The fashion industry has a high rate of failure. It’s difficult for fledgling brands to turn a profit and many never will. Because success is rare, shutting down a label that is actually making money in order to pursue something untested is an extremely high-risk move.
But for Melbourne designers Peter Strateas and Mario-Luca Carlucci, it was also a necessity. At the age of 21, the pair launched a streetwear label. Over six years, they threw huge parties at Melbourne fashion festivals, shot dozens of campaigns, opened a retail space in Fitzroy, then moved it to a high-prestige spot in the CBD. Though sophomoric, their dark, drapey jersey shirts and leather pants won many loyal customers. They were succeeding as a business.
But then… “To put it plainly, we grew up,” Carlucci tells The Saturday Paper. Their tastes evolved and they honed their vision. “We had to make a really hard decision. Do we stop this and do something that we’re really passionate about?” Eventually they decided: their label, Trimäpee, had to go.
In May 2012, they announced to customers: “We felt we took the brand as far as we could possibly take it.”
Most designers from dissolved fashion labels also end their partnerships, but this was not the case for Carlucci and Strateas. They closed their store, downsized into a “pigeon-infested” East Brunswick warehouse and got back to work.
Seven months later, the pair visited Paris to quietly sell a new collection with a new name. Much to their delight, the buyers they met were eager. In 2014, design awards followed. They’ve now won both of the major emerging fashion accolades, the International Woolmark Prize and VAMFF National Designer Award.
In just two weeks, Strateas.Carlucci will become the first Australian menswear label to show on the official schedule at Paris Men’s Fashion Week. The risk has paid off.
“We think of Trimäpee as the best possible apprenticeship we could have had,” says Carlucci.
Strateas.Carlucci is known for a mixture of sharply cut suiting and distorted athletic wear, which looks more conceptual than casual. The palettes are restrained and sombre. The menswear and womenswear collections are remarkably similar, and not without reason. “We were planning on only doing menswear with this label,” Carlucci says of that first trip to Paris in 2013. “And it sold. A lot of the buyers asked us if we’d be back for women’s. They told us if we could do what we were doing, but for women, we’d be on to something. We had to put the collection together in four weeks.”
Because of this speedy turnaround, they used the same fabrics, and the same concepts from their menswear collection to make their womenswear. And though they now have more time to plan women’s collections, their approach remains the same.
Many of their pieces are not so much unisex as transgender. They’ll create a jacket for a man, then alter the fit to suit a woman’s body, and vice versa. “Those pieces are often the strongest in the collection,” says Strateas. “There’s also a feminine touch with many of our menswear pieces that works really well.”
As is often the case at Men’s Fashion Week, their first Paris show will feature several womenswear looks. Titled “Myopia”, it is a meditation on the malleability and haziness of memory; a look at how time, like short-sightedness, tends to blur things in the distance. From a practical perspective, the result is a collection of oversized and elongated pieces – mostly in black, white and grey – with textures that bubble and blur.
During the design process, the pair experimented with drawing from memory. Strateas blindfolded Carlucci and called out ideas from the collection for him to draw. “It was amazing how things distorted,” Strateas says. “But some things came out really similar [to the original sketches].”
“There were details that I could draw perfectly, but they often ended up in completely different places,” Carlucci recalls.
While the process has hints of a 1970s retreat to “unlock the creative unconscious”, Strateas.Carlucci’s work is at its most brilliant when the pair’s bigger ideas are tightly controlled. For instance, they custom-created a textile in their studio that has the flaking, overlaid effect of a paperbark gum, if the tree’s bark was made of black silk. They did this by crushing yards of silk in a laminator, stabilising it, then pressing it flat. They’ve used this fabric to create a very simple trench coat, which they’ll be showing in Paris. The garment is wonderfully romantic, but any extra complexity would have betrayed the pair’s original efforts.
Though their fabric development processes are complex, and see them working with mills locally as well as in Japan and Italy, they try to restrain themselves when it comes to the shape and construction of garments. “At Trimäpee we used to think, ‘Oh, it’ll be cool, everyone can wear this piece a different way.’ But now we realise you shouldn’t need an instruction manual for a shirt. We want everything we make to be easy. Even if there’s a sash to tie, or a double collar or something, it should still be really simple to put on.”
These complex-but-simple pieces involve oversized T-shirts in weird fabrics, including one that has the rippling topography of a tortoise’s shell. “I don’t even know how the mill made that one,” Carlucci says. “I think it took three different kinds of processing.” Knits that mix cotton string with coated polyurethane also feature. It’s the kind of high-tech, minimal styling that would look very much at home on Kanye West.
Though the collections are predominantly muted in shade and texture, Strateas.Carlucci has made a habit of creating at least one spiffy, shiny silk look a season. This time around, it’s a pair of sharply creased white jacquard trousers, paired with a track jacket cut from the same cloth. The high-shine jacquard features squiggles of matt fabric that are based on the variations in colour that are present in a human iris.
“We don’t do print, we don’t do much colour. This is what we do instead,” says Carlucci. In a runway show that’s dominated by darkness, these gleaming garments act as a shot glass of sorbet between heavier looks.
No longer infested with pigeons, the Strateas.Carlucci warehouse space is now a thoughtful shrine to dark minimalism. Featuring stainless-steel surfaces and textured black dividers, even their tea is served from crumpled black ceramics. Though their personal sensibilities edge towards Gothic, Strateas and Carlucci don’t want their label to be seen as “too dark”.
The shiny silk looks and white shirting they’ve been creating helps diffuse some of this gloominess. “We’re stepping away from that darkness. There are these undertones… Maybe we’re tormented by the weather here in Melbourne. But we don’t want to be pigeonholed as that kind of label.”
Having been backed into a corner once, they’ve now got a keen sense of what to prioritise. “It’s about quality and a piece you can keep revisiting. Yes, some of the fabrics are quite crazy, but we’re classic, too,” Carlucci says.
Though every collection has a story, and a complicated behind-the-scenes process, the label’s biggest fixation is on creating high-quality garments that won’t date easily, and that they would want to wear themselves – the pair confess they “design selfishly”.
Carlucci reflects: “I think our customer might still be the same person as it was with Trimäpee… He’s just grown up with us.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
Jun 13, 2015 as "Paris match".