Fashion

Playsuit queen Alice McCall will be the first Australian designer to open a stand-alone boutique in China. By Alyx Gorman.

Alice McCall in Wonderland

From left, Alice McCall’s Keep Me There playsuit and Soul Vendor dress.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Alice McCall knows what women want when they go out, and she’s spent more than 20 years giving it to them.

McCall’s five Australian boutiques and online store are typical hunting grounds for a young woman looking for a formal frock, 21st dress or something to wear to the club. Celebrities, from teen pop idols Kendall and Kylie Jenner to more sophisticated dressers such as Alexa Chung, flock to her for cocktail and semi-formal fashion.

One might assume that the status of unofficial queen of Australian party fashion would mean a life spent fiddling with corsetry, working with clinging ponte and reattaching sequins, but this, it turns out, is not what women want. “Basically, women want to be comfortable,” McCall says over drinks near her studio in Sydney’s new fashion industrial hub Rosebery. “They want to feel secure, but not constricted.” For McCall, good occasion wear design is about acknowledging the body, and working with it.

This means many of McCall’s creations are quite loosely fitted. Her skirts can be puffy and often have pockets. Her armholes sit low on the rib cage. Many of her creations have plunging necklines that can be worn comfortably without a bra. “Of course some girls do want to wear a bra when they’re getting dressed up, and you have to be mindful of that when you’re creating a collection, too,” she says.

“Designing becomes almost like an equation or a formula.” There are some ratios McCall will not work with (dresses that sit exactly at the knees for instance), while other combinations she knows will win every time. “There are some things that are always going to make you the money: playsuits, lace, pastels… but not yellow-based ones. Then there’s magic on top.”

In her studio, picking the perfect hem length for a dress is often a contentious issue. McCall and her team back and forth a lot to finesse a garment’s shape, to get it to the exact point where it will flatter not just a woman’s figure but her sensitivities. The aim is to create clothes that will do some of your flirting for you, but won’t put everything out there at once.

Playsuits are some of her biggest sellers. “Fundamentally, the reason playsuits sell is they can be shorter than a dress. They add the concept of fun to a dress. You design a dress and it needs to be a bit longer, but give it a crotch, and suddenly it can go as short as you like.” The goal is to make them look cheeky, without being cheeky. “A playsuit looks better if it’s shorter at the front with a curved hem going down at the back to cover your bum,” McCall says.

“Actually, I just invented a new style. You know how a ‘skort’ is shorts with a skirt flap? Well this is a ‘dreysuit’. The outer shell is a dress, but the lining is a playsuit. That can go really short, without showing anything.”

McCall has a very specific vision of femininity: at times doll-like in its innocence, with ruffles, bows, and white lace (sometimes all at once), but then, with metallic brocades and lamé cut into micro-shorts and crop tops, speaking to something The GTOs might have pulled on in 1969.

When you consider her background, the melange of influences makes more sense. “I was obsessed with Laura Ashley flocked curtains,” McCall says of her childhood. “It’s a little grandma chic.” She is a second-generation fashion designer. Born in Kenya, her mother immigrated to Britain at 16, studying at the London College of Fashion, before landing work designing costumes for The Beatles. “She went from an incredibly strict upbringing, balancing books on her head, to running around in skirts that barely covered her bottom, smoking pot, being chased by James Bond types in yellow convertibles and living on Portobello Road,” McCall says.

By the 1980s, her mother was embedded in the Australian rag trade, creating womenswear before launching her own children’s clothing brand. “I had the best dressing-up box you’ve ever seen,” McCall reflects. “My mother collected Issey Miyake and Gaultier, she had these mad clip-on earrings… Whenever she’d go out for dinner I’d raid her wardrobe.”

Like her mother, McCall made her name in London, working as a stylist for MTV, and rock stars such as Debbie Harry and Natalie Imbruglia in the 1990s. She’d search warehouses of vintage clothing to find silk scarves and old prom dresses, which she’d deconstruct and alter for her clients. One dress, a mint green ’50s number she and a friend had covered in yellow leather polka dots, found its way onto Kate Moss, then into the tabloids. Inquiries poured in, which is how McCall transitioned from styling to design, to running her own label.

Even to this day, McCall will work using a collage method. She’ll drape and pin milled fabric on a mannequin, or deconstruct and remake the vintage textiles she still collects obsessively. In 2006, a pair of lace doilies bought at auction provided inspiration for one of her brand’s first major hits, the Love Is a Drug dress. “It was such a naive way of working,” McCall says of the process. Those two doilies, lace-trimmed, coloured up and paired with an apron-style skirt, resulted in a garment so covetable, you can still find threads on fashion forums dedicated to hunting it down.

Of course, big hits attract pretenders, and copyright infringement is an indignity her brand suffers frequently. “We try and squash it whenever we can,” she says, “but it has brought more awareness to our brand. I look at that as a form of flattery fundamentally.”

In China, where McCall now manufactures almost all of her products, there have been numerous copycats. But the popularity of her aesthetic there has brought with it a mammoth opportunity. On January 16, McCall will become the first Australian designer to open a stand-alone boutique in China, in Dalian City in the northern province Liaoning. The boutique is one of 10 planned openings in China over the next five years, the first in a franchise agreement with fashion PR firm GSL. Already, some 15 per cent of McCall’s online customers shop in Mandarin, shipping their purchases to addresses in Australia, the US and China. GSL’s director Giselle Wang saw McCall as the perfect fit for the Chinese market, because her clothes reflect an arch girlishness that is already popular there.

“Chinese women want to stand out a little bit, but they don’t want to be too conspicuous,” says McCall. “Our clothes are classic, but with a point of difference. They’re fun, and girls have fun in our products.”

That idea, that women should be enjoying themselves in Alice McCall clothing is, as much as any formula for playsuit hem length, the secret to her success as a designer. Because for young women, whether they be members of China’s new middle class or Australia’s firmly established one, recreation is serious business.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Alice in Wonderland". Subscribe here.

Alyx Gorman
is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.