Started by Sarah and her business partner Andy, Rolla’s is a Melbourne-based brand devoted to men’s and women’s denim as well as other apparel featuring a “mix of nostalgic bogan and modern urban” flair (check out the brand’s Instagram @rollasjeans to get a sense of their effortlessly rad style).
The brand seeks to maintain its style and functionality all while retaining its sustainability—no easy feat, yet Rolla’s seems to combine green fashion and timeless style with minimal effort.
A fan of Rolla’s myself (their Eastcoast flares are a personal closet staple), I spoke with Sarah Gilsenan about her experience in starting her brand and where the inspiration for Rolla’s came from:
Hey Sarah! So you are the co-founder of Rolla’s alongside Andy—tell me a little about yourself! Where are you from, what are your interests, etc.…
Hello! Yes, I co-founded Rolla’s with Andy. I live in the inner city north Melbourne and love all that it entails, like seeing bands and galleries, but I also enjoy just hanging out at home with my five-year-old and reading. I am passionate about art, photography, and music, so Melbourne is a great place to live for all those reasons, and I try to dabble in all three [forms] to varying degrees.
Have you always been interested in fashion?
My mother is a talented dressmaker, so I grew up watching her and started making things from a young age—I had a sewing machine at 8! That progressed into thrifting and customizing as a teen, as well as making my clothes. I’m more interested in style in general, rather than fashion, if that makes sense. I am inspired by people who have a strong sense of the expression, whatever it may be, and it’s generally not “trendy.” There are fashion designers I admire for their ability to tap into cultural themes in exciting and fresh ways. And I love good design, whether it be furniture, architecture, or a great book cover.
What’s your background in fashion before Rolla’s?
Sewing from a young age and learning a lot along the way. I would lay out and cut patterns with my mother as well as come up with ideas that we would make. I was very involved in that process with her. I did not study fashion design but learned everything I know from hands-on experience. I gained a lot from working initially in retail and buying in stores around Melbourne. I progressed into wholesale and onto assisting designers and doing anything and everything I could to learn and be involved. It’s been a long, but well-rounded learning curve that’s enabled me to experience many facets of the industry. It’s been an invaluable way to learn and has helped me to have a better understanding of more areas of the business that ultimately helps my designing.
What was the inspiration for Rolla’s?
Andy and I both really loved our time designing for one of the oldest global denim brands, but after many years of doing that we felt a little held back by the rules and heritage, and [eventually] found that we were drawing a lot more from our own experiences and life growing up in Australia. People have their sense of style here, particularly in Melbourne, and we felt that this aesthetic and approach, which was more laidback, was missing in the denim-brands landscape. We are serious about our jeans performing, but we wanted to free things up a little and break some of the more traditional denim “rules.” This was the starting point for Rolla’s. We also both grew up in small coastal towns just outside of Melbourne, but now live inner city lives, so that informs the flavor of the brand—a mix of nostalgic bogan and modern urban life which felt kind of fun and relevant for what we wanted to do.
As a brand and company, what would you say your mission is?
I would say our mission is to provide an exciting product that not only performs but also inspires people. We focus on this through many aspects, from building out our fits to beautiful imagery, through to ensuring we are as ethical and sustainable as possible in the process.
As lead designer for women’s, what is your role?
My role is primarily to tap into what our customer is looking for from Rolla’s next—what items will be exciting, fun, and most relevant for them. I come up with creative concepts seasonally, which usually starts with a color palette and an overall feel for key silhouettes. Often a decade will crop up for me, more recently it’s been the 80s, but I will always temper this with relevance—a modern color combination with wearable mods, not all-out costume wear. I’m focused on modern living, and clothes fit into that, not the other way around. I then design a collection and follow through the process with my design assistant in bringing it to life. We have a small, talented team and collaborate closely with sales, marketing and production along the way on things like shoots, presentations, and troubleshooting. I enjoy the collaborative processes and [I] work with charming people.
What is your go-to Rolla’s style? (AKA what should I add to my closet?)
My go-to’s are our Dusters jean. They feel low-key, but flattering and are classic enough that they go with everything—they can be easy to dress up or down. I have them in many colors, some multiples (I have at least three black pairs)!
Starting a brand sounds like a really tough, yet ultimately rewarding experience. What were the hardest parts and the most rewarding parts along that journey?
The hardest parts for me were in the early days, being strong enough to stick to the vision before you have many “runs on the board” without being swayed by negative feedback. It becomes easy to feel discouraged and second guess yourself in that early period. It took a lot to stay focused at times, and it was taxing. Hands down the most rewarding parts are seeing someone wearing our jeans and hearing from people who love what we do. In particular, messages from girls who love our jeans makes my day.
What would your advice be to someone wanting to start their brand?
Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and partner up with people who compliment those. Have a clear point of view and stick to it. Ensure that your point of view is continually relevant, fresh and exciting for your customer. In the current climate, I think it’s also imperative to remember that slow and steady wins the race.
What’s next for Rolla’s?
We are currently experiencing growth in the global market which is leading to some exciting collaborations that are in the works! Stay tuned…
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Photographer: Henrik Purienne