Australian Fashion Week showcased wearable clothes in fresh silhouettes alongside body- and gender-diverse clothing, as well as some derivative and unimaginative offerings. By Lucianne Tonti.

Australian Fashion Week 2022

Models on the runway for Alix Higgins’ show at Australian Fashion Week.
Models on the runway for Alix Higgins’ show at Australian Fashion Week.
Credit: AAP Image / James Gourley

Dancers in silk pants and delicately draped dresses raised their arms one at a time, elbows forming gentle angles with their hips. In front of an ice-blue curtain, on burnt red carpet, they lunged, twisted and turned.

An audience of fashion editors and buyers looked on as the dancers turned models demonstrated how freely they could move in the clothes and how beautiful they looked when they did.

It was the first time Bianca Spender had shown at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week in four years. Given the opening spot in Carriageworks’ largest gallery – named after her late mother, Carla Zampatti – her return to the schedule set a tone for the week that proved difficult for other designers to match.

Spender makes clothes that women want to wear. There were distinctly new silhouettes that felt equal parts feminine and formidable, and a uniquely constructed pair of yellow, high-waisted, flat-front pants with a pleat tucked expertly into the upper thigh.

The collection was both elegant and flattering. The colour palette was brightly seductive: delicate lilac and baby blue, earthy terracotta set against red, cream and marigold, mocha and black and finally a pop of Yves Klein blue.

Eighty per cent of Spender’s collection was made using deadstock – excess fabric otherwise destined for landfill. This was further evidence of the cerebral way she operates at a moment in fashion when sustainability and the industry’s carbon footprint are at the forefront of every conversation.

On day four, when Lauren Sams, the fashion editor of The Australian Financial Review, opened a panel on sustainable business with the question, “How sustainable is a fashion week where there are 50 designers showing new collections?” Spender had already provided the answer: true creativity is not restrained by sustainability, it is ignited by it.

The next show was the first of many that would embrace diversity in body shapes and gender. Gary Bigeni presented a tight, colourful collection with deep roots in the communities he supports, and a twist – the collection will be entirely made-to-order.

Such joyful presentations came in spades, each one a refreshing ode to freedom of art, sexuality and self-expression: from Erik Yvon to Mariam Seddiq, from Nicol & Ford to Romance Was Born. Iordanes Spyridon Gogos’s off-its-head display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum on the second-last night firmly established queer representation and the revelry of the LGBTQIA+ community as a central theme of the week.

But a question lingered over each of these runways, evidenced by Bigeni’s new made-to-order model. Can you balance this type of creativity with commerciality? Or in other words, where is the money?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question was impossible to miss. The money is seemingly in the well-executed, derivative designs that were repeated across runways as though each brand had been sent a playbook containing the same trend reports and advice on “what would sell”. Wide-legged pantsuits in black, beige or pastel. Mid-length pencil skirts with a split up the back. Floor-length trench coats. Mesh backless camisoles. Mesh long-sleeved tops. Mesh dresses. The Bottega Veneta green made more than one appearance, as did Jil Sander puffy sandals.

A lot of what was on display is better described as product development than design, and some of this was done exceedingly well. Oroton’s runway was full of sweet dresses, floaty kaftans, well-cut pants and easy shirts in cheery colours and pretty prints. The fits, styling and casting were hard to fault.

Similarly, resort-wear brand Matteau delivered a presentation in front of an enormous black-and-white print of a palm tree. Loud reggae music announced they know who they are and what they’re supposed to deliver: holiday attire. The first outfit was bright white fisherman’s pants paired with a sheer long-sleeved white blouse. Look after look of perfectly tailored pants and long dresses came down the runway, making everyone forget about the grey sky and drizzling rain on the other side of the doors.

Despite the impeccable execution, I found myself searching for a silhouette I hadn’t seen before, or at the very least, given the cyclical nature of fashion, a silhouette not seen for a while.

I was left with a similar feeling at the close of St Agni’s show. Against a crisp white backdrop, models clad in black, white, grey and dark teal floated down the runway. It felt like a wistful, ’90s fever dream. The lines of the collection were obviously inspired by the minimalism of the era when Calvin Klein and Prada dressed the original supermodels in so-low pants and barely there slips.

Each look felt like something I had already seen too much of. And every backless dress and spaghetti strap made me wonder about real bodies and real women, and how they would feel in garments that lacked construction, form and support. Where moving too quickly or reaching for a book on the top shelf would reveal more than was planned.

Then, on Wednesday morning, we were summoned to Bennelong for Esse Studios, where Charlotte Hicks would present the brand’s first show at Australian Fashion Week. We were seated in the restaurant at the bottom of the stairs in the angular room that looks out over Sydney Harbour while a harpist played just above us.

First, the models appeared in the classic tailoring and coats Hicks repeats every season. The evolution was careful, moving from her classic styles to crisp wrap-shirts paired with beautiful ankle-length skirts. And finally to impactful evening dresses with long sleeves and high necks, asymmetrical draping in soft georgette and the occasional addition of a long tassel or sparkle.

The Sydney Opera House was the perfect setting for the pared-back evening wear – each outfit styled with flat leather sandals and simple shiny hair. The colour palette was chocolate brown, cream, navy, beige and black. Male models walked the runway in the brand’s signature pants and silk shirts, quietly making space for the gender fluidity so often signalled by designers but rarely done so subtly.

On the final morning, Alix Higgins opened the day with a soft presentation that suited the early call time. Sporty silhouettes and cleverly constructed dresses came down the runway in muted pastels, black, white and the occasional bright lime green or rose pink. The casting, which was both body and gender diverse, felt easy, with each look refreshingly suited to the individual model.

The sweetness and ingenuity of the Higgins show, alongside the brilliance and work ethic of Spender and Hicks, signal a promising future for the Australian industry. A future where talent will have space to explore new concepts. This feeling of arrival, this hope, was captured by Higgins in the phrases and words on his signature screen prints: I’m not scared anymore; I was never alone; a gift from the fall.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Function over form".

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Lucianne Tonti is The Saturday Paper's fashion editor.

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