Outlier chats to Melbourne-based artist and fashion designer Abbey Rich about how she accidentally started her successful label while still at uni, the fear of not having enough time, and why she’s still surprised when she lands commissions.
Abbey Rich’s story is that anomalous journey of success many creative professionals hope to experience.
In 2015, the artist and fashion designer casually started posting her handmade garments online. Within months—literally, just a couple of months—Rich was a fully-fledged businesswoman with products, devoted customers, a studio space and a staff member (her right-hand woman Laura Clark). The kicker? She was a first-year textile design student, and just 21 years old.
Now 23, it’s not hard to see why Rich has developed a cult following of close to 25k Instagram followers and countless admirers—fans, even. Warm, authentic and humble (also: unexpectedly tall!), the young woman is unashamedly herself and refreshingly honest about a) the hard work it took to get to where she is, and b) the fact she also has no clue how it all happened so quickly.
On top of all that, Rich is an emerging visual artist and painter, having held her first solo show to great acclaim last year and with a follow-up exhibition opening in Melbourne in October. Her developing practice also includes the painting of large-scale murals for companies like Bailey Nelson and Monash University, tattooing, collabs with brands like Tsuno and Takeawei, and so much more we can barely keep track.
May we remind you: she’s just 23. TWENTY-THREE. And we can’t wait to see how Rich’s career continues to develop and unfold as she grows as an artist and a woman.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are now?
I grew up by the beach in Frankson. My mum’s an artist, so I rejected all art things in high school because I was like, ‘I don’t want to be like my mum!’ A lot of my family are also artists, and my grandparents had a textile label and things like that, so I was like, ‘No! I don’t want to do that at all’.
I was super sporty, but then I developed a lot of health problems. And then, for lack of a less lame thing, I found art, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is kind of what I want to do’.
So I applied for textile design after high school. I did it for two weeks and hated it. Then I worked full-time at Coles for a year, and then went back to the course in 2015. I did two years full time while working full time at the supermarket. Then I moved [to Melbourne] but was still working down in Frankston. I eventually quit my job at Coles at the end of second year and accidentally started a label.
How do you ‘accidentally’ start a label?
I put a couple of things online, like some pillowcases, a jumpsuit and beanies that I’d been wearing. At the time I had around 400 followers on Instagram.
Then, within a month, I was like working pretty hard on it and people were buying lots of stuff. And pretty much within four months of that I got a studio space. I also had another girl Laura working with me—she started working for me full time out of my bedroom before we moved into the studio. From then on, it took off in some strange way, doing mostly clothing.
Now I do a lot more painting and a bit of freelance work and stuff like that. So it’s all snowballed real quick, in a way I never had any idea it would. Which is really cool—I’m not very much of a planner and I get bored quickly, so it’s a good thing that it just happened. I get to roll with it and not have to plan too much where I’m headed, because it seems things just pop up now.
And what did you want to be as a kid?
I wanted to be a journalist or an English teacher. Even now, a lot of my practice comes from writing; I’m an obsessive documenter. I really enjoyed writing through high school, so it was still creative.
But in saying that, I was never into creative writing—I was always more into the documentary side of stuff. In high school, all my classes were art, design and English, and I applied only to textile design—I had no back-ups.
It all feels like it’s still a new thing for me; it’s all still in the recent past. So it’s still all new and exciting, and strange. As much as my mum is an artist, she was sick for the first 21 years of my life—couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t leave the house—so with all her health problems there wasn’t a lot of creativity in our house. I didn’t learn about art through her, but I did learn it was an option in terms of things I could do.
Did you have any fears when you started your career?
Not at the start, but I do now. I fear that there are too many ideas and not enough time. I constantly fear that I’m not going to do all the things I want to get done. I think that comes from watching my mum be so sick for a really long time. I’m constantly wanting to do more.
My mum actually had a weird conversation with me the other day; she’d been on a residency and she was talking to people who’d known my work. She was saying she was really worried that I was living my life in a bizarre way because for some reason something in me thinks that I don’t have enough time. Like I’m going to die young or something. I get up really early and start working and don’t stop thinking about the stuff I’m doing ever.
I also wonder where it’s headed. With Laura, she’s going back full-time to uni so I lose part of my business in that she sews every garment—I’m just the design and the printing. She’ll probably do one day a week, so we’ll restructure how we do things.
I could get someone else but I don’t want to! The way we work together is so amazing and we get each other. We barely knew each other when we started working together; we met through interning at Obus. I’d never seen her work; something in me was just, ‘Hey, you wanna work?’, and it’s worked so organically and beautifully that I don’t want to try to do that with someone else.
But you’ll have to, right, if you want to continue producing the amount of work you’re making?
But I don’t think I want to continue producing the amount of work I’ve been making! This collection we’ve just released is really our last big collection. Our aim is to be creating one-off pieces, or maybe release one style of pant and make it in six different prints, and there’s only three of each—that kind of thing. And we get to decide how much we’re selling.
Or we push out deadline date, because right now it’s two to three weeks from order to us sending it out. So we could push that out to six weeks or something, because even now trying to reach three weeks, with the amount of orders we get, is tough.
It’ll be interesting. I’m not really sure where we’re going and I’m not a planner, but I guess it will present itself and I’ll figure it out as we go. But it will be different, for sure. I’m currently doing a lot of murals and paintings and stuff like that, which is kind of where I want to be headed anyway. It’s what makes me happier. So if we pull back on clothes, that’s what happens. But I do like that idea of people walking around and wearing something—it’s more attainable for people, I think. It’s a different thing to a painting on the wall.
So I think in one capacity or another I will probably try to keep doing the label. I think it’ll hold a special place for me for at least the next few years.
Do you ever experience procrastination or resistance when it comes to your work?
I live my life in a bit of a ridiculous way, and I don’t give myself time to stop. Ever. Which is probably not healthy! Because I work on so many projects at once, and I just went back to uni this year as well, I don’t allow myself to procrastinate.
So far I haven’t felt a resistance; I haven’t felt a creative block. I think it’s because I’ve got a label that requires [tasks] that allow me to switch off creatively, like admin. Like, if right now I’m working on this project and I’m struggling and haven’t got any ideas, I can go and do the other stuff, because there’s always something else to do.
What about self-doubt?
It’s taken me a really long time to have any belief in my work. Even now when I land gigs or get good feedback or something, I get really surprised. I was actually talking to a friend recently and he was like, ‘It drives me insane when you’re surprised that these things happen!’
I still do have a lot of self-doubt but I try not to listen to it. I mean, I know my work is not as good as a lot of the people around me, but it’s the fact that I keep working—and I work really hard at it—that is what makes it successful in some kind of sense.
Self-doubt plays a huge role in my creativity. It can stop me at times. But I find I’ve become extraordinarily self-aware, so when that happens I read books about artists or I listen to music or I go to yoga or I ride my bike around the block: all those things that remind me there’s lives going on around me.
Obviously with social media, it creates a lot of self-doubt if you’re constantly looking at what everyone else is doing. But for me, I take it and use it in a positive way. There’s always going to be someone better than you and doing bigger things. So I acknowledge the fact that I’m not as good as other people, but someone likes my work for some reason. And it’s making me happy, so who really cares?
Do you every worry about originality in your work, or what you’re contributing to the landscape?
Yes! I struggle with that a lot, actually. For example, I’m about to paint a Bailey Nelson store that they’re opening in Fitzroy [Ed note: you can now check out Rich’s mural at the Gertrude Street store]. It’s really exciting, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why they’ve contacted me. It’s going through my head constantly—all my friends who do murals and these incredible paintings would be way better at doing what I’m doing for them!
But for some reason they picked me. And my work, I can see now, is very distinctive. So for one reason or another these people are contacting me because you look at it and you know it’s mine. Which is a really cool thing, and whether I’ve meant to develop that or not, I’m quite comfortable in the work I create.
But it is hard when there’s so much good work out there, especially in Melbourne at the moment, even my group of friends. They’re all creating such incredible work and it does sometimes feel like, ‘What am I contributing that’s any more worthwhile?’
But I’ve had conversations with people who buy the clothes or want work of mine in their lives and it brings something to them. And for me to be able to use it as a platform to talk about things like sustainability and my place in the world as an artist and as a woman—if I can use it to talk about that, I feel like I am contributing in that sense.
This idea of authenticity that people feel I display or that I am 100 percent myself all the time: I think that’s what I contribute. So I realise now I’ve got a place in what I’m doing, for now.
Have you ever struggled to share your work?
At the start, yeah! I was probably a lot more discerning in the things I shared. I’d have never shown someone a drawing I’d done. I was far too afraid I wasn’t good enough.
I was never that happy sharing any of my work at all. I think that’s why I wanted to be a teacher or do something like that, where I felt like I still had something to give but I didn’t have to show my own work.
But the feedback I received so early on allowed me to share more. And now perhaps I share too much and I don’t have a filter at all! ‘Oh I did this drawing, it’s kind of shit but you want to see it, sure!’ I’ve gotten to that point where I’m actually really comfortable in what I’m creating and what I’m doing and talking about.
To think where I was two years ago, it’s so vastly different in terms of what I would have felt comfortable sharing or even talking about with people in my life. I would shut everyone out of everything in my life, totally.
Through sharing more of my work I’ve become more of an open person. I have more friends and I have better relationships with people because as my work develops, so do I. I’m a lot more comfortable with who I am now than I’ve ever been before.
What do you hope to achieve in your career in future?
I don’t know! I really like what I’m working on at the moment: doing murals, working with other people, learning from other people. I think I’d like to finish my degree in textile design and study art history or art conservation or something like that, and work in that documentation space, as well as allowing that to develop my own practice.
In terms of my practice itself, I have no idea. No idea at all! I’d like to be able to do installation work with murals or things in other places. I did fashion week this year and it was amazing; organising fashion shows is really fun! I just love events where you get to interact with the people there to see your work. I just want to do more stuff like that.
So I don’t think I have a real plan or real understanding of what’s next. But I think I’m OK with that—just letting it unfold. Every week there seems to be a new thing that happens that I’m totally shocked by and wouldn’t have expected that I’d ever get to do. So I don’t want to have too much expectation because, for now, all those sorts of things are exciting. As long as it’s making me happy and I can pay my rent!
I live and breathe what I do, and there’s no separation between my work and life. It’s all the one now. And I think that’s why everything’s happened so fast, because I’m so furiously in love what I’m doing. I find I will cry about my work in a ‘I’m so happy I get to do this’ kind of way. I think if you don’t feel that connection, you’re not going to work hard. It has allowed me to work 20 hours a day because I love it.
Virtual pep talk
“Don’t do it if you don’t love it. My advice is working hard in whatever you do, because you can’t expect it to unroll in front of you. The key is to work bloody hard and know that it’s not always going to be easy. Working hard is the only way to go.
And don’t think about it too much, overanalyse or plan it too much. You’ve just got to go with it and take opportunities and not be scared of doing stuff.”