I meet Sienna Ludbey, the sole designer and seamstress behind Melbourne brand Hello Sisi, outside the Brunswick warehouse that has recently become her studio. It’s late on a Friday afternoon and the last bits of Melbourne light are squeezing their way through the huge studio windows and onto polished hardwood floors. Sienna shares the space with Sister Studios and Kannava Jewels; needless to say, it’s a femme sanctuary. Sisi’s workstation is an organised chaos of children’s books, Mickey Mouse toys, fabric, sewing patterns, and Playboy magazines. It’s the inside of her brain outwardly expressed.
Having a studio is leaps and bounds from when Sisi made bags on her kitchen table. What started as a way to be creative outside of her casual hospitality job has grown into a full-fledged business. Despite their humble beginnings, the tiny PVC bags have gone from strength to strength. The only criteria for what can go on the bags? It has to be cute: glitter, Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty stickers, bootleg Louis Vuitton and Prada material, and vintage Playboy magazine covers have all found their way onto a Sisi bag. “I think that’s why people like my bags. They’re so nostalgic. Everyone wants to have a little pop of their childhood, with the glitter or the little sequins,” she tells me, standing beside her heavily stickered sewing machine.
What’s your favourite custom bag that you’ve made?
I had a girl who had just been to Japan and she collected all these Pocky boxes and brought them back and she got me to make them into a bag for her. That’s still one of my favourites because I wasn’t sure how the cardboard was going to hold with the stitching… I was worried it was going to break when I turned the bag back around the right way. So many more people hit me up for Pocky bags after that, which was great because I got to eat all the Pocky!
So much fun! When you’re stitching is it trial and error?
It definitely was in the beginning and now I kind of know what’s going to work and what isn’t. Like changing the tension of the machine and upping the stitch length when something is thicker. I’ve definitely learnt my lesson so many times when I’ve almost finished making a bag and then I have to turn it back the right way and pieces of paper have ripped. And the bag is made so I’ve literally got to start again. I can’t just go in and fix it. With the paper, I glue it onto a piece of PVC and then I sew it so that as hard as it wants to rip, it won’t.
Do you source most things from overseas?
I source the Playboys from LA. A lot of my fabrics have been from what I bought back from Japan. But I’m running out! I’ve got a really great supplier in Korea and another one in Japan who sends me really cute limited vintage stuff. She’s amazing. She’s in Osaka. A lot of what I find is through vintage shopping. I always wear vintage, so a lot of what I find is during my travels. So, kids books… my recent books I’ve been looking for are the Puffin ones and the Little Golden books. People really love those. I just love the illustrations. I will just go through and find things. So I’ll go to Savers and find a really cool Hello Kitty baby blanket and the pattern is so fresh and I’ll just bring it back. All the Mickey Mouse embroideries are from Savers.
What do you think about bootleg?
I’m all about bootleg! I wear bootleg, I make bootleg.
What’s your favourite bit about it?
I just like it! Like these iconic brands, people are able to access through bootleg. It’s nice that you can access this designer thing and then put your own spin on it. I would rather make a Louis V tote in my style with a Mickey Mouse on it than rock a… in saying that I wouldn’t pass up a genuine Vuitton bag. The Prada dust bag and the Louis V monogram fabric have definitely been my most successful bootlegs.
Are they vintage sourced?
I can’t get my Louis V monogram fabric anymore, which is really sad because it was this really beautiful, thick upholstery fabric. So all I’ve got left is this tiny square. I’ve got to somehow find some more of it, because the rest of it online is made out of spandex and that just won’t work for me.
Are you still experimenting with fabrics?
At the moment I’m creating a Sisi softy line. A lot of people have said that they like my bags, but they don’t like the plastic because it’s too harsh. Like, you carry it and it’s not really cozy. So I’ve started making these soft totes. I’ve only made ten and given them out to friends to trial, but they’re like a soft tote. So that will definitely be my next avenue that I’ll go down.
Who taught you how to sew?
I went to Swinburne Senior in year 11 and 12 and I had an amazing sewing teacher. She was really cool. She taught me everything and then I picked it up as I went. I’m not a traditional seamstress—I picked up a lot online. At the start, I really struggled sewing PVC because my pedal would get stuck on the plastic. So I had to go and buy this thing they call a ‘velour foot’ and it just runs along the plastic. Shit like that.
Velour foot sounds so bougie.
I know! And I thought that I would need a thicker needle for sewing the plastic, kind of like a denim needle? But turns out a thinner needle is better. I look back at some of the bags I made at the start and I’ve asked if I can remake them properly. It’s just what happens. You learn and you grow. I think, That was cute at the time, but let me make this properly for you.
Like, “Let’s make this last.”
Exactly. I didn’t think this would be anything! I started making them because I was sad. I was just working in hospitality, doing nothing creatively, and I would come home from work, sit at my kitchen table, and make the bags. Like my first patterns I made were cut from shoeboxes. I would find anything and make something from it. And some of the first bags I made were cut from a piece of a bag I used to move houses in. I didn’t want to put any money into it, but then it took off. And here we are.
That’s huge. Because now you’re stocked in… how many places?
Maybe six? There’s quite a few. There’s two in Japan, one in China, one in Canberra, one in Manila, and two in Melbourne.
So, what makes you choose a stockist?
I don’t think I’ve chosen a stockist yet. It’s always been through people contacting me. As long as I feel like I would get along with the person running the brand, then I’m keen. It’s really organic. You’re not just starting a business partnership, you’re making a friend too. You need to make sure that you both get along, that you like the store and that everyone is going to come out on top. I want them to have a cute product in store and I want to grow my brand. It’s give and take.
As long as it works, all is chill.
Yeah. Everything has been so quick I haven’t had time to think about it, really. I’ve just been kind of like… “Yeah okay.” My absolute goal is to be stocked in Opening Ceremony.
Is there anyone you want to work with?
I just made a bag for Lila Gold. She’s a musician and she lives in the States. I would love to somehow do a collaboration with her. She runs a brand called Delicate Porcelain. I just love the work she does. Her style and her work is so great and she’s also such a talented musician.
What were you listening to in the studio today?
I have really bad music taste. So it would have been a lot of Ariana Grande, ’90s J-Lo, Destiny’s Child, Ashanti…
But that’s really fun music!
I love fun music! Nothing too crazy, I just like to listen to fun music that makes me happy and I can bop along to. I also like Rhi-Rhi… the classics.
The classics! How do you know when the design of a bag is done?
I just get a feeling. Most of my orders are custom, so it’s give and take with that client. This girl was like, “Go all out with sparkles!” So I did. I also never get a customer to pay before a bag is ready. I’ll send them a photo before I sew everything together and if they’re happy, I’ll go ahead. But sometimes they might be like, “Can I get some more sparkles? Can I get another flower?” I’ll do that and then send them another round of photos. The client will let me know when it’s done a lot of the time, too. I get that it’s kind of scary buying through Instagram. So I always try to keep it as transparent and open and honest as possible. So at the end of the day, if the wait time has been three weeks, you haven’t parted with your money yet, you know it’s coming… I’m trying my best to get everyone’s orders out as well made and as cute as possible.
Ages ago you told me that you keep one of every bag you make, as a sample. How many bags do you own?
Really? I thought you would have heaps…
Yeah! Sometimes, I give them away to friends. I always keep some for myself because when I get an idea, I can’t sit still and I have to do it. And the first one is always a little bit rough and ready. I’m a perfectionist!
To order a custom bag, check out her work, or just say hello to Sisi, click here.