Two decades on, Australian Fashion Week shows for north and south. By Alyx Gorman.

Australian Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Australian Fashion Week, and, like all 20-year-olds, the event found itself in the midst of self-discovery. Many of the shows were grounded in nostalgia, either for the original essence of their brand, or for decades past – specifically the 1970s. But amid all that reflection, for some there was also a willingness to experiment.

The week officially began on Sunday evening, but unofficially it started the previous Wednesday, at the spring/summer showing of Carla Zampatti. Zampatti was celebrating an anniversary of her own – 50 years in fashion, an achievement that makes her label old enough to be fashion week’s mother. But her collection, set against the royal purple backdrop of the Sydney Opera House’s north foyer, was far from matronly. Rendered in hot pink, sunshine yellow and cobalt, her more classic silhouettes recalled postwar Paris – both the dramatic hourglass shapes of Christian Dior’s nipped waists and flared skirts, and the pregnant volume of Cristobal Balenciaga’s opera coats – but there was a healthy dose of Studio 54 thrown in, with plunging V-necked, flared jumpsuits. The latter, with their youthful appeal, are a big part of the reason Zampatti does runway shows. “I only design and make things I like,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “There’s a connection between what I love and what my clients love. There’s a relationship there that’s been built up over the years. But there’s also a relationship between young 16- and 17-year-olds leaving school, who are looking for their formal dress.” 

Because Zampatti does not wholesale to international buyers, she says she has no need to showcase on schedule at Fashion Week. But the media attention for a large, spectacular runway show is a welcome chance to seduce those young customers, as well as those already familiar with Zampatti’s brand.  “It’s essentially a celebration of finishing a collection. It’s a relief!” 

One designer who does hope to pique the interests of foreign buyers is Gary Bigeni. Bigeni has been running his eponymous label for 12 years. Known for his elaborately draped and cheerfully coloured work in jersey and silk, the spring/summer collection he showcased on Monday evening marked a pivot in direction. His loose fits, flowing lines and focus on draping and folding persisted, but they were reworked in a range of light cottons in subtle grey stripes and shades of dull blue. Shirtdresses and tunics, ranging from knee length to floor length, were the heroes of the collection. For the past year and a half, Bigeni has been selling his own collections, and it was the hands-on contact with buyers that inspired the change. “I started working with cotton a little bit and I realised it’s working, people can relate to it, why not go down that path? I really want people to be able to identify with my clothes. I want them to see them on the runway and think, ‘I can wear that.’ ”

Unlike Bigeni, Romance Was Born had no direct commercial imperative to create their Thursday morning presentation, shown in the 19th-century Australian art room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Every single intensely colourful, elaborate piece was a one-off, created especially for the show – right down to the fingernails. “Everything is hand-printed, hand-embroidered and handmade,” says designer Anna Plunkett. “Luke [Sales] and I always say if you want to see fashion, you can sit at a bus stop. Our show is about creating an environment that lets people step into our world, and experience the characters that we’ve dreamt up for the season.”

The collection, “Cooee Couture”, was created in collaboration with artist Linda Jackson, and followed her wild and bush-driven vision of Australiana. Jackson’s paintings and prints were transformed into fully sequined lounge-singer gowns in kaleidoscopic rainbow; into hand-embroidered lace desert peas that sprung prolifically from the bodice of a dress, melting into a series of scarlet hearts as they cascaded down its tulle skirt; and, the final look, into a voluminous “pearly sea urchin” that used metres of silvery shot taffeta so weighty and grand it could almost have stood on its own, although it was much the better for having It model Ruby Jean Wilson inside. The characters were posed against a multilayered backdrop, designed by Alice Babbage, which referenced the art in the gallery. The collection was nostalgic for Jackson, not just because she saw her iconic creations reworked, but also because this year marks the 40th anniversary of her landmark “Flamingo Follies” show at the Bondi Pavilion. “It’s been a journey to fly along with these mad and colourful and quite chaotic creatives,” she says of working with Plunkett and Sales.

Over at Toni Maticevski’s show, there was no time for the past. “For me, it was really about just doing a show,” he said. “It wasn’t about being part of Australian Fashion Week or 20 years. As much as it’s a great achievement for the industry, I just wanted to do a show I could be proud of.” Rather than getting lost in memory, he pushed his work way out to the edge. Set in front of a dramatic white backdrop, on a runway gleaming white, his creations would not look out of place in the next Star Wars saga, from C-3PO-gold trousers, worn with a matching corset gilded and beaded like armour, to pale violet dresses in otherworldly mesh, or a future-fantasy hooded cloak and ball gown in a duck-egg grey. “Sometimes when collections are presented on runway, they feel like clone ideas of themselves, the same look with one silhouette done in different fabrics. Or one skirt styled in six ways. I wanted it to feel more arty, if anything,” Maticevski explained. “I really wanted to play with ideas … see how much I could push, and work with concepts that don’t make sense on paper.” It was far weirder than you’d envision for a designer who’s highly coveted at the races, but it worked.

Kym Ellery has also been on a slow-burning mission to take something glossy and make it strange. Her label started as clothing for the quintessential cool girl. She’s kept her following and led them far from home. Her woman is still the queen of the night, but now she’s a vampire-hunting New Romantic in full-flared trousers, brocade and poet sleeves that drip to her knees. That Ellery was offered the opening spot at Fashion Week to show her autumn/winter collection, just sold in Paris, was a love letter from the local industry. Her show was an equally effusive response, preluded by a dance from the Australian Ballet, opening and closing with iconic models Gemma Ward and Emma Balfour, and finishing in a rain of glitter.

Far from the demands of a full-fledged runway production, but still impactful, Christopher Esber chose to present a sampling of his next resort collection in an intimate salon style, off schedule. “We used really beautiful, developed fabrics that would have been lost in the runway setting,” he says. These included headdress netting, covered in Swarovski crystals, which Esber draped to make evening gowns, and “a really textured voile fabric that stops and starts so you have this unravelled appearance”. The show was a reflection on his vision of Australian style. “I have a vision of a girl semi-naked with a towel,” he said. “I wanted to make something that had the ease of wrapping a sarong or towel around yourself, but in a more elegant, tailored way.” The resulting collection, despite the intricacy of the detail, felt airy and simple.

Perhaps the best answer to the problem of whether to show for Australia’s spring/summer or the northern hemisphere buyers’ seasons came from TOME. The New York-based label, designed by Australian-born Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin, was a late addition to the Fashion Week line-up, and they opened Monday’s showings. Their runway featured a brisk mix of cotton shirting, ’70s-inspired jumpsuits – cleaned up in pleated pastels – and full skirts in silk, cut on the bias. It felt focused and coherent, which was impressive given the “collection” was actually a mix of pre-autumn and autumn/winter clothes, none of which had been shown on a catwalk before. “We didn’t want to recreate our New York show in Australia,” Lobo explained. “It would feel disrespectful to Sydney.” All of the clothes were available to buy from TOME’s website immediately after the show, and Lobo reports they saw an instant uptick in sales. “I was told the collection felt ‘very Australian’,” he says. “That’s important.”

Given the seasonal discord of Australian Fashion Week, prompted by the most decorated labels increasingly choosing to produce collections to the northern hemisphere’s schedule, in the coming decades “feeling Australian” might be the quality that ultimately distinguishes the event.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "A plan for all seasons".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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