From her signature red rose print to being seen on Beyoncé, Karla Špetić has caught the eye without seeking the limelight. By Alyx Gorman.

Karla Špetić’s gowns n’ roses

Karla Špetić is haunted by her previous collection. The Sydney-based designer has just over a month to conceive and make a new season to sell in Paris, but her Autumn/Winter range, “If these walls could talk”, just keeps coming up. In many ways, it’s a good thing. Her stockists can’t get enough of it. They keep ordering and reordering certain pieces. But it means she can’t move on. 

Arrestingly bold, it makes sense that “If these walls could talk” would stick. The collection was “very personal”, and Špetić was fixated on the idea of love and lust when she made it.

The centrepiece to the range is a white miniskirt with a hemline that curves down over the right thigh. Almost the entire front panel of the dress is taken up by a single print – a blown-up, high-contrast photograph of a blood red rose. “The rose was a last-minute addition,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “It was Valentine’s Day when I was designing it, and I realised ‘I want a huge rose.’ ” It’s a compelling piece of clothing – it doesn’t look like anything else – but it’s also quite flattering and accessible. Having been picked up by street-style superstar Nicole Warne, whose Gary Pepper Girl Instagram account has an audience of 1.3 million people, the skirt has gone a little viral, appearing on social media again and again. 

Elsewhere in the collection, a giant male hand screws in a light bulb on a calf-length pencil skirt (“I was kind of thinking about the dream man, who would come and change your light bulbs for you”) while a female hand with a bright red manicure, her fingers cupped just so, curls over a singlet top and miniskirt in a way that’s vividly suggestive. Close-fitting, with curving lines and cutaways, in a palette of black, white, anaemic pink and sanguine red, the collection displays the best of what Špetić is known for – graphic prints, intense colours, and cuts that are clean but novel. 

Špetić’s approach to designing is both narrative driven (“I always want to tell a story”) and very intimate (“usually, it reflects something that is happening in my life… You want fashion to be personal”). 

Being one’s own muse as a fashion designer is not nearly as common as you might imagine. Špetić’s urges run deeper than most. 

Born in Croatia, Špetić came to Australia with her mother as a refugee during the Croatian War of Independence. “We didn’t really have anything,” she says of arriving in Queensland at the age of 11. “I remember being really conscious of the fact that I didn’t fit in, because my clothes were so different. I only had a few outfits that I’d been able to bring [from Croatia]. I was really self-conscious of it in school – back home we didn’t have uniforms. So I would go to school in my normal clothes. They seemed strange to all of the Australian kids. My mother couldn’t afford to buy me a uniform, so I had to finish year six without one, in my regular clothes.”

The pangs of what Špetić left behind, and the way the things she had brought marked her as different from the other kids, stuck with her. “I just dreamed that I’d make my own clothes and not have these insecurities. I wanted to make clothes so I could just wear myself. So I didn’t have to wear uniforms, or go to the shops and look like everybody else. At the time it was a curse. But when I look back now it was so funny.” 

Years later, when she returned to Croatia with her mother and aunt to clean out her late grandmother’s home, Špetić learnt that she had fashion in her blood. “We found all these things that she was making just before she’d passed away. She was living alone and had been making all these dresses by hand.” Špetić’s grandmother had a penchant for unpicking store-bought dresses and restitching them. She’d remove sleeves and add crochet flourishes. “It was amazing to see how she’d been in her own little world, stitching things. I didn’t really know that she was like that. I didn’t see it when I was a child.”

Špetić’s mother diagnoses this moment as the reason her daughter became a designer, though Špetić herself is more circumspect. “You always do wonder why…” 

With a list of heavyweight stockists, including e-commerce store Moda Operandi, and a recognisable signature style, Špetić has all the makings of a buzz brand. But that hasn’t happened. 

“I’ve been doing this for seven years, and people still keep thinking I’m a new label,” she says. This is partly because she’s recently changed the way she makes seasons, shifting priority from a southern to northern hemisphere selling schedule. But it is mostly because she is allergic to self-promotion, and not particularly enamoured with the idea of world domination. Špetić rarely does runway shows – her last was in 2013 – and while her clothes have made their way onto Solange and Beyoncé Knowles, among many others, she doesn’t actively seek celebrity champions. 

She operates lean, for the sake of purity. “I want to keep my brand very honest,” she explains. “To me that’s the beauty of having a brand. Keeping it authentic and contained. I like to be in my little bubble when I do my work. I purposely don’t buy magazines at that time. This collective consciousness can come about when you’re all absorbing the same imagery, and I want to avoid that. I want to live in my own world.”

Špetić describes her work almost as if she’s talking about a shy, strange girl. “I feel there’s a sense of obscurity with what I do sometimes. It’s not appealing to most people, but I think as people’s eyes get used to it, as they see it around, I like to think they warm to it.”

Fortunately for Špetić, there are a number of people who appreciate where she’s coming from. Though she says it makes her feel uncomfortable to see her own creations worn by others on the street – “I always wonder, how did you find me?” – her quiet approach, the sarcasm that’s evident in much of her work and that sense of obscurity, has bred a cultish devotion. She can stay small, continue to do what she loves and her fans will gladly buy it. 

As for her next collection, the one that’s due in Paris in a month, she has faith that a jolt of panic will act as a crucible for her ideas. It often does.

“It will probably end up being some version of me,” she reflects. “There are hundreds of different ones.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Gowns n’ roses".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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