Christopher Esber used the enforced isolation of lockdown to embrace the idea of a Mediterranean escape inspired by Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and Neoclassical art. By Lucianne Tonti.
Christopher Esber’s escape from reality
Christopher Esber says his newest collection, Spring 2022, was inspired by “the idea of another place, another time”. He explains that he drew on the Neoclassical artist John Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer’s “The Odyssey” to escape the reality of lockdown in Sydney, where his label is based.
He says, “I love the line work in those drawings.” He connects the pure sensibility of Flaxman’s work to the negative space that has become a signature of his own designs – dresses, skirts and shirts with linear construction that reveals the side of a rib cage, the top of a hip bone, a bare shoulder or midriff.
“I’ve always played with cutouts and exposure,” he says. “It’s not so much about trying to make it sexy or youthful; it’s looking at the lines and working with negative space, but, of course, when you transfer that onto a body it’s exposed.”
One of these pieces is a floor-length, form-fitting black dress made from thick viscose jersey. It has one long sleeve that encases the left shoulder and arm. At the point where the arm meets the body, the fabric is pulled together and wrapped up in a gold metal spiral, exposing the chest and the side of the ribs.
A second spiral functions as a strap on the right collarbone, drawing the fabric across the bust, creating an asymmetric neckline. A third spiral rests on the right hip bone, pulling what’s left of the dress away to reveal the right abdominal muscles. From here, the skirt falls straight.
Through this measured exposure of skin, the dress is both elegant and modern. This type of piece has made Esber’s designs a red-carpet favourite of stars such as Zendaya, Solange and Dua Lipa. Esber says it is a “good example of me playing with negative space, as far as putting pen to paper. Once you put it on the body, she comes to life and she’s a bit sexy.”
The wide gold spirals evoke thick rope. Combined with the dress’s asymmetrical drape it could be worn by one of Flaxman’s ancient Greeks. “The Odyssey” is, of course, the story of a man on a journey home who is cursed to traverse the blue seas and skies of the Mediterranean for a decade looking for his kingdom.
The dichotomy between the adventure of Odysseus and life in Australia these past two years is hard to ignore. The restrictions on movement and travel were enough to make anyone long for a decade of wandering the islands of Greece, stumbling across strange ports, strange towns and foreign markets of precious gems, under the gentle heat of the Mediterranean sun.
Esber plays with some of these themes in Spring 22. His colour palette is inspired by the summer sky. The washed-out apricot of a sunset, the marigold yellow of mid-afternoon light. He plays with tones that look as though they’ve been bleached by the sun, a sage green, a muted tan, a rose pink.
A silk georgette twin-set is made in the pale, bright yellow of the morning light. The georgette has been washed so it is shrunken and chalky. Esber says the seams are on the outside “to add to the deconstructed, inside outside feel”. It is part of his swimwear line and he says he’s seen it worn poolside and also to parties.
The textures in this collection are important. He uses delicate layers to give each piece a hand-finished feel. The twin-set comprises a knee-length skirt made of sheer panels in two-tones, ruched along the hips like a low-slung belt. A separate piece of silk has been sewn into the bottom left third of the skirt, a half circle of slightly darker yellow that Esber describes as saffron.
The matching top is part cardigan, part blouse, with sleeves so long they cover the entire hand and two string ties, one at the navel, one at the collar, to draw the sides of the piece to close. It is worn over a bralette in a matching canary yellow. The pieces are part of the brand’s core line and are re-created slightly differently every season.
Christopher Esber graduated from Sydney’s TAFE NSW Fashion Design Studio in 2007 and launched his label three years later. Accolades came quickly. In his first five years he won the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award, the emerging designer award at the Australian Fashion Laureate and Vogue Italia’s most talented designer. He was also a finalist in the International Woolmark Prize. In 2017, he made his debut at New York Fashion Week.
Since the label’s inception Esber has worked to evolve certain designs, continuing to make them until people have the “appetite to take them in”. He says, “Some things take a while to take off, people need to see things repeated again and again.” Working this way gives him time. “Time has been an important player for me,” he says. “With time I’m able to develop what I do.”
He is continuing to develop a line of garments with hardware details that have natural stones embedded. He says they take classic shapes and put a spin on them by adding silver, gold and stones.
An example of this is a T-shirt so cropped it finishes just below the bust. It has a long narrow slash from the left collarbone to the top of the navel where a pale stone pokes through the gap. The stone is set into the end of a curved piece of metal that the fabric of the T-shirt wraps around and is ruched along. Another prong is attached to its end. It curves in a horizontal half-moon that spans the bottom of the rib cage, four chains dangle from it, each with a stone attached to the end.
The ideas for some of Esber’s designs, such as this one, are so abstract it’s hard to imagine what they might feel like to wear. Certainly, if you walked or danced in it, the stones would knock against each other.
Some of the other pieces require muscles and taught skin in places not many women possess them. He insists those pieces can be layered over T-shirts and skivvies for modesty, that this “looks cooler than just against the skin”. But he says the pieces are also about “embracing body positivity; why can’t you embrace showing what your body is?”
His background is in men’s tailoring, a sensibility he brings to each collection. He creates designs with what he calls a “deconstructed idea of femininity”. This reminds me of his description of putting pen to paper, creating clothes for a woman he has sketched into being. The way he expresses how the dress suddenly becomes “a little bit sexy” when his drawings are realised on a physical body with softness and curves, a body that moves.
In this way it makes sense that the clothes were born from daydreaming of another time, another place, of escape.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Deconstructed femininity".
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