With the aim of sustaining the Chanel legacy, Material By Product creative director Susan Dimasi has the well-heeled 21st-century professional in her sights. By Alyx Gorman.

Susan Dimasi and Material By Product

Given the degree of ritual and ceremony that surrounds legal proceedings, it is surprising how rarely fashion designers cite lawyers as a point of inspiration, or even interest. Susan Dimasi, founder and creative director of Material By Product, is an ardent exception. Just after Easter, she will be holding a salon show in the chambers of a commercial QC. Unlike most runway shows, the front row will not be publicised. Images of the show will not be plastered across Instagram. It will be intimate and simple.

“The three presenting hosts have pulled together this absolutely breathtaking list of women in law from judges through to briefs who love fashion and they are really looking forward to it,” Dimasi says, “but they don’t want any press there and they don’t want to talk about it. It’s private, and that’s not surprising to me.”

Seven of Dimasi’s creations sit in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. She’s even created a live installation for the gallery, with an artist’s statement that could hold its own next to any postmodernist work.

Since 2004, the Melbourne-based designer has quietly made a name for herself creating esoteric garments that unpack the process of their own construction: capelets made visibly from offcut armholes, allowing the insertion of flesh where there was once nothing but a square of fabric; the dashes and dots of a tailor’s marking system employed as a decorative motif; external bias-bound seams that look like piping, and speak to the old sewing-class rule that a garment should look just as good on the inside as it does right way out. The Material By Product manufacturing process remains breathtakingly meticulous, but now Dimasi’s focus is more human. She’s no longer making clothes about clothes; she’s making them for a coterie of well-to-do professional women who want to be as comfortable and presentable as possible, simultaneously. A typical Material By Product dress is made from bias-cut silk. It skims the body fluidly. Material By Product skirts often feature elasticated waists. Wearing any Material By Product garment feels a lot like wearing pyjamas – the innovation is that these pyjamas are office – and cocktail party – appropriate.

Last year, Dimasi moved her atelier from Fitzroy to the Victor Horsley Chambers, at No. 12 Collins Street. The three strangely shaped rooms – all jutting angles, white walls and high ceilings – are flooded with natural light, and warmed by parquetry floors. Here, she holds private appointments with her clients, or “patrons”, in the language of Material By Product. She’ll take their measure literally, and sometimes metaphorically, to get to the heart of their needs. Then, she works with her team of artisans, mostly young female fashion graduates Dimasi has trained in-house to press, cut, sew, press and press again with obsessive perfectionism, to manufacture made-to-measure garments on site. Material By Product produces a small amount of ready-to-wear, available online and in the atelier, but the overwhelming majority of the label’s business comes from custom orders.

The optics of running a bespoke atelier in one of the buildings that gave the “Paris end” of Collins Street its nickname, several storeys and the slope of a hill upwards from Dior, Hermès and Louis Vuitton have certainly occurred to Dimasi. “My older clients have been there and done that in terms of big brands on Collins Street … When they’re sitting around the boardroom table they love having something that other people can’t place.”

Though Dimasi can still talk at length about the “design systems” that underpin her atelier, she’d rather talk about her customers. “They are women who are not getting dressed up for the red carpet … they’re coming to me for that luxury that they live in every day … One of my clients said to me, ‘I sit in the car and I look down at what I’m wearing and I discover another beautiful detail’, and in that case it’s just for her… it’s about her having that pleasure. She might be getting dressed at seven o’clock in the morning, and she’s on the go all day, but when she does have that moment in the car at the traffic lights, she’s not on display to anyone else, but she’s feeling really good in a piece that’s beautifully crafted.”

Taking these women through her atelier, where sewing machines hum and rolls of fabric hang by the dozen in the hallway, is central to the process of engaging with Material By Product. “Any day of the week there’s stuff going on. I don’t even make any apologies. They love that experience.” This is why Material By Product does not wholesale. Which isn’t to say Dimasi has no desire to see her clothes in the Paris end of, well, Paris. Her strategy for expansion is at once very old fashioned, and appropriate for the 21st century. Rather than make ever-more clothes in Melbourne, she intends to open “satellite” offices.

“Whilst I still work as a designer, I also work more these days as a creative director, because I have a fantastic team of artisans and I say to them, ‘Okay, creatively this is where we’re going. You’re the artisans who are actually going to have to execute this. You show me as a team … who understand how to walk and talk this language, how we should bring this together.’

“What that allows me to do is also work on business expansion … the task in hand right now is to do what I’ve done with my atelier, which is to be fully in touch with the DNA of the experience of Material by Product. Crudely speaking, how I sell. I know that’s still a bit of a dirty word in Australia, but it’s just fundamental economics.”

Dimasi is frustrated by potential investors who’ve told her that her model isn’t scalable “because it’s essentially you”. She says “Armani – that’s a man; Prada – that’s a woman … These were all individual people who had a particular vision that was then systematised, whether it was sales and marketing systems or manufacturing systems.”

It was a Material by Product patron who had the idea of hosting a salon show in her legal chambers. It happened over Christmas drinks in Dimasi’s atelier. “We had a typically fantastic time, which is what I call ‘in the harem’ – this is a loaded word, because it’s usually a misogynistic word. But it’s a positive … when women are just loving being in each other’s company and loving to talk about dressing, and talk about creativity, and talk about life, and talk about business, and talk about relationships, and … culture and art, all in one mixed conversation … Several different conversations converged and now this idea of the salon show has come together.”

While Dimasi’s lawyers-as-muses approach is not one she holds in common with other designers, the root of this inspiration is surprisingly obvious. “[My patrons] do work extraordinarily long hours, they do spend their life in that outfit they put on in the morning. They don’t go home to change … For me it’s carrying on the Chanel legacy, which is ‘how do I create clothes that are relevant to the working woman of the 21st century?’ That’s the true Chanel legacy. She looked out to the world and said, ‘I can see that life is going to be different for women in the 20th century.’ We’re now talking about the 21st century.”

Certainly, if you asked a trend forecaster about the direction luxury is moving, towards “bespoke” and “local” would sit high on the list of buzzwords. If, a few years from now, Material By Product clothes – made locally – wind up being shown “for pure pleasure” in a little chamber perched above the Strand in London, for an eager audience of silks, then Dimasi will have established a legacy entirely her own.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2017 as "Material success".

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