being here is really just as a support person. For Kate, a typical day looks like being in the showroom from seven or eight in the morning until seven at night. It’s a non-stop circulation of people that lasts for a week. I think on the busiest day, they had over 40 appointments.”

It’s the first time he’s left his native New Zealand in three years, and the change of scenery has had an invigorating effect. “I can come here and see things that I wouldn’t ordinarily see,” he shares. “I’m here looking at the city like, ‘Wow, people actually do dress like this and do wear these pieces that we sell here but we don’t necessarily sell back home.’” It doesn’t hurt that each passing day will see more showroom visitors poring over his racks of exquisite samples and bursting with questions for the man himself. Still, the Paris visit is an enterprise that, when pressed, he refuses to take credit for. It’s typical of Crawshaw’s nature — demurring and redirecting all praise to the women who have always been at the forefront of his label and his life.

“My whole family is involved with my business, especially my mum, my wife and my sister. And then I’ve also got this incredible team that we’ve slowly built back home. It’s been amazing, especially while being away these last few weeks, to see them essentially take over the running of things. I pretty much can’t take any of the credit for where the label’s at right now, because the people around me are so talented. I owe everything to them.”

Lana Crawshaw, Wynn’s wife and longtime Brand Manager, is currently eight months pregnant. To cover her usual workload while she’s on leave, the team has had to hire three new people. Her contribution to the label can’t be overstated, he confesses. “When I met Lana, I thought I was doing really well but I was just in the infancy of Wynn Hamlyn. I was making clothes but I had no real idea of how to build an identity and sell it. Lana partnered with me and started the brand, really. She is the mastermind of everything, from in-house sales to who we are in a branding sense. We’re at a bit of a loss trying to replace her; it’s been a huge challenge.”

The rare compliment that Crawshaw will accept is for his well-known taste for practicality in design. Year after year, he has presented collections that are clearly marked with a functional spirit; designed for ultimate ease but not so utilitarian that they don’t allow room for play. He points to his childhood spent on a kiwifruit orchard in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty as the basis for his common sense approach to clothing. It was the kind of environment where sweaters had to be tightly cable-knit, lest they snag on low branches or the sharp edge of a basket. It called for clothing that suited the elements, without being stifling. 

It was also where he first learned the finer points of business, observing his mum wholly embedded in her work. “She has built her own business that I grew up around, so I had that in my DNA essentially. I grew up around her working every weekend and at nighttime. She’s coached me through — from giving me that work ethic from the beginning to then teaching me accounting, and whatever else.” 

Her down-to-earth influence quite literally followed Crawshaw into his pre-fashion career as a surveyor. “What I was doing was engineering based, so I was really just in the dirt, building stuff. I was there with an excavator in the middle of nowhere; I’d plot something out and he’d dig it. If things weren’t working, we’d figure out a new way to do it.” After leaving surveying in favour of fashion school, he found that his sense for practicality put him at odds with his classmates. In a world often grounded in theoretical discussion, Crawshaw was instead eager to roll up his sleeves and problem solve. It’s a trait that served him well in the early stages of his label; a period that requires any young designer to be quick on their feet and somewhat unromantic. “The business still has all of us working multiple roles, doing different things — that ability to be adaptable is something I’ve benefited from.”

The designer’s hands-on approach can be felt not just in his working style but also in his physical craftsmanship. Crawshaw credits “years of being let loose on the farm” — nailing wood offcuts together in the shed — for his lifelong obsession with the handmade. It’s no surprise that some of his most instantly recognisable idiosyncrasies are intricate beadwork and hand-finished macramé pieces. These details inject an air of eccentricity that’s unmistakably Wynn, and also never fail in attracting the Wynn Hamlyn woman. “It could be someone who’s 75 or it could be someone who is 17,” he explains. “Both could walk into a store and respond to one of those design details in exactly the same way. When I meet our customers, they’re just people who are likeminded and not from any particular demographic.”

Crawshaw’s trademark flourishes were on full display at Wynn Hamlyn’s recent Australian Fashion Week debut. An exercise in “rebellious juxtaposition” held in a bunker-like tunnel beneath Sydney’s Central Station, the show offered looks styled in elegant collage to a packed crowd. Glass beads hand-turned in India were paired with Salomon trainers, nostalgic knitwear and feather-light puffer jackets. A striking hibiscus print from artist Marcus Watson unfurled itself across button-down shirts and minidresses like an untrimmed vine. When all was said and done that evening — rapturous praise received and backstage interviews completed — Crawshaw opted for a local beer over a wild party. “Aftermath-wise, it was very low-key. I think it was Kate, Lana, Bella and I and we pretty much went down to the closest pub we could find and sat there for three hours just to decompress. Just to go somewhere for a little bit of quiet time was very key.”

Taking stock alongside some of the most important women in both his working and personal life, Crawshaw had a chance to breathe. With Paris on the horizon and his next collection already looming, it was an uncommon moment of quiet. He couldn’t help but reflect. 

“Fashion is a hard thing,” Crawshaw admits. “It’s a crazy industry and it’s not easy. It’s almost like having a drug problem, you know? It’s this thing that swallows up all your time and money, and makes you into a bit of a monster. It’s not something you could do at all without having people around you who are willing to support you until the very end. I’m just so lucky to have that.”