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“Are not the colours exquisite? And see how intricate the patterns.” So said the two swindlers intent on convincing Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor that his new clothes were indeed the proverbial bee’s knees. Alas, the Emperor’s subjects could see his knees and plenty more besides, for as we know these splendid garments spun from cloth “that only very clever people could see” did not exist at all.
Sometimes, you wonder whether Christian Andersen’s style swindlers are at work today. Consider Cate Blanchett dressed in a crocheted sofa-throw for an event in Melbourne last September. The one-shouldered dress in question was by hot Sydney fashion label Romance Was Born, and was constructed from bold coloured squares, anchored daringly by twin black silk ruffles at the bust and hem.
The effect was peculiar and Romance won international derision when the tabloids dubbed the actor “Cate Blankett” (“You were stitched up!” guffawed London’s the Daily Mail). Presumably designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales took the Wildean approach and relished being talked about, if not for the content of the talk itself, then certainly because it is quite a coup for a young label to persuade a Hollywood icon (one who normally wears Armani!) to don its duds. Anyway, the duo has had its fair share of praise to date so the tabloid slagging can’t have hurt too much. Plunkett’s wardrobe is the subject of a gushing three-page feature in the March issue of Vogue Australia: she is snapped resplendent in a necklace of plastic watermelons teamed with pastel-painted stilettos and clashing socks; in another picture, she models the crochet herself.
The blanket dress made its debut last year in Sydney, in “Doilies and Pearls, Oysters and Shells”, the label’s Rosemount Australian Fashion Week show. On this occasion the hair and make-up team went bananas, bedecking the model with false blue eyelashes and leaving her rollers in. The giant tote bag she carried featured a witty silk print of said crochet squares, and the whole effect was very clever.
In fact the whole show was clever – and irreverent and amusing and bold. To the blankets were added doilies, appliquéd onto a camp, white baby-doll dress festooned with pink ribbons. The pearls in the title came in what resembled a mad homage to the “Under the Sea” prom theme in the first Back to the Future movie. There was a crocheted, purple octopus hat, a mint green fishing-net poncho, even a riotous, red tulle Lobster Girl dress with big, padded claw-cuffs. “It was a glorious ode to Plunkett’s and Sales’ unfettered imaginations, and to lacemaking and crochet skills,” raved the Sydney Morning Herald. “People cried. Vogue editor Kirstie Clements wiped away tears as she declared Romance fit for Paris … The designers’ slot in local fashion history was fixed.”
By Christmas, Romance Was Born had opened a pop-up shop in Sydney’s trendy Paddington, erecting a dais in an unfinished architectural space and draping it with fluoro fishing nets, flotsam and a giant vintage crocheted blanket. I asked if this last item was also a dress masquerading as a rug and was met with much eye-rolling from a sales assistant wearing a tutu and a blue velvet Alice band covered in shells. What the eye-rolling meant was that if I really couldn’t tell the difference between a rug and ‘couture’ – Sales had used this term in response to the media headlines, saying his own mum did the crochet – then I’d better sod off to Sportsgirl down the road.
It is in fact inaccurate to call any clothing made outside Paris ‘couture’, even if the garment in question is an exquisite, custom-fitted silk-faille gown, hand stitched for 300 hours and finished with the utmost care and skill. While the word couture literally means ‘sewing’ in French, a garment is only rightfully labelled thus if it has been made by a fashion house with a workshop in Paris (which employs at least 15 people full-time) that shows at couture week and is listed as a couture member by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris. There is no such thing as Australian couture. And nor should there be; we have our own style path to walk. But where does it lie? And is it paved with crochet?
In pursuit of answers I decided to investigate the other Australian boutiques around Romance Was Born’s temporary store. I hoped to discern some sort of overriding national sartorial mood, a unique aesthetic that you won’t find in Tokyo or Tel Aviv; something that ties such disparate brands as Zimmermann, Willow, Scanlan & Theodore, Sass & Bide, Camilla & Marc, Bianca Spender and Josh Goot together. And, indeed, there are themes on repeat – the use of bold colour, an abundance of easy little summer dresses, the influence of sportswear and bikinis. But if there is a single voice to be heard above all others, it is one spoken in an entirely different accent. This voice is French. And it is yelling “Balmain!”
That is, Balmain the Paris fashion house, not the inner suburb of Sydney. Until recently the name barely figured on the fashion radar. Its founder, couturier Pierre Balmain, died in 1982. His best work was done in the 1940s and ’50s when he dressed the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. By 2003, the house that Pierre had built was bankrupt. Then, in 2005, investors re-opened its doors, hiring Christophe Decarnin as creative director, a man since dubbed by the London press as “the most copied designer on the planet”. At a time when the fashion world was worrying about the Global Financial Crisis and its biggest name, Miuccia Prada, had turned to burlap in response (her spring– summer ’09 collection for Miu Miu was heavy on hairshirts), Decarnin burst out with what American Vogue’s Sarah Mower describes as “the kind of shameless pop-bedazzled energy that won Gianni Versace a reputation for tackiness in the high ’80s, but also took him to the top”.
Decarnin’s vision of high-octane sexiness is realised in spangled tube dresses, spray-on leather jeans and tightly boned, embellished mini-gowns complete with transvestite-worthy trains. All this is invariably topped off with his signature shoulder shape – peaked and aggressively padded – which defines the new silhouette. Decarnin gives the traditional tuxedo a wicked Cruella de Vil edge and he packs his crystal-strewn military jacket with a 1940s Joan Crawford punch. These arcs are bold and brashly drawn. They apparently render their wearer tougher, wittier and prettier, instantly transforming smaller, tamer shoulder shapes demodé.
Decarnin’s armoured rock-slut mood soon took hold across the globe. For the past three seasons, bold shoulders have ruled the catwalks in Milan, London and New York. Australian Fashion Week, too, was awash with odes to Decarnin’s sharply drawn angles: some blatant knock-offs, others more subtly hewn. Unpadded shoulders have started to look as weird as a blanket dress. Like a 1960s girl without her micro-mini, or a 1970s dude without his flares, those without the Balmain armour risk being giggled at on the bus. And this is as much the case in Paddington as it is in Paris.
Australia has long taken its style cues from Europe. Over 100 years ago, fashionable Brisbanites headed to Allan & Stark’s drapery on Queen Street to buy their imported silks. One of the store’s advertisements from 1900 shows “A group of Handsome and Effective Evening Gowns” in the Belle Époque style, with the tiny sashed waists, gored and trumpeted skirts and bejewelled sleeves popular on the Continent at the time.
It was 1967 when Joan Lindsay published Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which three Edwardian schoolgirls disappear in bushland near Mount Macedon, Victoria. Clothes are key to their experience, and to Lindsay’s story, and she fully conveys the restrictive armour that Miranda, Irma and Marion wear as they set off across the creek to the foot of the mysterious rock:
Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.
Picnicking ladies everywhere wore corsets and kid boots with their summer muslins – whatever the weather. When, in Lindsay’s book, the heiress Irma Leopold is finally discovered eight days after she was lost, she is unconscious and missing her “long, lightly boned French satin stays”. By the end of the story, she has sufficiently recovered her dress standards (if not her memory), calling at her old school sporting “a scarlet cloak and a little toque of scarlet feathers blowing this way and that”.
Most Edwardian fashion fanciers in Australia at that time had to make do with imported cloth and seamstresses adept at copying European styles from pictures in women’s magazines. It was not until the ’40s that fashion came to us. Our friend Pierre Balmain was the first Paris designer to bring his work to Sydney. He arrived in 1947 with 12 fabulous frocks flown in from his atelier to give “three talks on fashion at the cocktail hour” at the department store David Jones. And yet he told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I do not come as a missionary carrying the gospel of Paris fashions. Far from it. I come as a student to study the manners and customs of the country and to use this knowledge to adapt Paris fashions to the Australian conditions of living.” After completing his talks, he undertook designing “25 costumes … [to] embody the ideas gained in different parts of the country” to be sold through David Jones. Things were looking up.
A year later, the department store invited Christian Dior to bring his New Look to Sydney. This he did, praising the “cleaner, brighter outlook” of Australians and deeming them “more receptive to new ideas than the tired people of European countries”. Had our fashion moment finally come?
Sadly not. It was still necessary for those intent on making their fashion mark to book their passage overseas. One design titan who did just that was Queenslander Florence Broadhurst, best known today as a wallpaper designer who peaked in the ’70s. Broadhurst began her adventures in the ’20s when she toured Asia and founded a dance school in Shanghai. She somehow made it to London and set herself up there as a faux-French couturier, assuming the name of Madame Pellier. A 1933 advertisement for her New Bond Street studio reads:
Paris, being Paris, is sometimes a little over-confident flinging into the picture new modes that neither the English mind can cherish nor the English figure wear. A Frenchwoman can sometimes go to extremes in style and pattern that would make her English cousin look ‘fancy dress’. This season, France, as you know, is going everywhere from Abyssinian to … Renaissance gownery. All very whimsical and smashing in moderation. IN MODERATION. Which is precisely where Madame Pellier sweeps in. The new Pellier models are founded on Paris but interpreted into [the] smartest possible English [style].
That the creator of these designs was raised on an Australian sheep station didn’t figure. Broadhurst knew then what is still largely the case now: that the most fabulous fashion is always French. Her successful pitch was to sell a watered-down version of the true mode to London’s tamer tastes.
But in a stunning reversal, by the ’60s, when Yves Saint Laurent was complaining about the stuffy nature of couture, London was swinging and artistic types were re-inventing the style rules from the street up. This scene lured young Sydney artist Jenny Kee. As a wide-eyed ingenue fresh off the Qantas plane, she played vintage dress-ups in the Chelsea Antique Market with Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Anna Piaggi (who went on to rule Italian Vogue) and Vern Lambert – the style icon, vintage buff (and former Melbourne insurance clerk) who inspired them all. Kee’s biography, A Big Life (2006), is full of tales of their fashion adventures, which included Kee posing nude for the cover of fellow-expat Richard Neville’s iconic OZ magazine.
“When I think of Australian style I think of that time,” Kee says. “I think of all the Australians in London making things happen, of OZ and Martin Sharp’s art, of Vern, and of the music and the experimentation … What London worked out was that it could invent its own scene, without kowtowing to the couture establishment across the Channel.”
In 1972 Kee came back to Australia to ignite a similar scene here. In some ways she succeeded. Together with her creative partner Linda Jackson she put the wind up the fledgling local fashion industry. Flamingo Park, the pair’s label, featured bold garments inspired by native landmarks, bushland, animals and plants. Their designs captured aspects of Australia, be it the sails of the Opera House echoed in a sundress, or Aboriginal art motifs dancing through silk prints.
A recent Jackson retrospective at Sydney’s Shapiro galleries featured her ingenious black cockatoo dress from 1977, formed from overlapping silk petals that ape the plumes of the bird – a dress that looks as fresh and exciting today as it did when she made it. And thanks to Kee’s Piaggi connection, the pair’s Opal Oz print was bought by Karl Lagerfeld and used in his debut collection for Chanel in 1983. Yet some of their work was tough to digest and most of it eschewed trends – Kee’s enormous, sculptural waratah knits, for instance, demanded a degree of camp bravado that most would-be wearers simply didn’t possess. There is, however, no doubting the duo’s influence on lesser labels and boutiques.
Kee sees something of her and Jackson in Sales and Plunkett: “I say Romance Was Born in Flamingo Park,” she says. “We are great friends. I love them. They are doing something special. But they are out on their own. It’s still true to say that catwalk trends aren’t born in Australia. And I think we should forget that, anyway, and stick to what we know. We make some of the best swimwear and surfwear in the world, because it goes deep. What encapsulates Australian fashion? It’s boardies and a box of mangoes at Christmas. It takes a long time to change from Vegemite, darling, and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”
Ask an American, a Frenchman or a Londoner about Australian fashion and they may well still mention Kee. Perhaps the biggest Australian names in high fashion today are the least recognised: Richard Tyler, Richard Nicoll, Toni Maticevski and Collette Dinnigan. In the ’80s, Tyler moved from Melbourne’s Sunshine to LA, where he makes top-end Hollywood-worthy gowns.
Nicoll left Perth in 2002 to study at London’s Central Saint Martins (which schooled the late Alexander McQueen and Dior’s John Galliano). He had a freelance stint at Louis Vuitton, and his eponymous London-based label, launched in 2005, was a British Vogue favourite. Last year Nicoll was announced as the new creative director at Cerruti, the somewhat dusty Italian house best known for its menswear. Whether Nicoll can give it the Burberry treatment will be revealed when sales start after his first show in Paris this month.
Maticevski is the Melbourne man who made actor Abbie Cornish’s tiered lavender gown for the 62nd Cannes Film Festival (featured on the cover of the December– January issue of the Monthly). His work is highly original and exquisitely made but, to date, despite showing in New York for several seasons, he has failed to score any serious stockists in the US.
Only Dinnigan, the Sydney-based designer who has been showing in Paris since 1995, is a serious force locally as well as internationally. Her silk dresses are elegant and often heavily beaded; red carpet numbers inspired by art-deco shapes. Is this Australian style?
A more likely contender for the title of defining Australian style is Brisbane’s Sass & Bide, the street- and pop culture-inspired women’s label, which started out with jeans designed by Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton. Sass & Bide has global reach (they show in London and New York, dress celebrities and, nationally, at least, are a household name). The designers were ranked 53rd on the 2009 BRW Young Rich List, with a reported $36 million. Clearly it’s a highly successful Australian brand, but it’s not high fashion in the sense of Balmain or Dior.
A few months ago, I’d have said the answer lay with Ksubi, the irreverent design collective that makes cool T-shirts, denim and sunglasses for guys in bands and more T-shirts, cute mini-dresses and sunnies for Bondi beach babes. The Ksubi designers are a bunch of blokes in their thirties who love skating and DJ-ing and surfing and were born and raised on Sydney’s northern beaches. They weren’t making Vogue editors cry but they were dressing Australia – peddling their wares through their own stores, decked out like clubs and recording studios, as well as through General Pants. Again, they are not high fashion in the French sense, but are surely a true extrapolation of our style culture. With the new year, however, came the news that the label has been placed in voluntary administration, so perhaps the future’s looking good for Romance after all.