An iconic ’80s label comes back to life. By Alyx Gorman.

Desert Design’s new blooms

The brilliant colours of Jimmy Pike’s Texta drawings are captured in the latest Desert Designs offerings.

A maximum-security prison in Western Australia is not the most likely starting point for a fashion label. But from this unusual birthplace the Indigenous patterns of Desert Designs became so popular that by the mid-1980s, according to founder Steve Culley, “even the racists” were wearing them.

The journey began in 1978, when Culley, a “long-haired hippie” by his own admission, took a part-time teaching position at Fremantle Prison. He had graduated art school and travelled extensively, but this was his first “real” job. His timing could not have been better, coinciding as it did with a period of significant prison reform and modernisation.

The following year, Culley was allowed to establish a comprehensive and well-funded prison arts program. His classes were a particular hit with the prison’s Indigenous population – which is how he first encountered Jimmy Pike, a Walmajarri man from the Great Sandy Desert, in jail for murder.

“It was a situation where I had been confronted by genius,” Culley says of seeing Pike’s work for the first time. “And I just wanted to communicate that talent to the world.”

In Culley’s program, Pike quickly learnt to use Western art materials, including lino carving blocks. His medium of choice was Texta ink “because of the intense luminosity of the colours they could create,” Culley explains.

Culley set about ensuring the art world discovered Jimmy Pike. Before he had been released from prison, some of Pike’s work was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.

During the process of transforming one of Pike’s lino-block works into a set of limited-edition prints, Culley and a fellow art teacher, David Wroth, discovered that Pike’s art looked spectacular on textiles. “I printed some fabric and my wife used it to sew a set of dungarees for my daughter, who was one year old at the time. They were wonderful.”

One pair of dungarees turned into a small fashion collection, sold to a few high-end Perth boutiques. The collection garnered local, then national, press and Culley quickly found himself in Sydney setting up a licensing deal with fashion manufacturers Byers Co under the name Desert Designs. Within a year, the brand turned over $3 million and Pike’s art had been licensed to Sheridan and Oroton. “It was an extraordinary time in history,” Culley says. “Everything we did seemed to work.”

While Culley handled Desert Designs, Jimmy Pike – who was “100 per cent supportive” – went back into the desert with his wife, Pat Lowe, to create new designs. A booming market followed in the mid-’80s, but by the early 1990s, Byers Co ran into financial hardship, and the factory making Desert Designs’ apparel and accessories shut down. At this point, Culley took the brand out of Australia, and found “moderate success” in the American and Japanese markets. Culley acknowledges his approach was “not particularly strategic”.

Further hardship followed when Culley shut down Desert Designs’ international licences to try to vertically integrate the brand. Then, in late-1998, after a major manufacturing and distribution deal fell through, Desert Designs was thrown into crisis.

Jimmy Pike died suddenly of a heart attack in 2002, aged about 62. Pike’s wife – an English psychologist who Pike also met while in prison – set up the Jimmy Pike Trust in her late husband’s name. It is to this trust, which funds scholarships for Indigenous artists from the Kimberley region, that Pike’s licensing fees now go. Desert Designs kicked around in some form throughout the 2000s, but it was “in a small, undercapitalised way”.

A meteoric rise, followed by a slow fall from relevance is not uncommon in the fashion industry, particularly in Australia, where even major players have been plagued by financial hardships. Yet reviving neglected heritage brands – from Schiaparelli to Halston – is also a major industry trend. In Australia’s relatively young fashion industry, a powerhouse brand from the 1980s is about as close to heritage as you’re likely to get.

For four years, Culley worked on reconstituting Desert Designs. The breakthrough came in 2012 when his now Sydney-based daughter, designer Jedda-Daisy Culley, along with her closest friend, Caroline Sundt-Wels, agreed to come on board as Desert Designs’ creative directors. There’s a nice circularity in this – the girl for whom the original pair of dungarees were sewn coming home to run the show.

The junior Culley had just finished her master of fine arts degree at COFA (now UNSW Art & Design), while Sundt-Wels had done odd jobs in the fashion industry, from styling to modelling to production, for years. The pair set up a studio in Sydney and began costuming and collaborating with their friends and contacts.

Digital printing technology has made Pike’s work more relevant than ever. Now is the first time the brilliance of his Texta drawings has truly translated onto fabric. The new label started out by making singlets, microshorts and leggings with a technicolour brightness that was previously impossible.

Respect for Pike’s art and culture remain central to the Desert Designs process. Each item of clothing comes with a swing tag explaining the story of the print it bears, and all patterns are approved by Pat Lowe. Jedda Culley is especially sensitive about this. “As an artist, I’d be so angry if people manipulated my work. So I’d never do it to his.”

A short time after Desert Designs relaunched, Jedda fell pregnant and moved to New York with her partner, Dan Stricker, the drummer for the Australian alt-dance band Midnight Juggernauts. “I wasn’t aware that I would be moving to New York. I wasn’t aware that I would be having a baby. When we started, Desert Designs was the one stable thing we were doing,”
she says.

Now the team collaborates via FaceTime, as Jedda pushes her son, Lucian, in a pram through the streets of New York at night. Despite the unexpected geographic split, Desert Designs has grown steadily in its new incarnation. They’ve gone from outfitting the hip kids of eastern Sydney to showing at Australian Fashion Week, and have hired a technical garment designer, Alvin Manalo. His clean taste and tailoring background has contributed to the label’s pared-back, simple silhouettes.

The label’s biggest milestone will arrive in November, when a 30-piece swim and resortwear capsule collection will hit the mass market, arriving in 50 Target stores nationwide.

“Desert Designs for Target” is a major departure for Steve Culley, who had previously knocked back dozens of similar licensing requests, preferring to see the business shut down, rather than sell out.

The brand’s creative directors admit he took some persuading. “In my day, it was seen as a backwards step,” says Steve. “There were brands that were high end, and they never collaborated with mass-market retailers. This younger generation sees no barriers like that. And this collaboration with Target is being celebrated by the creative team.”

The Target collection is being overseen with the same meticulous level of control as the rest of Desert Designs’ output. “The biggest things I’ve learned from taking our label to this kind of mainstream audience are sort of silly,” Jedda reflects. “Like ‘do a black-and-white print’ because people like black and white.”

While Steve Culley believes that Desert Designs will never be as ubiquitous as it was in 1980s Australia, he hopes this time it will be truly international. “For all its previous success, I feel Desert Designs has never been stronger than it is now,” he says.

He sees the label “in many markets throughout the world” being worn by “people of like minds. People who are open to newness and have an eclectic view of the world.”

Now, Desert Designs hopes its growth will be sustainable and built around not just brilliant prints, but brilliant collaborations. They aim to be popular – just not so popular that even racists are wearing them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Flowers in the desert".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.