A Woman’s Place, Fashion Designer and Artist Heidi Middleton

Writer and photographer Robyn Lea takes us into the home of one of Australia’s most respected visionaries.

Article by Robyn Lea

Heidi MiddletonHeidi Middleton, photographed at her Palm Beach home. Photography by Robyn Lea.

In 2003 when the cult clothing label Sass & Bide was in full flight, fashion designer and artist Heidi Middleton began house-hunting, focusing on the Palm Beach peninsula of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The sunny 1940s home she found provided Middleton with a vital counterpoint to the increasing demands of the business, which felt “like a friendly, hungry monster that needed constant feeding”.

With three fashion lines under the one label and up to four ranges presented each year, long holidays were rare. She and the label’s co-founder, Sarah-Jane Clarke, covered for each other when their children were born, but in 2007, when Middleton took time off for the birth of her second daughter, Elke, she was forced on an extended break when, 12 hours after the birth, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment, she made a full recovery.By 2011, Middleton and Clarke were ready for a change. They sold the controlling share of their company and, in 2014, stepped out of it altogether. Now free to travel, Middleton and her family moved to Paris for a 12-month sabbatical. They settled into a light-filled Parisian apartment in the eighth arrondissement and Middleton reignited her love of painting, drawing, collage and ceramics.

The master bedroom in Middleton's home. Photography by Robyn Lea.
A gateway to the garden at Middleton’s Sydney home. Photography by Robyn Lea.

During a weekend in the Médoc region of south-western France, they went house-hunting. “It’s wild and rugged, but there is a poetry and romance to the landscape and the old villages,” she says. They went to see an 1830s manor house, Les Tourelles, in Saint-Christoly-Médoc.

The five-bedroom home was set on three hectares and included an orchard, a small vineyard, a dairy and a barn. Despite having been uninhabited for several years and feeling somewhat derelict, its foundations were strong and it had elegant proportions, with turrets framing the facade and interiors with four-metre ceilings. For Middleton, the potential for transformation was intoxicating. They made an offer and three days later owned the home. “The idea was for my husband to host meditation retreats in Bordeaux and for me to start a new fashion and art business called ArtClub,” she says. “This was going to be chapter two of living in France.”

The main bedroom features a bath with views of Sydney’s Pittwater. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Middleton began renovating the house and her two daughters started at the school in the local village. While rebuilding the home’s interiors, she also began reimagining her vision for the future. “I remember thinking I needed to surround myself with great people, good food and flowers. I decided that every mealtime I’d light candles, have music playing and cook for the girls.” She began to view her experiences through a new lens. “By the time we left France in 2018, I was happy and the house was finished — there had been so much growth and self-reflection.”

Back in Sydney, ArtClub was born. The online-only atelier offers rare vintage garments along with Middleton’s paintings and original clothing designs. The antithesis of fast fashion, each new piece is created from remnant fabric that she saves from landfill, and is designed to be handed down through generations. They are sewn in Middleton’s atelier by local collaborators, each of whom signs and numbers the garments like limited-edition artworks before they are mailed to customers.

Middleton has set up her business in Surry Hills, in the heart of the city, and the company has a wonderful buzz and energy. She continues to adjust her life to find the right rhythm and flow, and by living with an open heart and expressing her inner world through art, fashion, poetry and interiors, she has become an inspiring example to like-minded women around the world.

This is an edited excerpt from “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” by Robyn Lea (Thames & Hudson, $65).