Photography Ben Thomson.

di$count universe on their very early career retrospective

In six years, DI$COUNT UNIVERSE have created enough work, and collected enough acclaim for several lifetimes. We head behind the scenes of their retrospective and talk about looking back when you’re just getting started.

by Wendy Syfret
24 November 2016, 2:00am

Photography Ben Thomson.

Walking through the setup for DI$COUNT UNIVERSE's 'it's-too-soon-for-a-retrospective' exhibition, you're overwhelmed by the amount of work on the room. From the team of interns who quietly move around like glitter-crusted angels, to the racks and racks of clothes that shimmer like jewels. Pick up any item at random, and you're guaranteed to be treated to a masterclass in imagination, technical prowess and the brand's signature ability to fuse fashion and humour. It's no surprise that many of these pieces have been worn by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Madonna and Beyonce or ended their lives as museum objects.

But more overwhelming that the amount of skill and creativity on display is the scale of it all: there's 65 mannequins and over 500 garments. Iconic pieces cover every surface; from the eye halters to the glitter bikinis and the studded leather jackets. Any designer would be proud to call this body of work their own, but as the show name suggests, this isn't your usual career-end look back. 

Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James created this world in less than a decade. Over six years, the two friends have gone from student designers and fashion bloggers to a global powerhouse with offices, employees and devotees scattered across the world. Days before the show opens to the public, we stopped by to talk to them about looking back and looking forward.

There is so much work in the room, have you been holding onto all these piece for six years in some giant storage shed?
Nadia Napreychikov: We've been doing that since the start. We've always been talking about archiving our work and having this retrospective one day, in like 30 years.

Well, the obvious question is why do this now?
Nadia: We're moving to New York so it's kind of the last time that we'll have everything in Australia.
Cami James: And we've got this space we've had for two years that we haven't really utilised in the way we could.

Retrospectives often mark the end, or at least a change in direction. Do you feel like that?
Cami: Maybe it's the end of a period of style. We talk about that, but at the same time there's no guarantee — it'll probably alway be like this.
Nadia: We joke when we're designing that we have a certain aesthetic in mind for a collection, but it is its own monster, it just like creates itself. I don't think we have much control over changing styles. Even when we really want to.

When you were going through all of these pieces and digging out this early work, how did you see your style evolving over the years?
Nadia: At the very start we couldn't even afford a sewing machine. There are pieces that don't use any sewing whatsoever. That's the most drastic change, we literally had no money.
Cami: We have a little bit more freedom now I guess, for us that's quite obvious in the work. But there's also lesser freedom in the sense we're designing with people in mind now, as opposed to back then when the designs were way more far-out. Now it's like, "Ok we need mini dresses because they sell."
Nadia: We didn't position ourselves in the fashion industry at the start, the customer was never really a concern. We never knew this many people would want to buy this kind of stuff, it's pretty niche. It was definitely kind of a surprise that so many people resonated with our style.

When you were looking through your archives was there anything that made you think, I can't believe we made this?
Cami: It was more like "I can't believe we made this much stuff, are we crazy?"
Nadia: There are pieces where we're like "what is this?!"
Cami: Do you remember those boob necklace things? It's something we'd probably do now and still look back in ten years and be like "what the fuck was that?"

I know we keep going back to it, but it's crazy looking at the physical volume of work you've produced in six years.
Nadia: 90 percent of it is from the last three years. The first few years, we didn't have much manufacturing power. Everything happened way slower, we'd make one jacket, like one studded jacket, and we'd have to make it ourselves because we couldn't get anyone else to do it. Then we'd sell that for a few thousand dollars at Miss Louise and that would give us enough money to pay rent and buy more leather or whatever. I was lacing up a pair of boots from the earlier work and I noticed patches of leather that we'd cut off sleeves from op shop jackets. Sometimes we couldn't get a piece of leather so we would have to patch it on.

Were there any other blasts from the past you'd forgotten?
Nadia: That dress was kind of a surprise [gestures to a dress made entirely of belts]. It took us half an hour to lace it onto people because we were like, what the hell are we doing? It's made without any sewing at all, not even hand sewing. It's all constructed with metal rivets holding it together. There would have been an easier way to do that and it would have worked so much better. We probably wouldn't find the time to do stuff like that now.

You decided to include everything in this, rather than just your favourite pieces. Was putting this on a way to show fans these hidden moments, bits of your history?
Nadia: Yeah, and also because you're not meant to. When you go to a retrospective you're meant to show your strongest pieces or the stuff that symbolised wherever you were at the time. We have this mantra where we try and find opposite ways of working to how you're meant to. This is a whole big experiment in anti fashion, it always has been.

What are your favourite pieces on display?
Cami: The early stuff I think, the stuff we actually used to sit down and make ourselves. We wish we had time for that, that's our training and we studied for years to be able to it. We definitely miss that.
Nadia: For sure, the one-off's and the stuff that you slave over as opposed to the little sequin bits that we sell, which we still love for their own reasons, it's stuff that you don't look at very often either.

You already don't really work seasonally, you're constantly revisiting and reworking brand totems and classic pieces. After doing this, are there themes in your work you want to explore more or walk away from?
Nadia: We hope to leave some stuff behind after this I think. It's definitely been a very specific period of design for us.
Cami: It's probably time to let some elements go. We're hiring a bigger a team at the moment to hopefully cut some of our workload. We really want to get back into pattern making. To be honest ,since we've started we haven't really had any design time. We're always like, "I can't wait until this is done so we can then move on to doing some other work." But whatever we're working on it always feels quite chaotic and intense. The past year has been really intense.

Check out the 'it's-too-soon-for-a-retrospective' Retrospective Exhibition from 29 November to 9 December at 32-34 Wellington Street, Collingwood. 


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Ben Thomson

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