When Gary Bigeni opens the door to his flat in Dulwich Hill, Sydney’s central west, he’s wearing a floral shirt, neon earrings, mauve nail polish and polka dot trousers. Her personal style has always been bold and colorful, but what’s interesting is that until recently, her eponymous fashion label was more reserved, pared-back and geared towards women only.
“A lot of people had the same aesthetic as their brand,” says Bigeni. “I wanted it to be about the clothes and not about me for the first stages, but I was exhibiting in Paris about eight years ago and a buyer said to me, ‘I like what you do but where you are you in this collection?’ and it got me thinking.The minute I made my collection more about my personal style and my personal touch, it became a lot easier and a lot more fun.
Bigeni grew up in Sydney’s western suburb of Blacktown with Maltese parents. He says he was obsessed with fashion and clothes from a young age – but he kept his joy of playing dress up a secret. “I was always stealing Barbies from neighbors and cousins and making them outfits, changing their hair color, dressing them up – it was a secret thing, nobody knew I was doing it”, he says. Large format. “But I was always like, ‘this is what I want to do’.”
His mum bought him a sewing machine when he was 11 – “a little Janome” – which he used to make outfits for his toys. Years later, after graduating from East Sydney TAFE in 2002, her fashion career took off and her designs were selected for a graduate showcase at Sydney Fashion Week. Suddenly Bigeni had a womenswear brand and he was designing seasonal collections, traveling the world and navigating packaging and pricing with wholesalers.
“I always thought I was going to do a streetwear collection,” he says. Instead, Bigeni created relaxed, minimalist silhouettes by working with a palette of soft neutrals. Then, in 2017, Bigeni was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “From my early twenties to late thirties, I was all about being a fashion designer, and this cycle [of creating new clothes each season], but I lived the disease and now I am better, I understand that we do not all need to have a banner. You can do several things.
Now 41, Bigeni divides his time between designing and hand painting clothes with his job as a youth worker. He makes every order bespoke from his mother’s garden in Western Sydney, and he loves having complete control of his brand.
“I want to play my own game, by my own rules,” says Bigeni. “I’m a small independent brand, so I have to think realistically about my options. By removing this wholesale side of the business, customers come directly to me. I love this engagement with people.
It also gives the designer more time to make thoughtful decisions. “Each piece is individually made and I want to reduce waste. I cast the models [on my website] and think about what sizes I want to sample in and who I want to feature in the lookbook. I’ve never had the opportunity to do this before. I want to show diversity on my website and as a designer I want to show that you can do a size 14 or 16 and have amazing color.
One of the designer’s most popular items is a dress named after her friend Melissa Leong, who wore the long-sleeved tie-dye outfit over Chef. “I was eating cracker cookies thinking, ‘how am I going to survive?’ then suddenly all these people were prepaying for the dress,” he says.
“She’s amazing. When she was approached to do Chef, she wanted to support her creative friends. I sent some stuff and didn’t have a TV, but I got all these messages from customers. It’s like that [the collection has] evolved over time. »
If Bigeni could dress anyone, he says it would be Lizzo. “I love her energy. I think she would be fun. I would do a custom hand painted tracksuit for her to wear at home or something. I get really excited when people have confidence in them. body, whether in a red lip or a tight outfit.
“When I walk through the front door, I want to feel confident. I don’t care what other people think of my outfit. I get a buzz from doing it for me.
In addition to his role as a youth worker and teaching sewing and upcycling through charities and in schools, Bigeni was the 2021 ambassador for Noisy Shirt Dayan annual event that raises funds and awareness for deaf children.
“I was born hard of hearing and have had a hearing aid since I was three years old. I have always been passionate about raising awareness for hearing impaired children and their families. It’s not cheap to take children for hearing tests or hearing aids.
Bigeni’s studio space is also his home. It’s not cluttered or minimalist. There’s a polka dot painting by Matthew Johnson, who he collaborated with for a collection a few years ago. The designer seems comfortable and he tells us he is happy to build on the brand he has scaled back during lockdown. “I would like to have my own space. I would also like to run workshops… I want to create towels and linen napkins and slowly develop them from there. Hand-painted silks could also be very beautiful.
Her main focus at the moment is to create clothes for children and adults in gender-neutral cuts. “I think it’s important that we have confidence in who we are. I feel passionate about teenagers and kids growing up who they are, rather than trying to fit in [something they’re not]. I think that’s really important.
Find out more in our Studio Tours series.