Beth Ellery is known for her fashion design, but her skills don’t stop there

As children growing up in Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Beth Ellery and her sisters were helped by their mum to design and make their own outfits, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch when years later, on graduating from the architecture programme she started at the University of Auckland in 1996, she decided it was in clothing, not homes, that her design ambitions lay.
Beth wound up working for the venerable Marilyn Sainty of Scotties, who mentored and supported her to launch her own label in 2002. When Marilyn retired, Beth stayed on to co-run the Scotties, Beth Ellery and Camille Howie labels. In 2012, she left to become a mum, then relaunched Beth Ellery in 2014. Not to be creatively fenced in, these days she also works as a painter, colour consultant and curtain maker hireable through Tradespeople, Aotearoa’s national directory of women and gender-diverse tradies.

So Beth, is there any kind of crossover between your two jobs? I think there is some overlap in the skills needed — mainly good attention to detail — but I think I enjoy painting so much because it’s so different from fashion design.

How would you describe your creative process and its influences? I don’t think about the creative process too closely. As long as the ideas keep coming, I just keep working.
There are two things I do find, though. The first is that doing admin online kills my creativity, so I never check in for a flight online, book appointments online or look at WhatsApp, etc. If something can be done over the phone, face to face, or even better by someone else, then I take that option. I just tell people I’m an analogue activist and that excuses me from those kinds of tasks! I especially hate email.
Secondly, when it comes to designing collections, I get out of sorts if I look at other designers’ work and end up feeling annoyed, so I try not to. Instead, I look at interiors, furniture, paint charts, landscape architecture… At the moment, I look at gardens a lot.

ABOVE As well as ready-to-wear collections under the label Beth Ellery, Beth offers a children’s label, BE Baby. “I only release collections when I feel like it, so they’re sporadic, but I have one planned for 2022,” she says. “At the moment, I’m working on a print based on a beautiful native clematis that’s in bloom in my garden, and the collection palette will fan out naturally from that.”

Can you describe a typical workday? Not really — the painting work is really varied. I also do curtain making and upholstery, custom fashion work and special projects. It’s invigorating to have such a range of work — I’m hardly ever bored. Last year, I worked on developing a palette of villa colours for PPG Paints, which was a lot of fun.

Who’s in your painting crew? Usually me and my workmate James Duncan, though sometimes we work separately or with a third person. James has a lot of experience and I’m still an apprentice, so it’s a teaching environment, really. How do you approach colour choice? I enjoy unexpected combinations, like the addition of primary or pastel colours to an earthy palette. I’m also a sentimental person, so if I have fond memories of a place, I’ll forever love the colours in it. As a child, I thought my nana’s house was the most elegant house ever, and now when I look at my own furniture, art and objects, I see the colours in her home in them.
As a designer, I consider myself a professional noticer of things, and I pay close attention to colour when selecting fabrics. I always have fabric and paint swatches in my handbag. 

ABOVE Some colour swatches Beth experimented with while developing her palette for PPG Paints.

What are some things you’re paying close attention to right now? Rainfall and compost. I’ve really got into gardening and composting in the past few years. I read about compost, listen to podcasts about compost, check in on my compost heap.

What are your greatest extravagances? White wine, face oils by Maryse and Sansceuticals, and plants from Awa Nursery.

ABOVE “When I paint, I wear these Marilyn Sainty overalls from the turn of the century,” says Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland-based Beth. “They’re not my first pair — I wore the first pair out and Marilyn graciously let me remake them. People really like them — clients and even strangers have tried to order a pair, which just goes to show how enduring Marilyn’s work is. This shirt is a Beth Ellery design that got promoted to a painting shirt after my husband stopped wearing it.”

Which contemporary artists or craftspeople do you appreciate and why? My new love of gardening has opened my eyes to landscape architecture. Locally, I especially admire Philip Smith, Rob Watson, Claire Mahoney and Jared Lockhart.
The weird thing is, I did the first year of a landscape architecture degree at Lincoln University in 1995, but found it boring and was thrilled to leave. Twenty-five years later, I’m fascinated with it. I guess the timing was wrong.

What are your plans for the foreseeable? Just to keep on working. There are some interesting painting and upholstery jobs on the horizon, and after that I’ll just see what happens.
bethellery.com; tradespeople.co

Interview Emma Kaniuk
Photography Frances Carter

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