In 2017, The Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) acquired three staple pieces from Perth-based clothing brand MAN-TLE into the State Collection. In 2020, as a pandemic stimulus measure, AGWA facilitated the commission of original writing on the work of every living Western Australian artist in their collection—MAN-TLE included. Founders Larz Harry and Aida Kim in turn commissioned this essay detailing their practice and the biography of their brand.
MAN-TLE's modern minimalism: clothing of substance and simplicity
We live in an age of corrupted simplicity. Mantras of minimalism still obey capitalism’s prevailing logic of accumulation, and even apparently simple things are hijacked for commercial purposes; they are performed, painstakingly curated, and often disastrous in their environmental and social impact. In this climate, the practicality and intelligence of a brand like MAN-TLE—the family-run clothing business from Perth’s Larz Harry and Aida Kim—feels revelatory.
While much of today’s clothing adopts a certain minimalist aesthetic, it’s often a product of what critic Kyle Chayka refers to as a hidden “maximalist assemblage”, whereby the human and environmental expense involved in production both relies on and perpetuates systemic excess and exploitation. MAN-TLE is the antithesis of this. Take the brand’s signature piece: Shirt 1. A permanent MAN-TLE item, it is a long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirt made from a custom wax cotton developed and woven by a small family-run cotton mill in Japan, fitted with army-grade buttons (they were originally developed for the Canadian military) threaded along a fine strip (a “tape”) of car seatbelt material, which is bar-tacked onto the garment for upmost security. In the beginning, the shirt was MAN-TLE: the brand’s first range, “R1”, was launched in 2015 with just three variations of the shirt, three t-shirts and three pants in three colours. Five years on, Shirt 1 still exemplifies the MAN-TLE ethos: to focus on achieving quality in individual products, rather than on curating extensive collections, and for those products to last a lifetime, ageing with the wearer and their environment.
“Shirt 1 was the first product we made,” Harry says. “It was the only thing we were thinking about when we started the brand, it's the most popular shirt we make, and it still sums up everything we believe we should be making.”
Harry and Kim met while working for Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons in Tokyo, before starting MAN-TLE together in Perth in 2015. Harry started out with aspirations for his own label, studying fashion and textile design at Curtin University before moving to London in 2009, where he worked as a part-time retail assistant at Dover Street Market, the high-end multi-brand retailer created by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe. Harry quickly progressed to a manager role, and was then relocated to Tokyo by the company to open a new Dover Street Market outpost there. He became responsible for the store’s marketing and communications, and part of his role was to ideate unique activations, installations and collaborations for the store to help socialise it for the Japanese market—undoubtedly invaluable experience when, years later, he and Kim launched MAN-TLE to a predominantly Japanese customer base.
Kim, born in Korea, started her career studying art photography at Nippon Photography Institute (NPI) in Tokyo. Following her degree, Kim spent six months working and studying in New York City, exploring avenues for her creativity. She too intersected with Kawakubo's work—becoming fascinated by her use of the garment as a medium for expression, Kim decided she wanted to work at Comme des Garçons. She returned to Tokyo in 2011 and got a job as a retail assistant at one of their stores. Soon after, Kim started working in the visual merchandising team in the brand’s head office, and then moved again, back into stores, to manage the then-fledgling Comme des Garçons entry-level spin-off called Black Comme des Garçons. There she worked on developing and growing the brand directly alongside Kawakubo, who impressed on Kim the importance of finding a form of expression true to her—a teaching that remains central to Kim’s clothing design and merchandising decisions at MAN-TLE.
“It was really lucky, actually,” Kim says. “It was a new project and in working one-on-one with Rei, she taught me a lot. I learned that whatever medium I work in, that will be my creative expression. And while I was doing that, I met Larz in Dover Street Market.”
The pair put much of MAN-TLE’s simplicity down to exhaustion from their time in Tokyo, a global fashion and consumerist capital. They both recall feeling saturated by fashion working at Dover Street Market, and experiencing a growing desire to strip everything back. “While we wore Comme des Garçons clothing every day in the shop, we didn’t find ourselves wearing it on our days off,” Kim says. “Plus, the Australian landscape, the escape of it, the ocean—that was really calling us.” They wanted to make Australia home again. And so emerged MAN-TLE as the decidedly Australian clothing brand it is, with a singular focus on wearability.
Harry and Kim knew they wanted to make clothing from heavyweight fabric. It needed to be durable and have unique texture, something that would excite. At a trade fair in Japan, they found just that—a heavy cotton, which happened to be made at a small three generations-old family-run cotton mill in Shizouka. “When we touched that fabric, we were like, ‘okay, now we are starting’,” Kim says. They worked with the mill to adjust the fabric until it was precisely right, fit for purpose as MAN-TLE’s signature fabric.
The fabric is a yarn-dyed cotton, woven at the Shizouka mill and then finished (wax is literally cooked into the cloth in a type of oven) at another small factory in Fukui, a region famous for making dense, strong tent fabrics, mostly nylons, polyesters and canvas. Yarn-dying (as opposed to cloth-dying) means the mills can weave the yarns into chambrays to achieve the unique colours and textures that form such a big part of the MAN-TLE brand. Shirt 1 fabric is made this way: the “warp and weft"—the vertical and horizontal threads—are different colours (and sometimes also different fibres), resulting in deeper, more complex results. The dyes themselves are developed from scratch. Once woven, the cloth is transferred to the finishing factory, bathed in paraffin wax, and put through the aforementioned oven, in which the wax permeates the very fibre of the cloth. “I think that's the unique part, because normally if you say ‘waxed’ or ‘wax coating’, it goes only on the surface,” Kim says. “But they are actually baking it in. That's why we say ‘cooked’.”
“That means it’s really different to things that we otherwise know, like Driza-Bone or Barbour jackets,” Harry says. “Those are made using an oil—it leaves a residue on your fingers and it gets sticky. It's a really different technique and different result.”
Needless to say, this artisan manufacturing process is not the norm in the fast fashion industry. By utilising the valuable intergenerational expertise and knowledge of their partner mills and factories, MAN-TLE plays a role in the retention of these ancient skills. Mutual experimentation in developing products enables the factories to explore ways to remain relevant in an increasingly fast-paced industry that has rendered many like them obsolete. In return, MAN-TLE garments are enhanced by the quality and honest simplicity of traditional skills, crafts and modes of production.
Where much of what adheres to modern minimalism has a kind of vaguely appealing sameness, MAN-TLE clothing is distinct and durable in both materiality and purpose; it has substance. While that starts with the fabric, each garment is the result of a meticulous design process that involves careful decision-making: what hardware to employ and how to affix it, how fabric is folded, where seams go and their appearance and feel, sewing style, even merchandising. These values were communicated clearly from the outset. In the release of R1, products were displayed for buyers folded and tied up with straps like bundles, rather than hung. Harry and Kim wanted to separate pieces from one another; to package them as singular, considered products, rather than typical garments on hangers. “That kind of merchandising was really unique,” Harry says. “We just had this long bench running diagonally across the room with small piles of folded clothes, all with the straps.” They didn’t start hanging clothing in their showroom until R3, and even now in their flagship Perth shop, custom-built shelving and clothes hangers emphasise the intentionality, individualism and durability of the product.
Durability was always central for Harry and Kim, but it isn’t just about being physically tough, resilient to wear and tear—it’s about longevity. “When we started, of course, we were using the army buttons and seatbelt tapes as tools for communicating the product’s durability,” Kim says. “But the more important thing was the experience of owning the garment.” Each piece is constructed to allow for enduring appeal to a wearer, appeal that only grows with age and wear; wear that makes a garment truly belong to its wearer.
“A lot of clothing is made with the intention of looking like it's well loved,” Harry says. “The idea for us was never to make something that looks like it belongs to you already. You should create that relationship with the garment yourself. It really does become part of you.”
This longevity is particularly important in the Australian context, both environmental and social. While there are many influences from Kim’s Korean roots present in the garments, and despite their manufacturing process, it’s a common misconception that the brand has a “Japanese twist”. Harry and Kim draw inspiration from their surrounds—their appreciation for the harsh and unforgiving Western Australian landscape, the meeting of bush, desert and sea, and the unique flora and geology of this part of the world. This is seen not only in the ingenuous colours of each MAN-TLE release, but also in subtle design elements. “Using fairly dense fabrics, we have to consider the space, the void, between the body and the garment,” Harry says. “There has to be air flow and space for movement.”
The brand’s pragmatism also embodies and appeals to Australian people, who Harry and Kim feel are products of this country’s unique environment. “Australian people have had to adapt to this landscape, so there's a certain Australian character,” Harry says. “We are quite hardy, quite practical. Our products are informed by those same characteristics.” Pieces like Shirt 1 and many of MAN-TLE’s pants, for example, derive their form from workwear, which looms large as a kind of uniform for Australian life and lends functionality and resilience. But by avoiding visible topstitching—a signifier of workwear employed by brands like Carhartt—these pieces don’t look like workwear; they are elevated. In the same way MAN-TLE both reflects and evolves through Japanese artisanship, it reflects and evolves the Australian sensibility in terms of what we wear and our relationship to clothing.
The import of the Western Australian landscape to MAN-TLE’s identity is confirmed through the photography of Harry and Kim’s long-term collaborator, Perth-born, Sydney-based artist Traianos Pakioufakis, who has worked alongside the pair since R1. Each MAN-TLE range is introduced through visual campaigns of artistic merit in their own right, the tough, intensely-coloured MAN-TLE garments foregrounded against arid and utterly distinctive Western Australian backdrops: rocky outcrops, grassy sand dunes, thick bushland, dirt roads. It’s as much an exercise in appreciation of MAN-TLE’s Western Australian home as it is a marketing campaign; the brand itself as much a celebration of artisanship, of creativity, of place, as it is a business.
In December 2020, Harry and Kim released MAN-TLE R10, celebrating five years. Shirt 1 shone in a bright wattle-yellow, as well as a smooth, dust-brown and a true black. As in each release before it, there’s no deviation from MAN-TLE’s foundational values—and yet, R10 feels fresh and exceptional. “We're just trying to continue developing products that have strength and originality,” Harry says. “We don't see each range as a separate thing. We see them fitting together as one ongoing, evolving story. We’ll continue trying to refine and improve, and to make less, with the same integrity.” In doing so, MAN-TLE will continue to fulfil the greatest promise of simplicity in clothing: a genuinely different way of thinking and relating to the things we own, which respects the material limits of our planet and the inherent quality this imparts.
Written by Emma Pegrum.