Bell of the ball
Published 2010 | By Ella Heap
She’s the self-proclaimed “country girl” who wowed the crowd at this year’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival – Brisbane, and went on to win one of the Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship awards. Following her $20,000 grant and move to Manhattan to begin her three month internship with Harrison & Shriftman, life is sweet for this Brisbane-based fashion designer.
One of Brisbane’s most talented young designers, Penelope Bell, takes on the Big Apple.
Growing up on a cattle property in Central Queensland, it is no wonder Bell calls on nature as her biggest inspiration. “When we mustered the stock, I’d have my sketch pad and pencils with me,” she says.
Taking a bite out of the Big Apple
Fast track a few years and this talented seamstress is scaling a very different landscape in her quest for success.
At the time of writing, Bell sits in her three-bedroom West Village apartment. Her excitement is palpable as she blissfully describes in intricate detail the creative nest she’ll call home for the next five months.
It’s everything you’d expect your swanky New York apartment to be: The feature – a spiral staircase and rooftop terrace – is adorned with a string of dainty, colourfully-painted Chinese lanterns. Her room provides the perfect nook for her to write and draw, her bedroom walls festooned with Kandinsky pieces.
“I’m living with two guys who I am friends with from back home,” she says.
“[My bedroom] can fit a single bed and a shelf, and that’s about it. Their bedrooms are a lot bigger then mine. But I am blissfully in love with mine, and secretly think I have the best room in the apartment!”
Bell is disarmingly easy-going, her smile as youthful as her demeanour. At 25, she possesses the talent of those who have been in the business for years. But her success hasn’t come by accident, or through money or connections.
She’s worked hard. Completing an Advanced Diploma in Textiles, Clothing and Footwear in 2006, she released her eponymous label, Penelope Bell, across Brisbane boutiques in 2008, which routinely sold out of her bespoke designs.
Her current three-month internship with one of New York’s finest luxury brand agencies, Harrison & Shriftman, has certainly kept her busy.
“I look after the showroom and the sample trafficking. I also do press clips, market research, trend reports, press lists, creative pitching. I also run errands [for] designers and other clients. I help out wherever is necessary,” Bell says.
The “Pretty Woman” story
Aside from all the work and glamour, Bell has her share of “interesting” moments. The story of the early stages of her Big Apple inhabitance is reminiscent of Julia Roberts’ in Pretty Woman.
“The first two weeks [in New York] saw me don ‘the tourist’ fashion style,” she says.
“It’s not an image that sits easily with me, however after one day walking the streets in sandals and many exchanges of foot massages later that night, I couldn’t care whether I looked like a tourist or not!
“I have to admit though, walking through Saks on Fifth Avenue, I felt I was snubbed by the sales assistants. A bit like Pretty Woman, only I wasn’t dressed like a hooker, just a tourist!”
For all her humble talk, Bell clearly has her share of commercial sense.
“Brisbane definitely has a lot of potential and I think with the right people getting behind it, it’s on its way to being a city that is energised through its cultural and creative talent,” she says.
“We have to make sure that the jobs are available to design and arts graduates.”
As for Penelope Bell’s plans for the future, her sights are firmly set on the world of design. Her passion for this is evident in her commitment to the town that nurtured her talent.
“I would like to think that I’ll be helping shape and build the fashion scene and creative industries in Brisbane into a thriving cultural environment.”