Sybil is an American-born photographer, director, producer, stylist and activist who, now, proudly calls Byron Bay home. I first discovered her work in an interview she did with Johnny Abegg for Common Ground Byron around 2011 and instantly connected with her aesthetic and story. But it was her activism that most intrigued me. In May 2014, Sybil organised a Bring Back our Girls rally in Byron Bay to raise awareness of the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria, for the local arm of international charity V-Day, and I photographed the event.
But we wouldn’t actually meet until our shoot day. Welcomed inside, I found the home that she shares with husband Taylor and their two young daughters to be a beautifully-considered space full of eclectic treasures. And across our four-hour shoot and subsequent interview together I was inspired by her dynamic energy and warm, relaxed and gracious spirit. She may also be my new style muse.
You can see Sybil’s gorgeous portfolio here (featuring work with Oracle Fox, Spell & The Gypsy Collective, Aston Martin, Fairfax Journal, Ahoy Trader and many more) and then follow our interview and fashion story, shot on location in her home and on the backstreets and beaches of Byron, below! I hope you enjoy it.
Amber Melody: Sybil, You’re an American gal living in Byron Bay with Parisian yearnings! How in the world did you find yourself here?
Sybil Steele: That is a very good question! I was born in California, raised in Washington DC with short stints in Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris. When I moved back to college in California I met the love of my life who, upon that big first initial “I love you”, followed up with “AND I’d like to live in Australia”. I thought it was sudden but endearing and well now, after some tumbling around other places such as New York and Bali, here we are over four years in.
AM: What did the child-you think you would do & be when you grew up?
SS: Oh I don’t know, I think (as a child) I was very simple. My house wasn’t particularly artistic though it was always well decorated and much attention to details with hard working parents. I didn’t have big dreams or ambitions, but I did always have this feeling of feeling quite good inside, even during the turbulent times of moving, changing schools, teenage angst and parents breaking up. So maybe I just always knew I’d have a good life, and I’m so grateful I do and remember that every morning when I wake.
AM: As a multidisciplinary creative, can you describe your different roles and how each of them evolved?
SS: I’ve been in a producing role for over 15 years and got a call to do some styling, which was never quite enough for me, so I learned photography. And then from there was asked to direct a few shorts. It was all quite fluid and a natural progression. The roles are interchangeable. Though they each require a different skill set, they all tie in together somehow. I love producing, helping someone take an idea and getting it all the way to the end with a team with a great result. It’s very fulfilling.
AM: Okay, three things you can’t live without:
SS: Oh the truth or the good girl me? Well, my family, friends and a beautiful environment. The bad girl will say champagne, some late night dancing and the wicked laughter of my girlfriends.
AM: What does your creative process look like? Do you sketch on paper or journal or create mood boards? Do you need music or silence? Do you work alone or do you love to collaborate?
SS: I start ideas on paper and move to mood board. I have loads of index cards lying around so I can just grab one and make notes. Then, yes, I mood board and outline a brief. I need to work in silence because as a working mother, throughout all the noise and activity, you also have eight other things lining up in the back of your mind needing attention as well. I work in complete silence, so I can hear myself think clearly, then music goes on when I leave the computer and begin to relax. I work alone until the team and I need to be together, but a good collaborative brainstorm is always essential.
AM: And where did your love of fashion come from?
SS: My grandmother! What an exquisite woman she is. Everything about her was stylish, everything had it’s place and statement pieces everywhere whether in home or fashion. If anyone wants to know why I love animal prints so much my grandmother’s extra bedroom was the JUNGLE ROOM. Imagine in the ‘70s taking every single item of décor of animal print or animal reference and throwing it all one room. It was crazy, over-the-top dramatic.
AM: Who are your favourite designers?
SS: My favourite designers are Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen in design appreciation. However in terms of reality and what I consistently buy I would say that Rag and Bone, Ellery and Alexander Wang are all more of a uniform go-to. I keep it simple with designer accessory statement pieces thrown in.
AM: You have two young daughters. What are your dreams for them?
SS: Independence, happiness, creative expression, safety, strength, kindness and the ability to use their skills to improve and help the world.
AM: Do you have a spiritual practice? How do you find peace, comfort and balance in your life?
SS: I’m a Libra, so I go through extremes. One month you might see me working out with a trainer, drinking ginger tea and stretching every morning and the next month putting health secondary and just getting through the day. It usually goes with what’s on my work schedule. If there is time to breathe, I find time to breathe. If there is not, I hold my breath and dive right in until the finish line. Unfortunately there never really is a finish line is there, so finding balance is a lifelong struggle. Peace, I think, is a state of mind. So I quit coffee, and that makes me much less fight-or-flight at around 11 am each day.
AM: Can you tell us about your involvement in the V-Day movement and V-Day Byron Bay?
SS: Before I became a creative, I was a student in college studying Women’s Studies and Political Science. I was young and righteous, and I was going to make a difference because women were getting stoned to death in the Middle East and the violence against women made my blood boil. It definitely made me feel very extreme, and I’d debate a lot as you do in college when you are figuring out who you are and what you believe in beyond those teenage years. When I got a little burnt-out on my studies and the intensity of the situation, I switched to an Applied Arts degree, which is more in line with where I currently am professionally.
Regardless, over the years I did keep up with my women’s work, directing or producing various projects. V-Day came about when one of my work partners, Angie Takanami, organized a meeting with myself and Lauren Hill and Assist-A-Sista, our charity of choice and where V-Day funds are mostly allocated. I took on my producer role, Lauren took her love of politics and past events of directing The Vagina Monologues, and Angie took her PR and writing skills and now here we are planning for year three. We’ve been able to raise over $50,000 in the last two years and start exploring the solutions or at least the steps to getting women out of violent situations. I may not be in the Middle East or Africa doing my work there, but sisters in our own backyards need help, too. We’ve also been able to build a community of women and businesses who care and want to get involved, and they have become such a support system for continuing this work.
AM: What is the best thing about living in Byron?
SS: Byron is gorgeous and simple. I love its energy of healing and community. I love the hinterland, rainbow lorikeets and magical sunsets. I love cities but I also need simple to help balance me out, especially when the priority is to raise family – not to have all the latest and greatest from the plethora of choices of clothes in the city – or so many tantalising restaurants to go to! So I like the stillness of it, perhaps it allows me to focus better and not focus so much on superficial things or the curse of wanting more.
AM: Can you share a few of your favourite local places with The Beautiful Lens readers?
SS: Favorite hangouts – Roadhouse, Italian at The Pacific, The Farm. I escape to The Byron at Byron Spa and Resort for some time-out and a steam and massage or some laps in the pool. Love a little shop in Bangalow for the afternoon after lunch at Harvest in Newrybar too. I don’t shop too much anymore, so that’s good, because I stick to a uniform and just update when I go to Sydney or the States.
AM: Can you describe your ‘uniform’?
SS: My uniform usually consists of the Newbury boots by Rag and Bone or my cheetah tennis shoes by YSL. Both are so comfortable and go with everything. I usually throw on a Bassike T or something from T by Alexander Wang and One Teaspoon or Rag and Bone jeans, usually black. These days, nearly every day, I add my big, bulky Celine jumper which always makes me feel very cosy and warm.
AM: Finally, can you tell us about your next project?
SS: Oh! Kind of. One is a big magazine’s first fashion film, and the other is a Luxury TV travel show from an established brand that is ready to take it on the road. I’ve got a campaign shoot in Hawaii and a video project with Nadia Fairfax in New York. So this is exactly where I put on my producer, director, photographer and creative direction hat.Sometimes I think it’s funny that people have all those job titles. My dad, who has had one job for 40 years is still questioning what I do. Have you seen this Fashion Film by Matthew Frost with Lizzy Caplan? It sums it all up with humour. I don’t think you can take this life too seriously.
LOOK ONE | skirt by Zara + knit by T by Alexander Wang + heels by Nine West
LOOK TWO | Trousers by Zara + top by T by Alexander Wang + lace ears by Maison Margiela
LOOK THREE | dress by Alice McCall
LOOK FOUR | shirt by Nasty Gal + jacket by Michael Lo Sordo
+ trousers by Rag and Bone + heels by Nine West
LOOK FIVE | hat by Fallen Broken Street + denim shorts by One Teaspoon + jumper by Celine
LOOK SIX | sheer top by Nasty Gal + sarong by Mikoh
– click the link to see my first La Vie de Bohème –
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