Newcastle fashion label Sarsparilly moves from hobby to fully-fledged affair

Growth phase: "The hardest thing is to finance growth when you are an SME," says Sarsparilly founder Maria Murphy.
Growth phase: "The hardest thing is to finance growth when you are an SME," says Sarsparilly founder Maria Murphy.

IT took seven years for Maria Murphy to make her vintage clothing label Sarsparilly a full-time pursuit but you could say she’s now on a roll.

Murphy, who was raised in a “sewing family” and spent the ’90s making costumes for pop stars she idolised like Janet Jackson and New Kids on the Block, will soon launch her first ready-to-wear collection. And she’s lost none of the joy she has had for fashion since the day dot.

“Creating makes me happy, and when customers tell me my dresses make them feel beautiful it’s humbling,” the 38-year-old says.

Raised largely on the Central Coast, Murphy studied fashion manufacturing for a year at East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst but dropped out when she struggled to make ends meet. 

For the next decade she worked in different jobs, got married and had two sons.

It was the birth of her second son, Regan, who has Down Syndrome, that was a catalyst to reignite Sarsparilly, which she’d launched in 2009 but only had time to sell at markets including The Olive Tree and Red Lantern markets in Newcastle. 

“A year after Regan was born it was time to go back to work but we had so many [medical] appointments that it was impossible for me to have a standard job,” she says.

With the support of her husband, Luke, the couple decided to put the equity of their house sale into Sarsparilly, which she re-launched in 2016.

Featuring the fun and cheeky designs of Australian artists on vintage frocks, the label’s name is a twist on a phrase by Doris Day as Calamity Jane: “Make mine Sarsparilly”. [Sarsparilla is also the brand of the sweet drink that was sold in pubs run by Murphy’s late father].

Sarsparilly dresses are sold online and made to order by Murphy’s seamstresses.  

Early next year Murphy will launch her first wholesale, ready-to-wear range Sugar Rush – which will be available via stockists and on her website – and phase out the made-to-order requests.

“There was a point I realised I couldn't scale that and I had to grow it bigger,” she says of her decision to manufacture offshore, adding that she will still commission local artists to design her fabrics.

Murphy has secured licences to design capsules for US brands Pusheen and Dr Seuss Enterprises, slated for release in 2019. “I love pop culture and anything retro, kitchy and fun,” she says.

 Murphy dreams of having a flagship store in Newcastle but for now takes heart from the fact she’s catering to women of all shapes and sizes: “The dresses are flattering and we do plus sizes and people are grateful they can get things in their size.”