The creative reuse movement has exploded in recent years, and now more and more businesses are seeing the various benefits of using reclaimed treasures to transform and revitalise their retail spaces.
Belle Flaneur is a pioneer of sustainable retail styling, demonstrating that what is considered waste is actually a valuable resource that can be used to create something uniquely beautiful.
Whether developing innovative window displays, creating a visual concept for an entire store or installations that complement a new brand identity, Belle Flaneur take materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, breathing new life into them and the spaces in which they sit.
Launched in 2011 by visual merchandiser Natalie Coulter, Belle Flaneur has built a varied client list that includes retail, corporate and community organisations. They also work with a range of creative talents including Sydney’s largest reuse centre Reverse Garbage, both a long-time collaborator and the site of Belle Flaneur’s studio in Marrickville.
Having worked as a fashion stylist for Elle magazine in New York, and later as a stylist for major Australian interiors publications, Natalie joined the reuse movement as a way to take her styling work in a more sustainable direction.
“There will always be people who want to work with and create something new, but for me the most important thing I can do as a designer with a social conscience is work with something that already exists.”
“With our emphasis on learning and collaboration, using discarded materials, we can be the change we want to see in the world,” she says. “Ultimately, we hope our work inspires others to do the same.”
The VM queen will be sharing her tricks of the trade at the Fashion Exposed Business Seminar on February 23, revealing how creative repurposing can be a cost-effective, innovative and environmentally conscious way to bring difference and unique identity to your in-store displays.
We took five with Natalie ahead of the show to find out what inspires her and how she creates such unique and innovative displays from trash.
So you’re about to head off on a sustainable tour of Europe with some of your TAFE students. Tell us how that came about…
I’m really curious about the zeitgeist that I’m working in at the moment. And that is the environmental necessity to practice reuse. So I believe in using things up – looking after them and reusing them and reusing them and I practice it in most facets of my life.
I’m also vegan which I think is a really big part of being mindful of the planet. I’ve taken what I do in my sustainable design business right to the core of what I choose to feed my body with. Which is nothing that is taxing on the planet.
I’ve done this before – I took four students on a sustainable tour of New York City where we just looked at how many stores in New York we could identify were participating in the reuse movement and were incorporating it in their retail spaces. The students happened to already be over there on a TAFE tour and I housed them in my apartment and I slept on my friend’s lounge in the apartment below! So this trip is going to be doing that again.
I will be looking at London, then I’m going to Paris then to New York City. I’m also participating in a teacher training program while I’m over there. I’ll also be looking at gathering information for my seminar at Fashion Exposed because I like to keep things fresh and I don’t want to simply re-hash talks I’ve given before.
Wow, you’re the coolest teacher ever!
Yeah, I am without a doubt the coolest teacher ever [laughs]. I have a business and in that business I have a lot materials. I have a lot of props, a lot of interiors materials. I’ve been a fashion whore in my past. I’ve kept a lot of beautiful clothes from my years as a stylist in New York. I like things to get reused. I don’t want the students spending their money to create these learning experiences. Many students come to my home and they have access to lots of vintage designer labels and shoes and bags and things. So it just helps them to not have to worry about that. And then they can get on with their job which is to be as creative as they can be.
My history is that I worked for Sportsgirl as the state visual merchandiser for New South Wales when I was 19-years-old with 52 stores under my belt. But I got to a point where I thought I personally want to do something that is more proactive than just promoting something other than just spending. And I thought I’m a visual merchandiser, I’m a stylist, I love fashion, I love interiors, I love colour, I love pulling looks together – how am I also going to do this with a social conscience? And then I started working in reuse and I launched Belle Flaneur two years ago in collaboration. I call it a collaborative learning/teaching space. Because it’s very collaborative. It’s hands-on, it’s roll up your sleeves, it’s in the commercial arena where we’re learning and teaching from one another working with clients in situ.
How did Belle Flaneur start?
It started with a passion to continue working in the industry but to start looking at materials that were considered trash by everybody else and really use our creativity to turn them into treasure. Because anyone can make polished, perfect props and things look great but I wanted to address more of a challenge for myself to be creative. Three girls – three young students that were in my TAFE class and the three of us together are the founding collaborators
What does the name Belle Flaneur mean?
Belle means beautiful and ‘flaneur’ is a word derived from the French poet Baudelaire and it describes the gentleman who walks the city in order to experience it. Think top hat, walking cane, street strolling. Some French people have said to me, “You can’t put feminine with masculine!” but then some other friends have said to me it’s about time the French language evolved… But Belle Flaneur also means to us ‘beautiful butch’. Because we can find ourselves in dumpster bins. It’s a dirty job that we do. So that’s the butch part. But then you have to put it through the hands of artisans to create beauty. So there’s the beautiful and the butch. Also ‘flaneur’ is about shopping outside of shopping malls to sort of embrace the outdoors to not lose touch with that street stroll. The romance of looking in the store window – of looking into the retail space and dreaming. Because it can be very theatrical and that’s what I love, that immersive retail space. Which I’ll be talking about in Melbourne.
Who are some of your clients?
Curiously, all my clients sell at the top end. We’re regulars in Robby Ingham’s windows and he is one of Australia’s fashion icons for retail. Robby was the first person to do all the big label imports – Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and those sorts of people back in the ‘80s and he continues to import all the big labels in Australia like Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Stella McCartney. He’s been a really big part of enabling Belle Flaneur to flourish because he’s allowed us to put garbage in his windows alongside the high-end. So you can have a $5000 Givenchy bag sitting on something that we’ve diverted from landfill. We juxtapose the high-end with pre-loved because in the hands of artisans, trash really becomes treasure. It takes someone bold and brave enough like Robbie Ingham, who also happens to love junk, to say bring it on let’s give it a go.
We also do Stellina Cute Couture for Children’s windows and in store – she sells Nicki Macfarlane, who was the designer for Prince William’s flower girls and Roberto Cavalli Kids. She’s been engaged in us being able to put treasured trash in her windows alongside these amazing designer pieces.
So where do you source all this ‘treasured trash’?
My collaborators Reverse Garbage, who are Australia’s largest reuse centre, provide me with materials. They also provide me with a workspace and I work out of a repurposed shipping container. So everything we do is repurposed, even the office we work out of. We’re based in Marrickville and there’s a whole reuse community out there.
Different people donate to Reverse Garbage and because my office is at Reverse Garbage my materials are right there. But we’ve also been known to collect from council clean-ups, dumpster bins. It’s about making trash cool.
The difference between how we work and another VM team or another design company might work is that our materials come first before the concept. For instance the Robby Ingham window currently has these incredible 2m tall Perspex pyramids that have this reflecting contact on them. It’s not until that comes in that we say, “Ooh this could be a window”. So we let the materials dictate to us what the concept is going to be. And then of course we run it by the client, they make some adjustments and they might have some changes – but generally they don’t, they realise they’re getting a good deal out of these materials are coming to them for less cost. That’s key to Belle Flaneur is the materials dictate the concept and not the other way around.
What have been some notable projects since Belle Flaneur began in 2011?
We did Robby Ingham’s launch for Fashion Week 2012 and we had 30 people working on the bump-in. We were sponsored by Mei & Picci mannequins and we were also working with Reverse Garbage materials and we had something like 18 Mei & Picci mannequins arrive for the installation. We managed to morph it into an ocean awareness campaign so there was lots of blue light, we had hand-crafted mermaid tails sitting in the window with the mannequins. We did the Robby Ingham launch for his two stores and we themed the party – we did video installation, sound installation, window installation, in-store installation and we themed it as Access All Areas and across the windows you had the Anna Wintour, the front-row mannies sitting in the construction set of scaffolding and then you had the behind-the-scenes in the two entrance windows with the Stella McCartney rack with the model’s name and the shoes sort of in prep and then you had the door bitch in the final window with the list behind her back and the security guards and the paparazzi – all this was in Mei & Picci mannequins.
So it was a real trip – but I think the reason that’s a highlight is because I was able to bring in my friends who are all professional artists, architects, lighting designers, sound designers and then the Belle Flaneur collaborators, ie the learners who could be students who come to me for work experience from art school, design school, they could be interns, they might be my current students at TAFE, they could be graduates from TAFE… a lot of people come to me to get hands-on experience because everybody has a voice in what we do – no one’s just stuck in the corner with a boring job, it’s very collaborative and democratic. I’m really a concept artist – I see big pictures and then I’m able to sort of draw in people who have the expertise in different areas and then teach young people, that’s what really turns me on is young people getting the opportunity to be taught outside of the classroom, on the job, in situ.
Another thing we did was a big steam punk installation where we worked with 64 big cable spools and created a huge steam punk window that had steam actually coming out of the floor because we managed to find a manhole in the floor. And it had all sorts of things that moved around on the floor and on the walls. So that was pretty wow – that really stopped Flaneurs in their tracks and made them look.
Also with Stellina Couture the children’s wear store in Mosman, we actually put something like 2000 paper flowers that we diverted from landfill and 300 of metres of ribbon in the window but if they hadn’t have gone to Reverse Garbage they would’ve gone to landfill. There were 2000 paper flowers that got stapled onto 300m of ribbon and we just created this wonderland throughout her store. That’s been so successful – in fact it’s been too successful! We did that a year ago and the client wants us to be constantly layering that for Christmas and different holidays. We did such a good job that the client doesn’t want to take it down! That’s become her stamp – people identify her store with that dreamlike, magical quality that we created.
What happens to your displays once you’ve finished with them?
We do resuse a lot of them but we usually take them back to Reverse Garbage so they go back into the movement. And somebody else can reuse them for something else. It’s about adaptive design, adapting the design to the space and the materials.
It’s a really exciting space that businesses are just starting to cotton on to. Where do you see it heading?
Someone asked me recently – is this a trend like everything else or is this whole reuse, repurposing movement here to stay in retail and design? And my answer to that is there will always be people who want to work with and create something new but for me the most important thing I can do as a designer is work with something that already exists because it’s most important for me to have a social conscience. So I hope this is not just a trend. Because above everything else, we need to be considering how much stuff is put out there. I could go on and on about politics and about production and all that stuff but I won’t. But when you work in a place like Reverse Garbage and you see how much is brought in every day and I’ve been to India and I’ve seen that there are no reuse centres there – you realise just how much material is going into Mother Nature, that’s dumped every day by this consumer world that we live in. I’m a part of that world and I work in that world – but with Belle Flaneur I’m trying to do my bit to ease some of the pain so to speak, to soften that blow by adjusting my business strategy to better suit the longstanding efforts to keeping this planet alive.