Rachael Levey loved her Fresh Fox boutique in Freshwater on Sydney’s scenic coastal stretch, the Northern Beaches. It was the perfect outlet – indeed exclusive outlet – for her label, charley vella and practically doubled as a social club.
“I met so many beautiful people every day and built some great friendships,” she says. “charley vella is aimed at the 30 and over market, but depending on how you style the pieces, it works for all ages. At Fresh Fox, I’d have a mother, daughter and grandmother all buying something.”
The boutique that became a local institution closed in early 2018 after three years’ operation – “a heart-breaking decision.” One factor was the uncertainty of the shop lease, but there were more pressing reasons.
“The demands of running two businesses were taking their toll,” confesses Rachael, who realized that Fresh Fox was draining her of the time and energy needed for design and production – the latter no easy task as charley vella is manufactured in Bali.
The Newcastle-born designer’s decision to focus on growing and promoting her label has already borne fruit. charley vella now has outlets in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, and more stockists are likely after the Sydney 2019 Fashion Exposed Now fair.
“I’ll be showing two collections – Autumn/Winter 2019 and Spring/Summer 2019/20,” says Rachael. “I’m very practical when it comes to design. How will this fabric feel on the body and will it wash and wear? Can this piece be worn from beach to bar? Does it need pockets? They’re the sort of questions I ask myself.”
The results of that scrutiny are clearly visible. There’s not a hint of fuss or fads in charley vella’s versatile dresses and separates. Subtlety is the operative word – in the flattering shapes, refined palette, dainty prints and occasional decorative touches such lace detail on a classic white shirt.
“I cut my first pattern when I was about eight and by high school, I was designing and making my own clothes,” recalls Rachael. “My mother was a great seamstress and we had a massive cache of fabrics at home.”
Fashion school seemed the obvious course for the girl who was happiest at her cutting table and sewing machine. Instead she did a BA in business at the University of Newcastle, travelled for a year and ended up working in management positions in Melbourne for eight years.
“During that time, I did a design course at the Melbourne School of Fashion and when I moved to (the Northern Beaches’) Manly Vale, I designed and made some skirts for friends,” says Rachael. That was in 2009. By the following year, she was living in Byron Bay. It was there she launched charley vella – a close anagram of her name.
“My label began with a single rack of skirts at the Byron Bay market and I felt terribly anxious because I had no idea if they’d sell, but they did and things grew from there.”
The Northern Beaches lifestyle lends itself to the laid-back, feminine style she loves, says Rachael, who references new season trends from Europe and New York, but draws inspiration from numerous sources including her customers.
“Often I have a specific woman in mind when I’m designing pieces and choosing fabrics. She’s not necessarily young. There are plenty of gorgeous, stylish women who are in their ‘50s and older.”
A Balgowlah warehouse shared with a local artist is the designer’s new base. It may not have Fresh Fox’s ambience, but Northern Beaches fashion fans can look forward to a series of open weekends for the public during the summer.
“It’s a fabulous space,” says Rachael Levey. “It will be a very different shopping experience – relaxed and enriching.
– Zelda Cawthorne