Home » How this unapologetically queer design duo fell in love with fashion — and each other

How this unapologetically queer design duo fell in love with fashion — and each other

Designers Katie-Louise and Lilian Nicol-Ford first met at Randwick’s lavish Art Deco Ritz Cinema in 2013, for the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

It was a fittingly glamorous setting for the demi couturiers’ meet-cute.

“It was the heady days of Sydney’s peak vintage scene,” Lil recalls bashfully.

Lil is one-half of the pair’s Sydney-based fashion label Nicol & Ford and was introduced to her now-wife and creative partner, Katie, through mutual friends. It was a memorable first impression.

“Katie was wearing a 20s white lace tea dress,” she recalls.

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“I looked like a literal different person — because I was one. I was wearing 20s menswear — jodhpurs and a tie — all things that have since been eradicated from my wardrobe.”

Lil met Katie before she had come to terms with her gender identity.

It’s something she started grappling with about five years ago and which came to a head during COVID lockdown.

“Katie was the person to really identify that and say, ‘I don’t think you’re happy [but] I’m here to support you and we’re in it together,” says Lil.

“I think it’s testament to how close we are.”

In the 11 years they’ve been together, their respective styles have changed dramatically, but they still have their outfits from that first night.

“We have three suitcases of things we can’t throw out because we have so much clothing associated with key parts of our life,” says Lil.

“Clothing carries memory. You can feel the history, so we like to hold onto our own little bit because it’s important.”

Lil and Katie’s first collection The Gold-Hatted Lovers was inspired by a reference from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

History has become a hallmark of the Nicol-Fords’s mononymous fashion label. Every collection they’ve produced over the past 10 years has been inspired by a little-known queer historical figure or moment, and their latest is no exception.

“Our modus operandi for Nicol & Ford is focused on counteracting queer erasure in storytelling,” explains Lil.

“We like to delve into history and find people or movements or times that speak to contemporary queer experience and find ways to retell those stories to our wonderful community and audience.”

Their latest collection, Thorn, is inspired by the queer occultist artist Rosaleen Norton, who was a notorious underground figure dubbed “The Witch of Kings Cross” in the 1950s. It draws on subcultures of kink and BDSM and will be launched at Australian Fashion Week tonight in all its subversive glory.

Three mannequins with sheer dresses draped over them stand in an atelier showroom.

Mannequins in Katie and Lil’s Newtown-based atelier.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

“She was a queer woman who lived her life very openly in a very conservative time,” explains Lil.

“She remains arguably the most persecuted artist in Australian history because her work was seized by the government, she was charged by the police [and] she was hounded by the media.”

Liberating queer bodies

Katie and Lil have built a reputation for high-concept demi-couture.

As a pair, they are unforgettably glamorous, often dressed in matching bespoke outfits replete with their signature platinum blonde updo.

“It’s hilarious how that appears to the outside world because people ask if we’re sisters, which is obviously something that we play into tongue-in-cheek, purposefully dressing together and looking so similar,” says Lil.

“There is so much performance underlying all of that – and we enjoy it.”

A black and white photo of two women dressed in silk gowns and with elaborate blonde updo hairstyles standing on podiums.

Their work blends fashion, art and performance. (Supplied: Powerhouse/Liz Ham)

That joyous freedom of expression is core to who Katie and Lil are as people and designers.

The pair custom-make garments for the models they work with and prioritise gender and size diversity. Some of the pieces in this collection have taken upward of 200 hours to make. It’s arduous, but gratifying, says Katie.

“I’m up at 5am and then we work until 9 or 10pm at the moment. They’re long days,” she says.

“But for me, it’s a really exciting opportunity to celebrate and liberate bodies who have never had clothing made from the before. It’s an absolute joy.”

A diverse group of queer models stand together wearing Nicol & Ford designs on a runway.

Nicol & Ford’s Comet collection (pictured) was a hit at the 2023 Australian Fashion Week.(Getty Images: AAFW/Stefan Gosatti)

Since their first AFW runway in 2022, Katie and Lil have cast their shows exclusively with people from the queer community. (Some are models, some are not.)

While unconventional, they are not alone. Local designers like Gary Bigeni, Erik Yvon and Youkhana have also taken strides in diverse casting in recent years, and there is increasing demand on and off the runway for garments that are gender-neutral and size-diverse.

“It’s not an intentional diversity statement, it’s the way our work needs to exist in the world, and it should just be regular practice at this point,” says Lil.

“Unless you can fabricate clothing for diverse bodies, you shouldn’t be making clothing. That’s the responsibility of anybody showing in this context.”

A tall white trans woman with platinum blonde hair stands in a courtyard wearing a sheer black dress.

“We know what stories we want to share as we continue to grow,” says Lil.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

Playing to their strengths

While Katie and Lil are very aligned in their philosophy and approach to fashion design, they took different paths to get there.

Katie first fell in love with fashion as a kid.

“I was making clothes for my Barbies when I was four or five years old,” she recalls.

She grew up in the beachside town of Ballina, living with her artist mother and younger brother, where she had a very creative upbringing.

“I was encouraged and able to be as expressive and experimental as I wanted to be, which I’m really grateful for.”

A blonde white woman wearing a semi-sheer white dress and a belt leans against a table with a sewing machine on it.

Before co-founding Nicol & Ford, Katie did a stint in New York making costumes for the Boston Ballet.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

She started thrifting at age 11 and taught herself to sew on her mum’s rusty old sewing machine. Her love of second-hand and vintage clothing was inspired by her great aunt, “Aunty Irene”, who was thrifting Victorian wear as far back as the 30s.

“She also had a pet goat she saved from a tip. She was a fabulous character,” says Lil.

Katie agrees.

“She was a huge inspiration for me. I had a lot of very glamorous women to look up to. But for as long as I can remember, I was very, very interested in clothing in the way that I could present myself and alter my appearance.”

After studying both sewing and fashion and costume design, Katie started her own label in 2009. She set up an Etsy store and moved to Melbourne.

“I [was] sewing very simple dresses that I could see there was a market for. It was the ‘indie twee’ era and I was very immersed in indie-twee, Frankie magazine culture,” she says.

Lil adds: “There was a blog. It was very successful.”

Katie squirms.

“Katie is kind of ashamed of it, but she did all of that herself,” Lil continues. “[She] had to fumble through developing business acumen as a 21-year-old in Melbourne, away from home, needing money and selling dresses at markets and online. I think it’s impressive.”

Two platinum blonde women wearing semi-sheer dresses sit at a table discussing designs.

“We don’t take for granted our relationship and how much support we offer each other,” says Lil.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

When the pair met in 2013, Katie was burnt out from running her business and closed her Etsy store, vowing to never sell again.

“I’m a dramatic person,” she laughs.

She took a reliable full-time job sewing cushions at an antiques company, but something was niggling at her.

“Me,” says Lil.

Lil admits that she benefited from Katie starting to produce clothes again — “You wanted a cute outfit,” her wife quips.

She says she was also impressed, fascinated and “a bit jealous” of Katie’s ability.

“It’s so unusual in our generation to be able to fabricate clothing from scratch,” Lil says.

“But I wanted her to be able to make her own clothing again because I saw how much joy it gave her.”

A glamorous white woman with platinum blonde hair, wearing a sheer white dress sits at a garden table.

“I went through every sort of subculture as a teenager that you can possibly imagine … but there was still an element of glamour and performance,” says Katie.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

Lil didn’t discover her love for fashion until later on, but her parents did encourage her to play classical music.

“I was that scary music scholarship kid at the private school, who played everything,” she laughs.

But one day, during rehearsals for Sydney Youth Orchestra, she had a realisation.

“I thought, ‘Everybody in the room wants this more than me. I don’t think this is what I want to do with my life’,” she recalls.

After school, Lil pursued art history and theory at the University of Sydney. She also studied archaeology.

“So that’s why our work is all very cerebral and detailed and dense,” she says teasingly.

“I suppose my interest in the construction of glamour and what the performance of our work looks like, is something I’ve been able to build from scratch — and very much build with Katie.”

Two white women with platinum blonde hair and wearing semi-sheer dresses sit on a velvet couch in a lavishly decorated room.

A lot has changed since the pair co-founded Nicol & Ford in 2014.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

As their label has grown, they’ve learned to play to their strengths: Lil focuses on design concepts and Katie focuses on construction.

It’s a happy marriage.

“I’m so inspired by Lil’s incredible mind,” says Katie.

High-concept, high drama

The depth of research and the detail that underpins Nicol & Ford designs are in no small part what makes them so charming and powerful. They’re not just decorative: they tell a story.

“The research is the really fun part and we’re constantly researching stories from muses and narratives that we want to share,” says Lil.

“We have a very big library in our heads of collections to come. We’ve kind of got the next three to five years mapped out.”

A collection of Nicol & Ford designs on display at the Powerhouse Museum in front of a large projection screen.

Nicol & Ford’s 2022 collection La Pouffe on display at Powerhouse Museum.(Supplied: Powerhouse/Marinco Kojdanovski)

Unsurprisingly, Nicol & Ford designs have been exhibited beyond the runway, in museums and on stage. The Powerhouse Museum acquired their debut AFW collection La Pouffe in 2023 and included it in the display for Absolutely Queer, an exhibition on queer culture, art and identity for World Pride.

Nicol & Ford also made their theatre debut last year, designing costumes for Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Based on the first 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which details a real-life comet that blistered through the night sky in 1812, it helped inspire Katie and Lil’s second AFW collection. Titled Comet, it re-imagined early 19th-century Regency “silhouettes” for all gender identities and sizes.

Thorn will be their third AFW show and the pair have been working on it since last December.

A series of designs sketched on paper with photos of models are splayed across a table.

“We’re excited to be able to embrace a darker lens for our work [through Thorn],” says Lil.(ABC Arts: Anna Hay)

As with all their collections to date, it is a universe unto itself.

“We work in a space where there are a lot of garment designers and not fashion designers. Garment designers design clothing and fashion designers design fantasy and tell stories,” says Lil.

“If you’re spending the time and the resources to put on a runway at Fashion Week, why would you not want to go the whole hog and tell the story and immerse people in a world?

“You can tell a narrative through an experience and that’s the distinction I think we make.”

Nicol & Ford presents Thorn at Australian Fashion Week on Wednesday, May 15 at 8pm.