June 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Chilli Boo in biker boots

By Katie Cohen
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Chey Miles is a T-shirt designer. He would have to be really, dressed as he is in the edgiest of faded black garments, sleeves torn off at just the right angle to showcase his sun-bronzed upper arms. His shirt is decorated with a scribbled line drawing of Mukima Munky and his “gimassive” brother Jaja, two fantasy characters who are either cartoon-cute or vaguely disturbing, depending on how much dope you smoke. Chey sports shoulder-grazing Brian Jones locks – though he used to have a Mohican – plus personalised silver dog tags and dark blue Levi’s, worn low on the hip, from the women’s line for a sleeker fit. Lately he has added jewellery design to his CV. Chey Miles is seven years old.

Chey started his label, “Heart 88 By Chey Age 6”, only four months ago. He has been incubating the idea much longer – half his life, to be precise. “He started drawing at such a young age,” says emerald-eyed illustrator Melanie Miles, his mum. “He was always nagging at me to make the drawings into a book or put them on T-shirts – to show the other kids at kindy, to make them cool.”

Mrs Miles erupts into spasms of laughter. Her Chloe necklaces jangle. She tugs at her Bernard Wilhelm silk shift, which gapes slightly at the neck to expose a hot pink lacy bra. Then she crosses her legs, clad in knee-high Dirk Bikkemberg boots cut away around the ankle, and affects the pose of the serious interviewee. “What can I tell you? I suppose we’re not like everyone else.”

The Miles family is taking morning coffee at La Buvette in Sydney’s Potts Point. Melanie and her photographer husband, Ja, hit the hard stuff while Chey and his siblings – Mister Jimmy, 5, Chilli Boo, 3, and Phire, 1 – are happy with caffeine-free babychinos, heavy on the froth. In fact, Phire is so delighted with hers she is gleefully smearing the cocoa dust all over her Cacharel sweater. Mister Jimmy, a model, looks on with the kind of “don’t you just love her?” indulgence of a man eight times his age.

Mister Jimmy wants to be an actor, but he’s in no hurry. His dance card is already full, what with school – he’s a pupil in a regular Darlinghurst establishment – surfing and posing for Chey. And things are getting busier. Chey is working with Sydney fashion collective Tsubi to produce his first commercial collection. He should have been in New York at the time of writing with Tsubi’s Dan Single, George Gorrow and Gareth Moody as they launch their new Manhattan shop – except there has been a production glitch, and the Heart 88 range won’t be ready for a few more weeks. Disappointing? Chey is sanguine. “I get to do my karate,” he grins. “Yeah! Karate!” adds Chilli Boo, her caramel eyes wide.

Chilli Boo is clad in mini biker boots – “we could never get her to wear shoes before she found these,” says Melanie – and a beaded black top that could be an Edwardian hand-me-down. It’s actually the sleeves off an old Easton Pearson blouse of Melanie’s, held in place with pompoms that mother and daughter made together. “The T-shirt Chey has on,” Melanie adds, “is one of mine from Sass & Bide.” Lucky he likes it: Melanie and Ja have just been hired by the Sass & Bide duo, Heidi Middleton and Sarah Jane Clarke, “as muses”. “I met the girls and we just clicked. We understand each other’s aesthetics.”

Despite the labels, Melanie claims she has no interest in what’s happening on the catwalks. “I might have a Missoni dress on but people don’t know if it’s that or if it’s from an op shop. We get people coming up and saying we look like we’re from another world. But they’re not sure if we’re high fashion or hippies.” She doesn’t look at magazines either. “I don’t think about it too much; I just do it.”

And she does it for her kids too. “If we get dressed up it’s for our own enjoyment, it’s for fun, and it’s not for anyone else.” But isn’t it, well, a bit eccentric? “Why? I love looking at my children. I love to see my family looking beautiful and I can’t see anything wrong with that. If it ever felt contrived, or if the children didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it.”

On Chilli’s wrist is a charm bracelet designed by her brother, with a tiny skateboard and coconut alongside more traditional trinkets. The silver links of the chain are fashioned to look like bones. “I don’t like bones!” shouts Chilli Boo, proving she is a child after all.

To Melanie and Ja’s way of thinking, most children have creative fantasies. The difference with the Miles kids is that when one of them wants to play shops, mum and dad oblige. “Chey draws his designs – say Jaja, who looks like a giant eggplant in a cowboy hat, going surfing; or Mr Skull, the skeleton, dancing with his DJ friend – all on his own. Then,” Melanie continues, as if all this were perfectly normal, “he says he’s done his brand and he wants a shop but first he has to make the clothes. He wanted Dolce & Gabbana to do it. Only them or Tsubi.” Chey saw a picture of Dan Single in a magazine and “thought he looked cool”. Then serendipity stepped in; Single spotted the Miles family in the street and struck up a conversation. Chey did his one-minute pitch. Suddenly Heart 88 had a future.

Both Melanie and Ja grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ja was an only child – “my imagination was wild” – while Melanie was adopted and raised as one of eight. “My mum fostered children. We’d come home and there would be another brother. She taught us: don’t be afraid to be who you are.” They got married on a Christchurch beach at a 6 a.m. ceremony that was planned, to their considerable frustration, three days earlier. “We wanted to do it the second we decided – but they make you wait.” A barefoot Melanie, pregnant with Phire at the time, wore a Dries Van Noten sari and an old, beaded Collette Dinnigan chemise.

They lived by that same beach until just over two years ago when they moved to Australia. That was the kids’ idea too. “The boys were always wanting to be in the water but it was too cold,” Melanie explains. “Then the boys said: ‘Let’s go and live in Byron so we can surf all day.’” So they did.

“I think,” says Ja, “we listen to the kids probably more than we should.”

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