In Christopher Esber’s debut show at New York Fashion Week, he continues his pursuit of the ‘alpha woman’, this time with an automotive edge. By Alyx Gorman.

Christopher Esber at New York Fashion Week

In a former garage with white walls and a raw concrete floor, strewn with glossy beige auto parts, Australian designer Christopher Esber just had his first outing at New York Fashion Week. But it was an exercise in restraint for Esber: a modest – and modish – presentation rather than an extravagant runway show. 

“As a young boy [I’d] see those fashion shows on the TV, and that was very energising and motivating. I’m like, ‘That’s what I’d like to do, that’... Little did I know it’s not all fashion shows. We don’t even do them anymore.”

Although it is called “Fashion Week”, in New York new collections are shown for closer to nine days. During those nine days, there are three or four shows an hour, every hour, from nine in the morning to 10 in the evening. A runway show can take a full hour of a buyer’s or editor’s time. Every designer showing in New York has a similar wish list of attendees – those who hold the purse strings of major department stores or taste-making boutiques, those who command large audiences through glossy magazines via social media. For these covetable guests, with their private drivers, Balenciaga puffer jackets and mirror-lensed sunglasses, the scarcest resource is time. Between the queues to be seated, the delays backstage, the long parade of models up and down, and the filing out afterwards, runway shows burn through that resource like a petrol station fire.

Esber opted for a presentation because he was explicitly told to by American Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. If he wanted to attract that desirable guest list, it was his safest bet. In this increasingly popular format, the guests come and go, while the models remain stationary. A busy buyer can whip round the room – “grab a couple of shots and get what you’re about” – and leave the moment she’s seen enough. The resulting images come out stronger, too. There are no blurry runway shots – just an artistically arranged girl gang staring straight down the barrel of an iPhone.

Over black coffee on ice, beneath his Redfern studio two months before his show, Esber explains the choice was a compromise: a “first step into … a dream of mine”.

“I’ve done presentations the last two years,” he says, “and there is this underwhelming aspect to it. [A show is] like a fleeting motion that just hits, draws you in, because it’s so…” Ephemeral? “Exactly.”

The willingness to go the slightly less romantic route is a new trait for the 29-year-old designer. Esber founded his label at the age of 22, straight out of fashion school, with a loan from his parents.

His reputation in Australia was cemented very quickly. By 2013, he’d won both the Australian final of the International Woolmark Prize and the Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award. His work is feminine, but a little off-kilter – often literally, given his fondness for asymmetry. This jolie laide coolness brings something idiosyncratic to the Australian fashion scene.

But every hard lesson Esber has learnt about the industry has been learnt with his name on the label. “When you’re super-ambitious and young, you want to do everything,” he says. “But trying to co-ordinate fabric coming from Italy with a button being made in Japan, to be in the country at the same time, to then be cut and produced … it’s a bit of finessing.”

In the early days of his label, Esber was sourcing fabrics that had clocked more travel miles than he had. As a first-generation Australian – his parents emigrated from Lebanon in 1980 – he’d contemplated moving overseas. “I just couldn’t comprehend how. I graduated and I still had never been overseas. I was quiet. Not sheltered, but kind of geeky, I put my head down … I just didn’t really have any desire to do anything else. But that came later.”

A commitment to novel textures and fixtures is a significant part of Esber’s charm. The large resin buttons that frequently appear on his calf-length pencil skirts and dresses are custom-made, shot with colours that represent themes central to the collections they appear in. This season, he picked dirty jewel tones, like the iridescence of an oil slick. Most of his fabrics are custom-milled, by “companies that normally work with such high volume, really prestigious brands. It’s been really nice to work with them on a smaller scale.”

But achieving finishes that subvert expectations comes with an additional layer of logistical complexity.

“A couple of years ago, I had to pull back a bit with how many things we were sourcing … All these elements in one garment … There were a couple of collections where certain things just didn’t come through.”

Now Esber has a production manager to ensure everything gets where it needs to be, on time. “I definitely feel, I wouldn’t say bitter, but I’m very cautious. I think just getting older through the business and making so many mistakes, you can see the red flags before they happen, which is a big thing. [I’m] less optimistic and, I think, more realistic.”

That a designer who picks such tough muses would be a romantic at heart is a little surprising. Women’s workwear has always been a staple for Esber. It’s not uncommon for him to layer action-woman imagery over smart shirts and bold skirts. In his first Australian Fashion Week collection, he cited Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight as an inspiration. For Autumn/Winter 2017-18, it was Paula Romo’s Woman in Black, from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 surrealist western El Topo.

“This alpha woman character really resonated with me. In charge, yet super-feminine… The thought of dressing a girl in a really tight dress and having her look like a trophy, that does not inspire me.”

The cowgirl influences were almost imperceptibly subtle in the show: a skirt with a hem that curved high at the front and low at the flanks, like a pair of riding chaps; wide pockets sitting at perfect quick-draw height.

Esber’s unwillingness to put women on a pedestal – unless they’re planning to backflip off it – makes evening wear his greatest challenge.

“We laugh in the studio,” he says. “We’re like, ‘Okay, we need to do it, we need to do the dress that the girls are going to want to wear on the red carpet.’ But then I’ll have ribbing on it. It’ll be somehow downplayed or made ironic and super-casual. It’s not my strength.”

There was one look in his New York show that suggested he may finally have overcome that unease. At first glance, it was a simple white column dress, worn with an inky velvet bustier. But on closer inspection, its hem – which rose to a chevron point at the front – was perfectly matched to a series of contrast-textured stripes woven into the fabric of the skirt. Taken together they looked like arrows at the side of a racetrack. Given 1970s automobiles were also a key theme for the show, this visual joke was no accident.

Texturally complex, relaxed and unafraid to be beautiful, it was a transference of romantic optimism from designer to garment. Christopher Esber’s clothes have always had an air of sophisticated pragmatism. In New York, where the models stand perfectly still, he caught up to the woman he has imagined.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "Auto focus".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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