Vogue Australia

At Pantalon, Lara Burnell is crafting a wardrobe you can rely on by Gladys Lai for Vogue Australia

What does it actually mean to own a piece of clothing? It’s different, Lara Burnell thinks, to the simple act of having. At the moment, her hypothesis goes something like this: you buy an item, you wear it, you love it, you wear it again. Suddenly it’s not an item but a companion to a story—that time you got a compliment, had a stellar conversation, or attended a particularly great party. “I think that’s real ownership,” the designer tells Vogue Australia, “when you value a thing, when you learn to use it, and keep it around for five or ten years.” 

Not that extending the lifespan of clothing falls just on the wearer. For Burnell, there’s an equal charge for designers to cultivate longevity. It’s a charge she’s answered with Pantalon, the debut clothing line she launched last year. Burnell gestures to the black trousers she’s wearing as she speaks—the centrepiece of Pantalon’s inaugural collection, and all collections to come. 

“My mum taught me how to iron trousers,” Burnell says, “which she’d call ‘pantalon’ at home—‘trousers’ in Tagalog. She’d fold the pleat at the front of the trouser, and then press and hang them, always in that same way. Those were some of the first times I’d ever heard the word. So it just felt right to begin with pants, because that was really where it all started. For Pantalon, I thought about the trousers first, and then designed everything around them."

By everything, Burnell is really referring to two pieces: a black halter neck top, finely ribbed and held together with a clasp at the back, and a belted black coat. Restraint is one of the ways in which Burnell is encouraging value. Instead of premiering with a collection that’s a dozen looks strong, her first, called the ‘Modern Issue’, is dedicated to a single look. Wear all three pieces at once, or integrate them effortlessly into your existing wardrobe. “It’s a revision of the classics,” Burnell explains, “designed to be collectible and interchangeable with what you already own.” Versatility is the benefit you reap from a minimalist approach. 

The choice to call each collection an ‘Issue’, meanwhile, is two-fold. It reflects the fact that Pantalon sits outside of the established sartorial calendar, but also nods to Burnell’s love story with fashion itself. Every designer has one—the moment they locked eyes with a vision and decided no other career would do. Hers started with magazines, at a newsagency in Mackay. “Honestly, I feel like it’s a bit common,” Burnell laughs, “but it is the truth. I remember my mum would always dress my sister and I in matching sets from the Philippines, and that was the first time I learnt about expression through clothing. But through magazines, I found out that fashion was a whole world.”

Burnell stayed in Queensland to study fashion design at TAFE, before moving to Sydney for a brief stint at Who What Wear. When wanderlust came knocking, she moved to London to work for Roksanda Ilinčić. “That was where I learned what I liked, what I didn’t like, and just how relentless the industry can be,” Burnell shares. “But the thing I took away from there most was the community; I felt like I’d finally met my people. When Covid-19 hit, I lost my job, and came back to Sydney to work at Maison Balzac for [founder] Elise Pioch. And that was where I learned even more about the art of storytelling, and began to live in a more creative way—and also be unapologetic about it.”

“Self-starter” is the term Burnell uses to describe both Ilinčić and Pioch, women she credits for laying the groundwork for her own foray into entrepreneurship. For a while, she admits, she resisted seeing fashion as her calling. “I just never felt like I fit in,” Burnell says. “I was never the best student, and I was in my mid-20s then—this awkward age where I wasn’t sure of my place in the world. But meeting like-minded people was what gave me the confidence, and helped me develop my personal style.”

Which takes us back to the trousers. Pants, as Burnell would come to discover, were the fulcrum of her wardrobe. “A few years ago, I wanted to create a capsule wardrobe, and stopped buying things that didn’t suit me,” Burnell says. “I wanted to have an easy way of dressing. And the first step was always pants.” The only problem was that the perfect pair was impossible to find. “I was always buying trousers, and I’d have this idea of how a trouser should be, but I would spend so much money having them altered to fit exactly the way I wanted.” 

That fit, Burnell tells us, is what the Pantalon design is today. With Pantalon, she hopes to swallow the frog for you—to take out the experimentation and guesswork and tailoring that’s involved in hunting down trousers, so you can busy yourself with easier conquests, like tops, or outerwear or shoes. 

What, then, are the ingredients of the ideal pant? “Personally,” Burnell says, “it’s a flat front, with a zip at the back. It’s flattering. With the design, I wanted to eliminate all the bulkiness.” Most critically, they’re mid-rise. On this point, Burnell is emphatic. “It sits just at your belly button,” she says. “Not too high or too low. And when you go to the leg, it needs to be straight—not too tapered or wide-leg.” 

Don’t get her wrong, Burnell says: belt loops and pleats and wide legs and tapered legs are all “absolutely valid in their own way”. “I just needed to start with a trouser that didn’t have any of that,” she explains, “one I could wear with shirts and not feel the need to tuck anything in.” The Pantalon trouser is for when you won’t want your pants to make a statement. On the contrary, it works quietly—a true team-player.

Simplicity, of course, isn’t easy to achieve. It’s not a lack of effort that defines minimalism, rather an effortful paring back. Thought informs even the smallest of details, like the raglan sleeve on the Pantalon coat or the inseam pockets on the trousers. That consideration extends to how the pieces wear best with each other; “for example,” Burnell says, “the button of the coat matches the line of the waistband, so that when you tie it up, and wear it with the trousers, it all feels cohesive. The top was also designed in a way to be worn with the trousers, so it can sit without being tucked in, or left too long.”

There’s plenty of thought too in the construction and fabrication. Burnell tells us that each Pantalon collection will be limited-run, because her pieces are crafted from deadstock. When asked whether she has made “sustainability” an explicit pillar of Pantalon’s ethos, she hesitates. “It’s tricky, because is producing anything really sustainable? Using deadstock or recycled fabric, buying used clothes—with what we know about the impact of fashion, it should be a given. It should be general practice for [designers] to minimise their footprint and produce as little as possible. More and more brands are trying to sell everything, but not all of it is made equally.”

As Burnell looks ahead, she wonders how her commitment to minimal production might impede the demands of business. “There comes a point where designers have to produce more to stay afloat, and that’s something that I have to really think about when it happens. I haven’t reached that point yet, I guess. Right now, I’m producing this much, and then trying to sell it. But it’s something I’m going to have to get to, for sure. And I’m not sure there’s a clear solution.”

Until then, she’s concentrating on the basics, padding out Pantalon bit by bit. Visit her online store and you’ll discover that Burnell is building a sort of Pantalon community: there are book recommendations from customers and friends (Burnell is a voracious reader) and also recipes passed down from her mother (a guide to making Filipino sticky coconut rice is the latest addition). She shares insights into her process with Pantalon subscribers via newsletter too. “Creativity,” Burnell quips, “is all about connection.” And her upcoming ‘Issue’, another three-piece collection, is almost out of the oven. “I’m using this really fun sparkle wool,” she gushes. (She pulls up a sneak peek on her phone, and she’s right—it is deliciously fun.)

Her smile says it all: Burnell is in total control. How’s that for ownership?

Next post