Jess Blanch, RUSSH
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasures that you seek,” says Graeme Mulcahy quoting Joseph Campbell and raising his eyebrows in an amused way that looks like he has a secret he’d like to tell but is weighing up whether or not it would be appropriate.
Sitting at the head of the table, dressed in all-grey, buttoned high to his neck in a somewhat New Wave way, Graz (as he’s called), is deciding whether to share a “pretty crazy story” about his latest collection of frames.
It’s a Friday afternoon at RUSSH headquarters and he has a captive audience so this, as with most confessions, has come about with heavy encouragment. Exploring the glasses he has set out in front of him, we hand him a unique pair and ask how they were named. He settles somewhat awkwardly into his seat, aware of the giant cliché he’s about to deliver – and then almost apologetically shares: they were inspired by “a girl wearing glasses”. But as he says it, his dark eyes protest, silently ‘wait, this gets better’. And it does.
His story went a little something like this. Sitting in a café in Bondi almost 18 months ago, there was girl at a nearby table wearing some sunglasses that were very rare and Graz had not seen before. Being a purist and a student of his craft, he asked to look and photographed them from every angle. It wasn’t until he was handing the glasses back that he really noticed the girl who owned them and found himself a little struck by her but he handed them back and didn’t think of it until two days later when he saw her again, in a post office on the other side of town, somewhere he was unlikely to be. Within 48 hours he saw her again in another café in a completely different part of town. “I was like, ‘Woah, there’s that lady with the glasses again’. It came off almost instantly and enigmatic because of the status of the glasses being one that I’ve never seen and two the wearer made me slightly nervous,” he says. “And so this continued in the most obscure of places, banks, post offices, hardware stores, cafés, you know, social events or whatever.”
The gravitation continued for months and, for months, quite uncharacteristically, Graz couldn’t bring himself to talk to her. “The more I would see her, the more mysterious it would become, the more nervous I got.” It wasn’t meant to be though as he eventually went travelling and wrote it off as “oh well that was a funny thing”.
Then, almost 12 months after their first encounter, when he was back living in Sydney she reappeared – still wearing the glasses. “I would meet every Wednesday at a café at seven in the morning … And she started showing up at the exact time, 7:15 in the morning, only on Wednesdays, wearing the glasses, walk in, get her takeaway cup of coffee and then leave. It was complete, almost too perfect, it was almost like a movie that had decided to play out,” he says, somehow managing not to come across like a crazy stalker.
“And then I went there a couple of times on a Tuesday or a Friday to see if she went there at the same time, and she didn’t. She only went on the day that I would have the meeting with my manager, which seemed also too…” His voice trails off.
“No, universally correct,” he replies with certainty.
Every week he would sit strategically by the door for the preparation of the awkward moment of just saying hello and as she would get about five feet away he would completely freeze beyond his powers. “It was crazy. By that time, the mystique was so powerful I became so nervous, I had that feeling like, you know, there was some reason why the world was delivering me this and why I was so nervous, and I’m never nervous.”
Having posted the pictures of the glasses on Facebook and Instagram in an attempt to find out who their owner was, Graz heard nothing, which freaked him out even more because the glasses were so unique and she wore them all the time. At this point his friends started referring to her as the unicorn girl, believing that perhaps she was a figment of his imagination.
Said one, “I’ve never seen the unicorn with my own eyes. He’d go to the coffee shop on a Wednesday morning and see her, then later that day – we worked in the same building – he’d tell me all about it.
“One day we were driving past a café in Bondi, and we thought we saw her. We parked the car and ordered a tea just so we could sit next to her and discreetly send photos of her to Graz. Funniest thing was we couldn’t quite take a photo of her face without her seeing so we did the best we could but on inspection Graz said he wasn’t convinced it was her. The mystery continued…”
The mission remained unaccomplished: she disappeared yet again and Graz left for overseas feeling failed in this personal challenge, set about designing sunglasses with her in mind.
When we speak to Graz again, he’s in Bali, where he’s been on an ashram and is calling to say he has organised an artist impression of the girl he saw. He’s also had some time to reflect. “When you asked me about the glasses it actually reignited the entire inspiration … Those glasses now kind of represent the kind of mystery woman, the kind of girl who would sneak in, be completely fascinating and then disappear out of your life,” he says.
“Now the hope is if she can see the glasses, then maybe I’ll be able to one day say hello to her.”
That is if she’s not a unicorn?
Such elaborate and cosmological inspiration is just the kind of creative energy Graz feeds off. His life as a designer, and particularly sunglasses, started as “sort of mistake”. “I had no experience. I only knew I liked to draw things and wanted to carve whatever career was ahead of me in the arts. I had been making clothes – just T-shirt prints and hoodies – and when I moved to Sydney … It sort of just came to me. Back then (2002) there was only a handful of good independent eyewear brands, and almost none available in Australia. So I jumped straight in. Made lots of mistakes.”
He grew up in Byron Bay when “it was a relatively small beach town with no traffic lights”; on the most easterly point of Australia, it was a place where there wasn’t a lot to do. “I did graffiti and made use of building sites for materials to build skate ramps. I skated a lot, but was never that good. I dyed my hair all colours of the rainbow and started to do a lot of juggling, unicycling and other circus activities. I thought that one day I would be a street performer that travelled the world from Glastonbury to Darling Harbour but it never panned out.
“At 17 I started my first business, which was doing graffiti prints on T-shirts. I also worked in a record store, Baskin Robbins and a few cafés. I left school after eighth grade and I remember having an unquenchable desire for experience of everything. I moved to San Francisco and then onto Sydney.”
It was then he spent time designing sunglasses predominantly for brands like tsubi – when it had a ‘t’ – and AM eyewear. “I had done brands with other people or for other people for many years and like most partnerships circumstances can change for either the partners or the brand itself. This for me always led to a diluted design result from my vision so it was an ego thing to begin with,” he says. “So I went with just the stuff I wanted to make for me and my immediate tribe. And it flourished from there. I still approach it with that attitude, as though it’s my stuff.”
Having just turned 30, with an internationally-recognised label (he recently had an exhibition at the iconic Paris store La Galerie de Lunettes), Graz credits only his background in graffiti as training. “There are similarities. In graffiti you have a specific word or character that has to be stylised but within the boundaries of somewhat legibility and eyewear is the same. The area and boundaries are relatively limited and the smallest changes make big differences.”
Based for the moment in Hong Kong, he, an original spirit, orbits around the world “travelling a lot for either trade shows, marketing events and also music,” but finds it interesting and the right place to be. “It’s developing fast. There are some great staff there and it’s such a dynamic city that sits on the door step of the worlds eyewear production hub. Every European and Japanese lens, acetate and hinge companies have set up in China,” he says. “I guess Europe came to Asia and it has resulted in getting world class products made within a condensed hub.”
He’s just as likely to appear for burgers during Paris Fashion Week, your local restaurant on a Tuesday evening or behind the decks at a party you didn’t know you were going to and it’s his tribe that keeps him moving.
“The most influential people have been those that have supported me in my immediate surroundings,” he says, “my employers, collaborators, friends and foes.”
And the girl from the café. Which brings us back to Joseph Campbell, and why Graz seems to be able to so fluently quote his prose. “Follow your bliss” is this mythical writers manifesto.
Now that’s a lovely story.