The shop Poepke, in Sydney’s Paddington neighbourhood, doesn’t vie for attention so much as it reveal itself – a quiet appeal with subtle signage and a considered window display. Its location adds to its discreet nature, nestled among Victorian terraced houses of William Street, a lane just off the main bustle of Oxford Street. Once inside, the space gives way to an assembly of hard-to-find international labels — a visual feast of finely made clothes, shoes, and objects that spark the imagination.
Poepke opened in 2001 when the original owners started the shop as a love letter to Belgian designers. Over the years, that focus has broadened to a slate of international labels, and a new pair of directors sit at the helm, Nicola Lie and Juliet Kember. The shop’s somewhat inscrutable name, pronounced “pop-ka”, is a colloquial Flemish term of endearment for a loved one or child. It’s an expressive word that Nicola and Juliet admit is befuddling to say — even for some of their longtime customers. And while it isn’t perfect, the name adds some mystery – and as Juliet notes – has “a funny awkwardness that is perfectly right.”
For many years Sydney denizens stumbled on the store while heading for a flat white or panini at Alimentari, a beloved local Italian cafe. In recent years, new establishments have begun to dot the street, including pioneering natural wine bar 10 William, The Raconteur fragrance atelier and Australian native wildflower florist Bess Paddington. The energy on the street is still a “total mix,” marvels Juliet. She remembers the first time she discovered William Street, chasing a man on a bicycle selling sandwiches, thinking to herself “this is incredible. What have I been doing all this time?” This pedestrian quality only heightens Poepke’s creative feel and desired smallness — an intentional space that draws you in unexpectedly. Discerning customers who have stumbled upon Poepke in the 20-plus years since it opened, now gravitate there routinely, akin to a ritual.
The success of Poepke is a credit to Nicola and Juliet’s buying. “Uncompromising quality and amazing workmanship” are requisite for the brands that Poepke assembles, explains Nicola. And all adhere to “similar ideologies” that intersect with Poepke’s approach — whether that’s authenticity, smallness, or what Juliet describes as a “humanness”.
Alongside greats like Dries Van Noten, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Lemaire, the shop also showcases newer slow fashion labels with unique viewpoints like Danish designer Bettina Bakdal who cuts garments from vintage scarves, and Tartan, an organic silk brand from Sally McDonald (one of Poepke’s employees) that over-dyes previous season’s garments. TOAST, Nicola and Juliet love for the “exact style of trouser that a cool woman wants to wear”, a spot-on colour palette and also their shared ethos. "When we first received the TOAST Magazine in the post, we were so taken by the aesthetic and also their values,” says Nicola. "They appreciate craftsmanship and focus on sustainability with clothes you treasure but wear everyday and feel just right in,” adds Juliet.
Poepke has also offered a pedestal to emerging brands who show the same kind of promise with their Projects initiative. A label can be selected to present a range, take over the shop window for two weeks, and have a dedicated rack in store for two months. Projects enable exciting ideas to come to the fore, while freeing small labels from the pressures of multiple collections — or concerns of getting lost in the store.
When asked about where they find balance in their work and aesthetic, Nicola and Juliet cite the strength of their dialogue. “We really love and trust each other implicitly,” says Juliet. It is with a warm and lively demonstration that they describe each other’s buying behaviours when they go to Europe: Juliet, expressive and near-breathless in front of garments that command her attention, while Nicola is grounded and more contained — yet by no means immune to the beauty of a great piece. One buying challenge that necessitates a practical, creative approach is that Nicola and Juliet must dress Poepke’s customers against season. “We are quite trans-seasonal with the way that we buy,” explains Nicola, “but sometimes you'll see there's an amazing winter coat that we just can’t do since it’s the middle of summer… we might just get one for a customer who’s travelling.”
Navigating new challenges keeps the pair on their toes, but in a way that is not fueled by anxiety thanks to the “incredible staff that keeps everything flowing”. Juliet remembers that when she decided if she should join Poepke as an employee years ago, she was convinced by the sentiment that then-owner Annie shared: ‘Just come, we all just look after each other,’ she was told. “And it was true.” This nurturing ethos extends to the associates, customers, designers, and friends to the shop, who can be found convened inside this unassuming spot on William Street, combing the racks, and “enjoying putting their outfits together, having visions for how it's all coming together and getting sent in directions they didn't know that they were going.”
Interview by Natalie Toren.
Photographs by Matteo Macri.