Lis Harvey captures beauty in minimalism

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Anthroprospective/ Lis Harvey

22 November, 2018

“Change really does need to be driven by consumer demand, it really comes down to the power of the dollar, where people choose to spend their money will influence the direction of change.”

Lis Harvey

Established in 2012 by Lis Harvey, NICO celebrates the sartorial philosophy of minimalism and understated luxury. NICO brings high quality basics and underwear to the Australian fashion landscape featuring clean lines, luxe fabrics and the styles and colours needed for the everyday. Form and function coexist with pieces that not only look beautiful but feel beautiful to wear too.

At the core of everything Lis does at NICO is a strong respect for the people she works with, and the environment the company operates in. As the underwear brand with the longest standing accreditation with Ethical Clothing Australia, NICO is committed to upholding and cultivating ethical and sustainable transparency in the fashion industry. I sat down with Lis at her pop-up show in the newly built Calile Hotel on James street to discuss her journey with NICO and her passion for sustainable and ethical fashion.

Lis how did you come to start your own label?

Yeah, so I think there were sort of two approaches to it. For one, I suppose I was kind of really looking for a creative project at the time. So, I was working in photography as an advertising photographer, which don’t get me wrong, is a really good job and I still do some of this work because I really enjoy it. But I suppose I was really craving some more creative control and opportunities to be a bit more expressive over a project from start to finish. You know as a photographer you tend to come onto projects that are already planned out and you are just there to execute it. So, I really wanted to develop my own project, I guess I was really in that mindset of looking out for my own project. Then on the other hand, I really thought that there was a real gap in the industry of women’s undergarments which could be filled by something like NICO and the products we offer and for what we are doing. So, I guess those two elements combined and NICO became born out of these two ideas.

Yeah, I can definitely see that gap in the industry you’ve mentioned, and I really think NICO has filled this opening in such a beautiful way.

Yeah people have responded really well to it. You know, it a very instinctual brand. I design what I think I would want to wear, what I find comfortable and what I think other women would feel comfortable in. It’s been really reassuring to hear that other people feel the same way.

So how did the name NICO come about?

[Laughs] Well part of it is that it’s short and catching and easy to remember, but I suppose it was kind of loosely inspired by the band the Velvet Underground.

Oh yeah absolutely!

Yeah, I just think she was a really cool and interesting character and, in some ways, reflected the values that I wanted the brand to have. Like being a little bit free spirited and not afraid to be a little bit different and you know, to go our own way a bit. So, I felt she was a good representative for the brand. But yeah, the fact that it’s a good short and easy to remember name is definitely another reason [laughs].

Yeah totally, I can see that connection. I think NICO is a really innovative and forward-thinking brand as well because it really celebrates the beauty of women’s bodies, all shapes and sizes which I think is such an important value to herald in a world still so caught up on very specific ideals of what is a ‘normal’ or ‘perfect’ body.

Oh, thank you, yeah, I think there’s definitely a shift happening, and I suppose I operate less in the mainstream and more in the indie arena, so I see change happening and I’m really excited to be a part of that change. We are starting to see these values and ideals pop up more and more in the mainstream which is in some way’s irritating because you wonder how genuine it is, but it’s in many ways exciting because it’s creating positive change and will make the industry a lot healthier in the long run.

You’d hope that in the long run that those brands who have a genuine interest in breaking body stereotypes, supporting sustainable practices and heralding alternative ‘slow’ approaches to fashion would ultimately gain leverage over the industry. It’s an interesting point though, how we have these two-way brands emerging today, where they promote the use of quality materials like linen and claim to use sustainable practices, yet they are still being mass made in Chinese and Indian sweat shops. So, it’s really about holding clothing companies accountable- you can’t just appear to be sustainable, you actually have to be.

Yeah that’s it. I think things are starting to change and people are becoming more and more aware of clothing ethics. I remember it used to be a lot easier for people to ignore bad practices in the industry and there was such a lack of awareness amongst consumers, but it’s so great to see this changing and the industry becoming much more transparent. Change really does need to be driven by consumer demand, it really comes down to the power of the dollar, where people choose to spend their money will influence the direction of change. Hopefully in ten or twenty years we won’t even need to talk about these issues, ethical fashion will just be the norm and we can just get back to making good fashion and good designs.

I couldn’t agree more! So, the fabrics you use are truly beautiful, they honestly feel like soft air against your skin.

Soft air, I like that!

They absolutely do! Can you tell me about how you came to find such beautiful materials?

Yeah, so the fabrics we use for our core basics range is Lenzing Modal it’s a lovely fabric, it really is soft air [laughs]. It’s just really gorgeous, it’s really breathable and super comfortable, but importantly it’s kind to the environment. It’s an Austrian company called Lenzing and they developed the fibre, so it’s a cellulosic fibre that is made from wood pulp from beech wood trees which propagate really easily and are found all over Europe so it’s a great renewable source of the raw material. So, then the pulp gets broken down and turned into a fibre, and this is the really cool thing about Lenzing and where they really shine, is they have developed a way to make this a closed looped process, so it’s like 95% of the production materials are retained and reused in the factory.

So, while there’s a lot of other cellulosic fibres out there like bamboo, which use a similar process, but they don’t make use of these closed looped practices. So that’s where Lenzing are a really innovative company and why I really like them. You also know exactly where the materials have come from, so if it’s a Modal, then it only comes from Lenzing because they are the only company that makes this fibre, so it makes it really easy to trace the production line. Which is great because fabrics are actually really difficult to trace, because there are so many steps of production. You know, from growing the materials to making the yards to knitting the fabric, there’s a lot of steps in the journey so it’s great to know all the hands our fabrics have passed through. There’s a lot of great things about Lenzing and I just don’t know why everyone isn’t using it as much! [laughs]. We also mix it up by using some organic cottons for our other lines as well.

As you said, your garments are made sustainably which is so important as we are seeing waste on the rise. In many other ways, despite the fact that your garments use a very delicate and soft fabric, they are also very hardy which makes your garments feel more permeable to fluctuating fashion trends. So unlike fashion trends which are so often subject to an expiration date, your garments seem truer to their own unwavering style.

Yeah totally, I think we’ve never really designed for trends. I think trends probably exist less in the world of underwear, but I guess we still find ourselves accidently being ‘on trend’ by doing trendy prints or something. But I think the aesthetic we have gone for is very minimalist which is I suppose always going to be timeless, so yeah, we are definitely conscious of creating things that will last and that people will treasure, and to feel comfortable in.

In many ways, how we perceive ourselves on the outside is subjected to those sorts of trends in some subtle way, but what we wear and how we feel underneath those clothes is important, it’s important to feel comfortable.

Absolutely, it’s something we discovered really early on in the brand and it came from thoughts I had myself but also discussions we had with customers, that what we think is sexy has always been to some degree influenced by the lingerie world and the sorts of underwear that is available for us. Ideals of sexiness have been portrayed and photographed with a male gaze in mind, so this process has created images of what it means to be desirable.

I think us women have in some ways unconsciously, but now, consciously create our own imagery from a women’s gaze which I think promotes the idea that to be sexy you have to be comfortable, you have to be yourself and confidence is what’s really sexy rather than a push up bra that you’re actually really uncomfortable in. So, this has really been the core of NICO’s message for the last few years at least.

So as important as it is, I could image there would be your fair share of challenges and obstacles to owning and operating a sustainable label. How have you managed to navigate your way through these hurdles?

I think it really comes down to acknowledging that you can’t do everything all the time and that it’s a – and I know this is a catch phrase that gets thrown around a lot – but it’s a journey so you have to take it step by step. Every production line we bring out we evaluate how we could do things better and how can we move forward as an innovative brand. I think it’s important to acknowledge that if we are expecting pure perfection on all fronts than it would never be successful because this sort of perfection doesn’t exist. So, we are always taking on feedback and trying to find new ways of doing things more effectively.

That’s a great way of looking at things. So, as such a creative person can you share some advice on how you can maintain your drive and inspiration in times of creative blocks?

It can be hard sometimes because as any young designer will tell you, designing is just one side of the job, we spend so much time working on the business side of things so when I do get to sit down and work on designs it’s such a treat. It’s such a nice feeling to think that on those days I can just be creative. But I think I’ve learnt how to adapt to each side of the process and often if I do have a creative block, or I’m struggling with an idea, I’ll just walk away from it for a few days and the answer will usually just emerge over time. So yeah, I think it’s a matter of giving yourself some space and knowing that your creativity will eventually come back. It’s important to not stress out about it too much [laughs]. It has been nice having my own business because I am able to give myself time to get through these times, so I can say ‘ok if we don’t solve it today, we can return to it next week’, we always get there eventually. It’s a bit of a luxury but it is nice to just take time for these things to see what emerges, and something always does with a good shower thinking session [laughs].

So Lis, what’s your creative direction for NICO in the future?

[Laughs] oh that’s a big question, I think in our first two or three years we went through a lot of experimentation and I look back on a few of those collections now and think ‘oh what were we doing’ [laughs] but I think this was an important part of the process in terms of nailing our atheistic and nailing the messaging of our brand. I think we have really worked out who we are and what we are about and so I think going forward it’s really about maximizing that and sharing our story. It’s a simple story, but it’s complex in many ways as well so trying to get people to understand and appreciate that will take time, particularly in a fashion industry that is so saturated with messaging from all directions. I think we are a brand that doesn’t get in people’s faces, so we are just going to keep rolling with the message we have and what we are doing, and we are beginning to really see it snowballing, people are catching on to what we are about.

I like that, the snowball effect! But ironically while the snowball is getting bigger and bigger your designs and messages are becoming more and more refined with time.

Exactly! It does become more challenging with time to become consistent and true with our values as we grow. You know there are a lot of temptations out there and there are opportunities which present themselves and at the time seem really promising but then on greater reflection, we realise that they are just a quick fix for where we really want to go. So, it’s good knowing that even though it may take longer to do things thoroughly we would much rather go that way than compromise on our vision. It’s important to know that you can’t say yes to everything and that if it’s meant to happen the opportunity will come around again.

It’s well worth it to know that you have stayed true to your brand and your vision.

Absolutely, I already look back on the past few years and feel like yeah there were some things I feel like in retrospect I would do differently but it’s a part of the learning experience I guess, and all and all I can really say that we have stayed true to ourselves.  

So, you’re also a very accomplished photographer. When did you decide to pick up a camera and cultivate a passion for imagery?

I think that when I was in high school, I was always really interested in photography and film, I was just drawn to it, I guess. You know, you finish school and you’re like, ‘well ok now I need a career’ so it seemed like a good way to go. So, I started studying photography at university and yeah, I’ve been lucky that it’s gone well. I have a really lovely client base, I really enjoy working with them and I enjoy the balance of photography and designing. So, when I need a break from NICO it’s really nice to pick up the camera a bit. Actually, often when I do take a break from NICO, I come back with fresh eyes and problems do end up solving themselves. So yeah, I really enjoy the balance. It’s getting harder to find that balance as NICO becomes bigger and bigger timely wise, plus I have a baby now so there’s really no time in the day! [laughs].

Yes! You’ve recently become a mother, how have you found the work/ life balance with little bub in the world?

[Laughs] it’s constantly shifting, some days feel more balanced than others.  But no, she’s been great, she’s beautiful and she’s been a great reminder to slow down a bit and probably saying no a bit more than I used to, which isn’t such a bad thing in the grand scheme of life. So yeah, it’s been hard in some way but incredibly rewarding. I also think I’ve become a lot more conscious now as well, particularly with having a little girl, you know, I’ve started thinking more about the responsibilities I have with having a brand like NICO to think about what messages I am putting out into the world.

You know, you really think about how she might grow up to think about what we are doing, will she think that we are cool [laughs]? I have just become really conscious about what we are doing and what I value most in my life, so it’s a good perceptive shifter.

Have you found that motherhood has changed the way you see and appreciate the women’s body?

Oh yeah totally! There’s nothing like childbirth, it’s so full-on [laughs]. Every time I see a mother now, I’m like ‘YOU, you’re phenomenal’ because it’s just so crazy what the body can do. The whole process of pregnancy is intense and mind-blowing. I think about these things with NICO as well a lot more now, you know about the functionality of our garments. I have a new appreciation for what boobs go through [laughs]. But yeah, I think there’s this idea that when you have a baby you start using grandma nickers, but it really doesn’t need to be like that so I’m glad to offer an alternative!

Your recent exhibition with local artist Cassie Kowitz was really gorgeous. You both collaborated in such a beautiful way to capture body movement so elegantly. I believe the model in the photographs was Cassie herself and she was wearing NICO underwear which really accentuated the modest yet sexy characteristics of your designs. Can you tell me a bit more about how this partnership was born?

Oh yeah, it was so nice, Cass is just so beautiful and so talented and she’s just very down to earth and intuitive in how she works which is really nice. So, she approached me – and she had been wearing NICO for a little bit- but she approached me with the premise that she loved the way she felt when she wore NICO and she had been responding to that by creating some content privately. So, she got in contact with me and asked if we could do something together so clearly I responded excitedly. We didn’t really know what would come of the partnership and at the time she approached me when I was still pregnant, so I was a bit like, well it’s perhaps not the best time right now, but let’s stay in touch.

During my pregnancy and the first few months of motherhood which are really full-on intense times, we would just email and text a lot with ideas and thoughts we had and she had been creating some test works and sharing them with me so we were just back and forth responding with new ideas which were such a nice process as it allowed our project to percolate slowly and organically. So then as my baby got a bit older and I became ready to get back out in the world again [laughs] we started shooting and it actually came together really quickly which I think was because we had done so much planning beforehand [laughs]. We didn’t really know exactly what we were going to shoot but it just happened very easily, and we were both on the same page, so the works just emerged.

So, it was a lovely collaboration that was loosely centered around NICO, but it was never about selling the product, but more about creating a reflection of the feelings of wearing the garments and feeling free.  So merging NICO with beautiful imagery of movement and outlines of the female body. It was great to have the exhibition; it was actually really sad when it finished.

It sounds like there is a lot of potential there for future collaborations! Do you see different artist mediums and NICO collaborating in the future?

Yeah potentially! I mean it was a really fun project, so I am really open to those opportunities. I also these sorts of projects are a really important part of the brand in some ways, as NICO aims to push the boundaries and create beautiful work for the sake of the work rather than the sake of the product so I hope there will be more opportunities like this emerging later on.

I can’t help but think of an iceberg! You know, an iceberg only reveals a small portion of its body on the surface and underneath lies all this mass. It’s a bit like NICO because the garments you design are so beautiful and simplistic but the brand as a whole is so much more, it’s a network of creative projects, of relationships, of values and genuine messages about body image, feeling comfortable in your own skin and sustainability.

Oh thanks, that’s a nice way of explaining it. It definitely is a lot of work, particularly the production side of things, a lot of time is spent on that. However, the relationships we have with our manufacturers are so valuable, it’s important to know that we are getting what we need, but that they are getting what they need also, so it needs to be a beneficial relationship both ways. But yeah NICO has become quite a creative network over the years which is exciting to see.

Experience Lenzing Modal for yourself and explore more of Lis’s photography projects by heading to NICO

See also, NICO’s blog for updates about upcoming event’s.


Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.