Co-founders / ILIO NEMA
With fashion roots that originated at Fleur Wood, Ulla Johnson, Margiela, Kitx (Willow) and Thakoon it’s really no wonder that Ariane Leondaridis and Katia Kelso joined forces a couple of years ago to form Ilio Nema.
Both of Greek heritage, Ariane was born in Paris and Katia in Sydney. Their shared passion for the artisanal craft was forged when they worked collaboratively in New York as Design Director and Production Director respectively. Their ethos is to counteract trend-based consumption by reintroducing timeless and traditional craftsmanship to modern life.
Together, they travel the globe to source the most beautiful, artisanal traditions and celebrate the communities that have preserved their heritage for generations. Each garment has a unique story and also reflects their appreciation for those who bring their traditional skills and practices to their collection.
In this #careerstory we dive into the before the brand and dissect the tiny and big steps that morphed together into a journey that has spanned the globe for both Katia and Ariane.
This story is epic, enjoy!
Where did you grow up and how did your experience shape the person you are, and the career that you are in today?
Katia: I grew up in Sydney on the Northern Beaches with my parents (both teachers) and sister. As teachers, our parents were able to spend the school holidays with my sister and I, where they would take us to art galleries, historic houses and museums. This continual exposure, from such a young age to art and history sparked my interest and passion for culture and the arts. When I was 15, after studying Ancient Egypt at school my parents took us to see the pyramids and tombs of the Pharaohs which remains one of the most incredible things I’ve seen. We also went to Cyprus and Greece to visit family. My grandpa migrated to Australia from Cyprus when he was 19 and whilst my grandma was born in Australia, Greek/Cypriot culture is a huge part of our family.
Ariane: I grew up in Paris, spending my summers in Greece. I have a French mother and a Greek dad. I was shaped by the beautiful tales of Greek mythology, that my father used to tell us at bedtime, and I was given the love of art and culture through my thia and godmother, that was a philosophy teacher and connoisseur of art history.
My mum is a strong, self-driven woman that inspires me to be myself, and “go get it myself!”
I have three brothers and five other stepsiblings. My parents divorced when I was seven. Growing up in a bunch of nine children, taught me to be very independent and resilient, and to fight for what I want. I am used to chaotic households and growing up in an urban environment, I have always been independent.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Katia: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I was little, but when I started high school and took up textiles and design I began to dream of career in fashion.
Ariane: I think I wanted to be an interior designer! I was drawing maps of my bedroom, and maps of ideal homes, and palaces and things like that. There were always slides in them and ball pits! I knew I wanted to draw.
Where did you go to High School and how was that experience for you?
Katia: I went to Davidson High from Year 7 to 10 and then moved to Killara High for Year 11 and 12. My year at Davidson High was very small (less then 50 students) which meant that I couldn’t study all the subjects I wanted in Year 11 and 12. I had a weird mix of English, History, Chemistry, Extension Maths and Textiles. I’m both a numbers and creative girl. Killara in comparison was massive with over 200 students in the year which meant I was able to complete all my subjects. Killara was a very motivated school which was great, but I also loved the social side – I am still close friends with several my high school peeps.
Ariane: I went to high school in Paris, in the 15th arrdssmt. Lycee Buffon. A huge building that spread from Bld Pasteur between Rue Lecoubre and Rue de Vaugirard. As long as a full metro stop.
It is a beautiful building; I am such in awe that it was where we were spending our days at school. It really gave me a love for old historical things and monuments and the city was full of them. I have lived in NY and Sydney since, but Paris will always remain the most beautiful one.
The school had internal courtyards with roses, arches, and galleries, all pebbled ceramic stone floors, and up in the towers or donjons (as we used to call them), the school chemistry rooms were filled with birches and burners, straight out of the 1800’s. It was a famous school because during WWII some students formed a strong resistance system against the Nazis, and published some resistance journals, printing them in secret, fighting for democracy. Eventually, they got taken by the Germans and executed.
Wow, what an amazing story, both of you! So, did your high school play an important role in helping you choose your further education and future career?
Katia: Yes! It was at high school that I first studied textiles and my passion for fashion was sparked. I learnt to sew and started to make my own dresses. My parents always enforced the view that you needed to work hard to open as many doors as possible. That way you could choose what you wanted to study with no limitations. I knew I had to work hard in all my subjects to get into the course I wanted to study at university – fashion design at UTS was extremely competitive, with a score in the mid-90s the year I was accepted.
Ariane: Not at all. I went to art school, after high school. In the French system you study the fundamentals all the way through, and even though you specialize (math, literature or economy) you always need to take the core subjects. It is very academic: math, science, literature, history, geography, chemistry physique. You don’t do music or art. I think I did sport 3 hours per week. I did a baccalaureate in Science with Math as my option. I was more destined to be a doctor. But I was painting as a hobby on the side of school.
So, school taught me a lot of general knowledge but very few things I used in my superior studies or in my job, except a few maths and a bit of English. But education is a whole, and in ways, it has ultimately shaped me. I really think professionally what has shaped me is what I did in my secondary’s studies.
Did you complete any internships or work experience placements in high school? Tell us about that experience.
Katia: Yes, I did work experience with a few different fashion labels throughout high school and university. I mostly counted stock and organised fabrics, but I absolutely loved it. It was so great to be in a fashion studio, and getting an insight into the industry.
Ariane: I did one internship in high school, for an advertising company. Except I was not placed with the creative team, but with the accounting&legal team! It felt like it would never stop. I knew I could never do that. Treat files, and read spreadsheets, and organize things in ladders, sited at a desk all day.
Did you go to College, University, Tafe or another equivalent? Take us through the courses that you studied and why you chose them.
Katia: I went to the University of Technology, Sydney where I studied a Bachelor of Design: Fashion and Textiles Design. It was a four-year honours course, with classes in sewing, pattern-making, dyeing, digital printing, drawing and computer design. It covered it all! I loved university; so many late nights sewing and in the computer lab, but always with friends sharing the experience and helping each other out.
Ariane: I went in an art school called Atelier de Sevres, across from Le Bon Marche, for one year, where I practice all art subjects (photography, colour, painting, nude drawing, perspective drawing, computer design, art history, sculpture, art theory). To prepare us for school entries like les beaux-arts, les art decorative… I ended up going to a fashion school, l’Atelier Chardon Savard for the next 3 years and got a BA and masters in fashion design.
I loved everything I have learned during those years. I loved the nude drawing class, and the pottery, and ceramic class. Perspective class, I wish I would do more of it today.
Tell us about your career journey so far. Who you have worked for, and explain any highlights?
Katia: My career has always been a big part of my life; I have always loved my job and what I do. I’ve been very lucky to work for two amazing brands before starting my own. I spent five years, respectively at Fleur Wood and Ulla Johnson. Moving to New York with Fleur Wood was a career highlight; I established the US headquarters and was responsible for managing US operations. I then landed a job with a New York brand which was another highlight. I was the fifth employee at Ulla Johnson and was a key part of the label’s exponential growth from a locally known label to an internationally recognised label.
Ariane: I did an internship with Anne Valerie Hash when I was in my first year of fashion school. I did lots of handwork, cutting fabrics and sewing to help prepare the collection for fashion week. They offered me a junior position but was not ready to take on anything yet.
After that I started an internship at martin Margiela on the men’s line, (and continued doing all sorts of modelling for the house, and helped on the women’s line as well, and during sales seasons…) I worked with talented people there and it inspired me immensely. I went from the press office to the sales meeting and to the design studio, even worked in the atelier with the couture line. It was a great experience that help me see all sides of a fashion business.
I probably worked there for 18-24 months on and off, at the end I was working directly with martin, and was helping on fashion shows prep with him and the stylist. I learnt so much from this experience. I loved working with him. He was a great artist, and I could see his vision was very elevated. That’s what has drawn me into fashion really.
After getting my diploma, I took a job in Sydney, in 2007. I worked for WILLOW (now KITX) for 2 years, assisting the design team. I was attracted by the experience and wanted to go overseas. In 2009, I continued the journey and went to NY and worked for Thakoon and then ULLA JOHNSON, respectively as head designer and design director.
I came back to Sydney end of 2018 and here I am today.
How did you get into the job that you are in now?
Katia: After returning to Australia and 15 years in the industry I knew I wanted to start my own brand – it was time to take on a new adventure! I had met Ariane in New York (while working for Ulla Johnson); she had also returned to Sydney, so the timing seemed right. We spotted a gap in the market: for sophisticated but easy clothing, with exquisite craftsmanship. Craftsmanship and sustainability are something we are both very passionate about, so we knew that these would be the core pillars of a label.
Ariane: I have started ILIO NEMA with my partner Katia Kelso in October 2021, but I was working on it for a couple of years, while covid was happening.
I came back to Australia end of 2018 after 10 years in NY., I was leaving a great position as design director at ULLA Johnson in NY, I realized quickly, after taking some time off, that I had to start doing something on my own here, learning so much in NY, and Paris and Sydney.
Katia was the perfect person to join me on this project because our skills really complement each other.
What is the hardest part of your current job?
Katia: Work-life balance and switching off. Running your own business allows for flexibility but it can also mean longer days too. The business is intertwined in everything we do – from days in the studio to wearing it on the weekends. We live and breathe the Ilio Nema brand.
After eight busy years in New York work-life balance is still something I’m figuring out. The general pace in Australia is a lot slower giving me time to positively balance the demands of the business and my personal life.
Ariane: multitasking so much. I used to have an awesome team in NY. The best of best, assistants, developers, and pattern makers….and a fun team too! I miss them. We have to do everything ourselves, and it’s so diversified, sometimes I wish I could do more of what I like.
The good thing is that we are learning every day. (Learning to do reels and use different applications, learn new software, etc…)
What does a day a typical business day look like for you in your current job?
Katia: I always start my day with a morning walk and coffee. Then my day can progress in any number of ways, from working in the studio to shipping orders – we do it all. The business is just myself and Ariane so we wear all the hats. Recently we have been working on our new collection which involves photoshoots, writing product descriptions for the website, receiving stock in the warehouse and planning the launch- which is the fun bit!
Ariane: I usually start around 9:30 after I drop my kids at school. I’ll start with emails that came at night and do as much computer work as I can so it’s out of the way. It helps me focus if I have to do creative work. We’ll have a fitting, or conference call with press or correct Tech packs. Sometimes I draw while Katia works on pricing and costs. We break around 1 pm, for lunch and continue. I rush out at 3pm to pick up the kids, or work till 6 if I have a sitter.
Who has been your hero, or greatest inspiration growing up and why?
Katia: My greatest inspiration is my Mum. Her constant support has given me the courage and determination to get where I am today. Always inspiring me to be better and always believing in me.
Ariane: My grandma, mana. I just loved her. She was cool, precise, tones of personality, and told me lots of great stories that I listened to with delectation as a child.
She had great style, and was very coquette. And she loved ethnic stuff, she was born in Egypt, her family was from Anatolia, and they immigrated to Greece. So she was quite exotic in a way. She spoke many languages: Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, French, English, and probably Spanish and Italian too.
She taught me something important: you cannot be lazy, but you should always be yourself.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in your career?
Katia: Go for it! Be dedicated and hard-working. Get some work experience; take as many opportunities as possible to meet people and learn. Follow your passion!
- Try lots of things. Do lots of internships in different places (magazines, retail, fashion studios, atelier, branding companies, PR companies, assisting stylists, photographers). Because there are many jobs in the fashion industry that school does not really prepare you for. You learn as you practice.
- Always be kind, and don’t play solo, it’s a small industry and people talk.
- Know your worth.
List the most valuable resources that you turn to constantly for inspiration in your profession.
- Favourite Websites: The Business of Fashion, Vogue, SMH.
- Name an Instagram Account that you can’t go a day without checking: ours @ilio_nema
- Favourite Podcast: How I Built This & Lady Startup Stories.
- Favourite Netflix/Stan/ Series: Succession, Schitt’s Creek.
- Who is your mentor? A good friend who works in business advisory.
- Favourite all-time book/s: Just Kids by Patti Smith.
- Favourite App that you use every day: Mindbody
- Favourite Websites: ilionema.com
- Name an Instagram Account that you can’t go a day without checking: whereisthecool or the holisticpsychologist or dronesharkapp loudoillon’account.
- Favourite Podcast: I don’t listen to any regular podcast. Sometimes some audio books or conferences, but I don’t subscribe to any podcast.
- Favourite Netflix/Stan/ Series: call my agent!/breaking bad/shameless- also friends!
- Who is your mentor? Everyone in many ways. I am super curious. I look up to everyone to teach me something new, about them or about myself.
- Favourite all time book/s: tough question… Romain Gary- la vie devant soit (life before us) Boris Vian-L’ecume des hours.
- Favourite App that you use every day: insta? My clock app for my meditation, photoshop! Or maybe my ring app, I get my doorbell at my house on my phone, even my key app, I can unlock my house with my phone from far away!