This interview first appeared in Issue One of Lila Jean Vintage. Below is the extended transcript of that interview. Interview conducted by Kristian Pellissier.
Lil Tulloch and her mother Monica Trappaga at the launch of Lila Jean Vintage Magazine, December 2014. Photo: Aimee Stoddart
KP: Ok so before we even start talking about Reclaim, tell me about how you’re a trapeze artist
Lil: Well, I at the age of 18 ran away to become a science teacher – my whole family are performers and my father has always gotten me up on stilts or whip cracking, mum had been a singer so she put me in her kids’ shows when I was ten, so I had a pretty seasoned performance background. And I went to do biochemistry and then realised that I was earning all my money and enjoying myself stilt walking and being a roving performer and that I was going into the wrong profession, so I started doing aerials when I was 18 and 11 years later I’m still flying high. My partner’s a slapstick clown – giant, bright orange curly moustache. We both have a beautiful Vaudevillian aesthetic so that’s what we tend to replicate, is we just pay tribute to the turn of the century theatricals and we write circus routines that we take all over the world. So, when I’m not here that’s what I’m doing and Monica is again, as a performer, I have worked as her director and she has worked as my director, which is a fabulous mother/daughter team. So yeah it’s good, it’s lovely – it’s tolling on the body, so we’re progressively becoming increasingly – going back to the art of clowning, which is a beautiful, beautiful art and often neglected in this fast and furious paced acrobatic world of Cirque du Solei and what not. We’re coming back to a new place – it’s good, it’s fun. It keeps me fit – it means I can eat all I want – always hanging by one foot somewhere, so that is usually what keeps us going. That’s the other part of my life.
KP: So you direct each other performing, do you direct each other or feed off each other for the store as well?
Lil: Oh yes. We say that at the store we are half of one brain. So, Monica started this store 14 years ago in Summer Hill. We had one in Glebe and then we had one here. Everyone who works here has a creative brain so that’s kind of a condition of working here. Most of us are artists – whether it be with food as Miss Genie is or it be – my partner works here. We have singers, we have actors, trapeze artists; but Mon and I…she trained me in her aesthetic from day one of my life and so…
KP: It’s in your blood.
Lil: It is in my blood, I can’t deny it. I try but I just can’t deny it. She has always been in many projects all around the world, so she’ll run off and she needs someone to manage it, so we kind of take turns. When I’m in town I run it, when she’s in town she runs it. We don’t see each other very much because one of us is always gallivanting, but it keeps the aesthetic pure I guess because we both see the same thing. She will walk in and she says: ‘I’ll just do…oh, you’ve already done it. Or I’ll walk in and I’ll say: ‘oh I’ll just do: oh..oh no you’ve already done it’. So it’s a really nice platform for the two of us to be able to do that. She’s always been the consummate performer and I’ve always been the one that kind of hands her the plates so that she can keep dishing them out. It’s a really lovely duo. We work well in that regard. So I enjoy it – it’s fun.
KP: So do you both source the items in here when you’re travelling around?
Lil: We do. We often travel all over the world to source what we’re looking for or to be inspired. So, the two of us have spent a lot of time in New York, particularly over the last four years. Monica and I have written a book together about our food adventures over there. So, that’s one of my favourites. So she’s written two cookbooks and we wrote the second one together, and it was all about our year in New York and she’s collaged everything out of all of her wonderful collections. This store is a masterpiece, but her studio is even more spectacular. Between the two of us we took photos and she made wedding cakes, which is still over in the corner actually. She made a wedding cake out of her great-grandmother’s lace. So she pulls them together for her artistic desires, so you can see there are some beautiful collages.
KP: So it’s really a lifestyle isn’t it. I wondered how much of it permeated your life.
Lil: Oh it’s a permeation that reeks. Everything is reabsorption. For us we have beautiful gentleman’s clothing that my partner wears that we write shows based around– we have a traveling medicine show that is dressed by Reclaim. There is a secret underground society of carnies throughout Australia that wear our pants and our suspenders because it is the aesthetic that we drive for. There’s never a place that you won’t pop up and say ‘hang on, that’s our clothing! Oh that’s fantastic’. We like to maintain that on our performance level. Mon is the same. She just loves to create. She loves starting projects and sometimes we need to finish them for her but that’s okay we work well together: she finishes my projects as well. So we have all these different platforms. Her knowledge was restoring furniture and it was taking back to those antiques that she had had an obsession with, so she just kept going. Fourteen years later we’re still here, so it’s pretty exciting: a new venue but a great venue.
KP: So what led to the decision to move from Glebe to Newtown?
Lil: So we were in Summer Hill and we had Glebe for a while and we shut that back down again. Summer Hill was the breadwinner and it’s the same old story. This location was just a far more logical deal for us because look at it: it’s just phenomenal. St George’s Hall has 200 years of history in itself – I think it’s 162 years old or something like that, so the background behind this place- it holds amazing bones. The best thing is the height: everything’s beautiful, but I’m an aerialist I like having height. We can build from the ground up here and that gives us a platform for so much – that’s what we love.
KP: Do you think the personality of the store changed with the venue?
Lil: Oh God yes. We were all shabby-chic and doilies ten years ago and as we kept being inspired by New York and this industrial obsession. Mum claims this place to be halfway between turn of the century colonial New York, Texan red – that rich red – versus shabby Sherlock. Not shabby chic, but that fabulous Victorian obsession. Everyone’s doing Gatsby and everyone’s doing the twenties and everyone’s doing the fifties and we just wanted to take it one step back because what we actually love is the Victorian teapot that comes through and has been hand engraved from 1897 and you get that once every five years and that’s what we collect – that’s what we are obsessed with. You look around, we have a bright red wall we have a bright blue wall, but the depths behind that – we took a two hundred year old federation flag into Borders paints and said ‘match these colours’. And that’s how we ended up with what we ended up with. No one else has those colours, they said: ‘I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it but we’ll give it a red hot go’.
KP: So where did you get the flag?
Lil: Mon found that I think in a Chelsea flea market in New York. One Saturday morning she walked in and it was sitting stuffed in the corner of this crazy eccentric, big pot bellied, white face beard was sitting there and he goes ‘Oh I’m gonna give it to ya for whatever I’m gonna give it to ya’. So many of our collections come from that. Mon has her own jewellery range, she collects old keys from whether it be in New Orleans or whether it be New York or whether it be Italy or wherever she goes she will just collects trinkets and then hand make her own jewellery, which she’s tried to give over to me but with my rusty old trapeze hands I’m not so good for the fine tuning. As much as possible, if it’s not antique we make it or it’s reclaimed – which is the whole point of the store.
KP: So that sense of history and re-purposing history – giving another life to it.
Lil: Everything has to have a story and if it doesn’t have a story it’s not important to us. It’s one of those things. Some people will look at something at face value and it doesn’t have the history behind it. At the moment we’ve got beautiful collections of clutches and handbags that came from a fabulous old woman who passed away – she had been collecting handbags for sixty years – and that collection is what we’re interested in. Most of them are from Sydney from 1955; you just don’t find those pieces floating around, particularly not in mass-producers eras.
KP: So how do they get from her to you?
Lil: Auction houses, or we get tips, phone calls or we just scout. We’re always scouting. Mon has a nose for these things she goes straight in there and walks out with collections of dolls or toy cars or – we’re very low on our auction at the moment we’re due to restock or due to rejig everything.
KP: Do you have an arch nemesis at auctions?
Lil: Mon’s been going to the auctions for years – and she’s a strong woman – but these boys will bully her. You get these fabulous old men who know their antiques, and they also know she’s got a great eye. So as soon as she bids they will start jumping on it, because people respect her style and taste. But you know: that’s the game, that’s part of it. It scares the bejesus out of me but you know that’s ok I’ll just bring it in and clean it up
KP: It’s part of the reward too: that you’ve seen it, recognised its value and fought for it.
Lil: My partner started working here and he’s very charismatic and hilarious – his moustache reaches this fabulous curl. But he said: ‘I can’t keep up with you girls because you know every story’ and it takes us a year for someone to be really across the board with everything in the store. I mean Genie’s been with us for three years now she’s absolutely fabulous. And it’s great. But it would have taken Genie six months to get across absolutely everything. And you’re always learning. That’s the fun bit – I mean I still have to research it daily.
KP: Can I see the wedding cake you mentioned?
Lil: The Wedding Cake’s at the top. It’s a beautiful display piece. If I sold it I think I’d be going straight to hell, so we’ll hold on to that one.
KP: Is everything in the store for sale?
Lil: There are a few pieces that – my mother’s husband – also has a beautiful obsession for the spectacular. Every time we say – how much would this piece be? Mon would say ‘oh no, that one’s not for sale – that has to go home one day.’ ‘ But this is not a storage unit for your fabulous collection’. The ladder is not for sale; and the beautiful washstand is not for sale, but basically everything else is part of it. My grandfather’s top hat lives here. It belonged to the ambassador of the Philippines and we still have it, so it is a little bit of a memento to him. We always say he’s looking out for us. My great grandmother’s shop in the Philippines used to have a piece of marble that would denote the shop and we have her piece up there, from her shop in the Philippines. She ran a couturier business – she made dresses. So we just carry – it’s like having a good luck omen.
KP: It’s nice how everything in the store – the family heirlooms – everything else just feels like an extension of that
Lil: Totally. I think the shop is the extension of the family history to be more exact. It’s crazy and wild and very Spanish and getting wider and longer: it’s not just going linear. So once you’re in the family you’re never out again.
KP: So what’s been the hardest piece for you to say goodbye to recently?
Lil: Recently? We had two top hats come through recently – they were beautiful turn of the century. One was made here in Sydney one was made in England my partner came and saw them and he was in love he was just like ‘these are it’. Now my mother and I gave him a beautiful top hat from Strand Hatters for Christmas because he’s always just wanted this hat. And he’s not allowed to have that one until he marries me so that’s not on the cards just yet, so just not jumping the gun. There was two of them, and one of them fit him perfectly and a woman came in – she was down from Newcastle – and she saw the other one and she just went: ‘I have to have that’ and so she went and bought it on the spot. I texted my partner and said: ‘I hate to tell you but I just sold one of the top hats’. As I was putting my phone down I got a call saying: ‘don’t tell me it was the one I wanted. Don’t tell me..’ So we lost a beautiful hat but he ended up spending every penny he had to take the other one home. I think it was beautiful to see how fast those great pieces go. There was a beautiful Swarovski crystal perfume bottle – it was 1930s deco and I’ve never seen something like it. It was tiny, but then its stopper was about the size of my hand and I’d never seen anything like it. It went before I could kind of say: ‘ooh could I take that home?’. But you know we can’t take everything home – we have to sell some pieces – so I think that was the one that was the most devastating for me to see go. We’ve had some beautiful things come through: beautiful wedding dresses, or an opera dress. Things that you know that someone has sung their heart out in that piece or something has been handmade for somebody and it’s just lovely to see them go to good homes and more so than for me being devastated to lose a piece, I much prefer to see someone excited about it. We’re not hoarders, we’re collectors and that means we have to pass things on.
KP: There’s a real creative sensibility in Newtown: you’re in an environment where people are going to appreciate the story, the history, the creativity, the unique quality of everything in here.
Lil: You don’t come in here …there’s nothing in here that you need: everything is a want, everything is a desire. And so we want to be able to impart to anyone that comes in an experience. Whether that be a funny anecdote that they witness; whether they find something that they just feel fits their life or whether they want to hear the stories behind that piece, behind that teacup or that piece of crockery. So I think ultimately that’s what we want to provide in Newtown is to fuel that sensibility. I had a lady come in and she was doing an amazing artwork of lace – and I don’t have much of the lace on the floor currently – but we just started talking and she said: ‘I’m looking for this and can’t find it anywhere; particular styles of doilies and old bits of lace from wedding dresses and its so hard to find’. I said ‘how much do you like me right now’ and I went out and I had three picnic baskets of lace. We sat here for three hours pulling out every single piece. And she said ‘I’ve never seen this pattern’; or ‘you can tell this is from this year’ and I learnt from her and she learnt from me and we put it all together and she was just so excited by it. That was a good day for us because we learnt from that and it was so much fun.
KP: So what kind of people come through the store?
Lil: Every shape and form. At our previous store it was very much geared towards the feminine aesthetic and around Christmas time it was filled with men buying beautiful presents but here we want to subscribe to that gent who loves to be well dressed and may not be able to afford to go to the Skin Deeps or the Antons or the what not. They might be a step below that and still want to look good and still want to look fresh. I go to Skin Deep and could spend my life savings- that’s why we love it. But we want to be able to accommodate the average Jo and there’s a lovely, down the road at …wood they have the Barber’s- there’s a lovely fellow there, one of the apprentices called Reece and he’ll just kind of come sneaking in. We ended up befriending him and he was so excited by the clothing. He was like: ‘it’s just what I want to wear’, so he’d come in with his pay packet every fortnight and say ‘oh, can I buy another shirt or can I buy another pair of suspenders?’ And I said ‘are you wearing these at work? Because if you are, lets keep Newtown in that aesthetic we love.’ It’s getting people dressed for a wedding: grooms get dragged in by the brides that say ‘right we’ve got to try these on you’ve never worn a pair of high waisted pants in your life but will give it a go, you know? And that’s fun! There’ll be cravats and tops and all sorts of things and they get so excited. Newtown’s so lovely because there are so many of us with that aesthetic. And if it doesn’t fit here, we send them around the corner to Gallery Serpentine and vice versa: so, we know each other. And I don’t want to have anything that you can find down the rest of the strip in this store. I respect retrospect for their aesthetic, so we go for a different line. It’s about creating a community that fills every pocket and that’s what we do.
KP: Sidenote: I went to the Gangster-themed ball last week: I think people forget how much joy can be found just in finding something unique and going to an effort.
Lil: …and that’s it. I forget because I live in Marrickville, and Marrickville is thriving- you can feel it pulsing. Similar to Newtown I think – it’s just an extension. You just see every wonderful walk of life. Even today I was out working at Camden and it’s just a foreign world. I felt like: if I was walking around here with a 1950s hoop dress, would I be looked at like I was mad?
KP: You’d be the talk of the town.
Lil: I think I would be the talk of the town! But people would get excited! There was one woman who was dolled to the nines and she looked wonderful. You could see people just being blown away by it. That’s what we want to create. We get girls coming in going: ‘I have to have that dress’. Our range of clothes that we have, we have Tatiana and Trashy Diva. Trashy Diva is from New Orleans – they’re made recently but they are all beautiful old designs. Tatiana is the Betty Page collection – her designer, and she’s brought out her own range. We’re very low at the moment, just waiting for spring to really spring. We get girls coming in here of all shapes and sizes and we don’t have one stick thin dress. We have five cuts and of those five cuts only one will work on me, but you will find the cut that fits you. You will get a print in that same four cuts. So we can fit for you. No matter whether you’re buxom, whether you’re stick thin, whether you are flamboyant and loud: we want to find that for you. And we’ll help you as best we can.
KP: So do you think it will be first Newtown and then world domination?
Lil: I think that we’re a little schizophrenic with our projects and we like to do things well, so instead of world domination I would like us to be known as that little place that you want to go and visit every time you come to Newtown. We have Facebook and that, but ultimately we’re a bricks and mortar store.
KP: On that note both your Facebook and your Instagram pages are beautiful. Are those the main two?
Lil: That’s how you connect with us and we’re always checking and doing those things, even though Mon and I are completely technologically retarded. We do actually look at them. We have an amazing assistant business manager and she is all over that and makes her own dresses: she’s fantastic. She’s an actress, she hand makes our cufflinks, she hand makes our bowties: she’s just a wealth of creativity. So much of what we want to get done she really helps facilitate and I: Tara Clarke she’s just fantastic. I don’t want to tell you too much about her because I don’t want to her to be poached by anybody else. Everyone brings a quality to the store; everyone has something they’re fabulous at. I mean Genie was our original soap smith and when I get my brand new kitchen set up she’s going to come and make some soap in my kitchen. She hand makes the most beautiful soaps and we love that because it’s just for us and it’s just so fabulous. Everyone has something to give to the store and that’s what we love and hopefully we can give back to them as well.
KP: The birdcage with the Chandelier inside it: does that have a story?
Lil: That’s from one of our suppliers- they’re from India and a lot of our lighting is possibly the one thing that’s not … we do have vintage chandeliers but because lighting is such a …based on the electricals and ensuring that it’s safe, often we go for that aesthetic. But they’re hand made in India and brought over to us and I think they’re absolutely amazing- I haven’t seen them anywhere else.
KP: …and the teacups?
Lil: We don’t have anything in the teacup range that’s not vintage. We have full tea sets and we will often go for English bone china as our first port of call because it’s just divine. We’ll have everything from Willow up on our walls – the beautiful blue – and sometimes we’ll have a piece… there was a platter, it was 150 years old. We didn’t actually know how old it was because we couldn’t find the mark on it. This fellow came in and said: ‘you know this is genuine. You can tell this is genuine because the way that the print has been placed on and embossed, the glaze is slightly warped. And you can tell that’s a handmade piece and wouldn’t have been done prior to 1920 or something’. And he just had this wealth of knowledge and we just went ‘oh fantastic’. We ended up again sitting down with a cup of tea just getting him to talk to us about our china. There’s some lovely pieces. It’s harder and harder to find china these days. But a trio set is fantastic- we have a whole cabinet of them. The more gentlemanly ranges have been out because of father’s day so there’s a bit of a residue but we do have the beautiful designs. This piece here is fantastic. And you’ll have Royal Winton, you’ll have all sorts of things and Mon has hand-picked them and she fights black and blue to make sure she has the collection. My favourite range at the moment here- it’s got six teacups and it’s just fantastic. You just don’t see that very often. It’s really beautifully striking. It’s Japanese. We have those pieces. Depression era glass is one of our biggest finds and it’s incredibly popular at the moment as well. And if we were in the US you would find it for five bucks, but here in Australia it’s the hardest thing to find. It depends on what you’re looking for. We tailor to obsession. That’s what we want to do. Someone will say ‘oh I collect Silvak’ and I’ll go ‘well I’ll call you when I get that one Bunny vase that will come through every two years’ and that’s what we want to do. Once you come in we hope that you become family and you keep coming back to see us.
KP: Where do the belt buckles come from?
Lil: Oh goodness we’ve had them for years and years. There was a stash of them. It was an old sewing collection and she just had tonnes upon tonnes of old vintage belt buckles. We found, we bought a lot of suitcases and we opened up one of them and it had a collection of cummerbunds that had never been used. Silk stockings. Someone would not have thought to open this case and that’s where you find your gems. That’s where you find your winning items. 1950s pyjamas still in their packets- they were fantastic.
KP: Forgotten treasures.
Lil: That’s right.
KP: And the dolls?
Lil: Mum went crazy and they’re the scariest things in the world, not my favourite thing. There was a toy collection and we have the dishwashers – the first kids’ dishwashers. The little toasters- the dolls’ toasters – it still does work I think. All little things like that and it’s fantastic to collect them. We have kids’ tea sets- so this one is actually a children’s tea set and we have the whole collection. A doll’s tea set. They are –bizarrely – incredibly popular. I guess because they’re so few and far between.
KP: What’s difficult is there are so many beautiful things – it’s like a museum.
Lil: You’re not allowed to walk in once and say you’ve seen the store. Not only does it change every week – every week we are doing a new display, we are restocking or it’s just walked out the door, whatever it might be. We do have our favourites that we’ll always have in store, but sometimes it will just turn around like that. So even I come in every day and say ‘Oh my God where did that come from?’ I haven’t been in for 24 hours and something’s changed: there’s always new discoveries.
KP: I’ve been in three or four times and I hadn’t noticed that.
Lil: That’s new. Unless you came in last week darl.
KP: A couple of months ago.
Lil: Well there you go. Some thing’s you’ll recognise and some things we try and shake up as best we can. I think mum and I love styling so much that we can’t let things lie for longer than three weeks because we’re like: ‘what? It’s been like that too long.’ One of the nicest stories in terms of bespoke: if it’s not antique we’re looking for someone who’s either an independent designer: they’re going off on their own or their an artist or they want to create something themselves. That’s where we branch out of Australia. For example we have typewriter bracelets – we found the woman who first started doing those. She lives in a flour mill in Ohio and she gets so excited by the fact that you can make these out of vintage type keys for us and send them over and we have a beautiful dialogue. They’re the stories. You meet these fabulous people. The guys the make the cards and the birds –the mincing mockingbird range – they are a husband and wife couple on the west coast of the US that we found about six years ago. We were the first to get them in Australia and I still think we are probably one of the few people that still do have them. The husband paints the birds and every bird has a cheeky mischievous, masochistic/sadistic background. Something that is just not what it seems and they’ve written this beautiful book that goes with it that’s just been picked up by publishers. That’s why we don’t have any copies left. They are absolutely divine. And the wife does the Victorian cards. Their sense of humour is basically this store: if you don’t get those, you probably won’t get Mon and my sense of humour. Which is fine: there’ll be something lovely for you. But we see you giggling over there we know that we can probably start a conversation with you and we’ll probably find that we have something in common. That’s what’s exciting for us because we get to meet so many awesome people. In terms of our candle ranges we do tend to drive for a less gender-specific role, so we have our man-candles for example which are the handsome scents for a man; whether it be sawdust or espresso or vodka martini schnapps or whatever you want to have. We have many different ranges and that’s a lovely husband and wife duo that again everything’s natural and everything ticks all those boxes for us. They’re just going out on their own and doing it.
KP: Where did the wallpaper come from?
Lil: My mother’s and mine; we have a complete obsession with encyclopedia paper. I think it started: her husband – incredibly intelligent man – one of those dauntingly intelligent (maybe don’t say I said that) he would decoupage all of the mannequins in the store for us and if you look closely there may be a map of Hawaii down on her nether regions – he has a wicked sense of humour. And when we came in we said ‘we want the simplicity in this store of everything being just that great – and encyclopedias are a wealth of knowledge and a dying art so it’s something that we like to kind of remember and pay tribute to. Come Christmas time we’ll be making Christmas boxes out of encyclopedia paper and being able to sell those off us well – all sorts of things like that. We love our ‘crafternoons’ – it’s all about craft darling!