While Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Naomi Watts and other Aussie A-listers have long topped best-dressed lists, it’s now Australian fashion designers who are basking in the limelight, with Sydney being dubbed “fashion’s fifth city” by style insiders after London, New York, Milan and Paris.
“High-low dressing is how women are dressing now and the Australians own that look,” says Ben Matthews, buying manager at Net-a-porter.com. That high (designer)-low (dressed-down) fashion mix is an attitude very much rooted in the landscape in which it is created, a landscape that will be on show when the UK’s first survey of Australian art from 1800 to today opens next month at London’s Royal Academy of Art.
According to siblings Camilla Freeman Topper and Marc Freeman of Camilla and Marc, whose playful party dresses have attracted fans such as Kristen Stewart and Sydney-born Rose Byrne: “There’s a sense of freedom here that reflects our natural environment and is inspired by our outdoorsy lifestyle, like going for a swim at Bondi Beach before work. There’s also no history like at Chanel or Vuitton, so we are not constrained by rules and can create no-holds-barred ideas.”
This does not mean the old Australian sartorial clichés of bikinis and board shorts but, for example, Collette Dinnigan’s feminine handcrafted lace dresses (from £810); Romance was Born, with their psychedelic pop designs such as a beaded orange minidress (A$950/£563); Roopa Pemmaraju’s floaty handwoven Indian fabrics, featuring famous indigenous artworks on silk dresses (A$599); and up-and-coming design duo Kahlo’s experimental perforated and glazed leathers (from £220 for a halter top). Also worth seeking out is Australia’s couture king Alex Perry, whose slinky tailored sheaths and corseted gowns are worn by Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna.
For Edwina McCann, editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, this new Australian approach is characterised by the work of designers such as Dion Lee and Josh Goot. Lee is known for high-tech scuba-like fabrics in sculpted body-con pieces and surf-inspired weave and twist designs, while Goot creates abstract prints inspired by Australia’s natural habitat. The result, says McCann, is “an odd blend of inner city and beach culture – a sophisticated look that has not lost the rebelliousness of our surf, skateboarding culture and references to the sea”.
Christopher Esber, winner of the Australian regional 2013/14 International Woolmark Prize for fashion design, speaks of another distinguishing trait: “Being so isolated and not having easy access to everything, including European mills, means being resourceful.”
For example, Gary Bigeni, Australia’s master of drapery, has collaborated with Melbourne based, London-born artist Matthew Johnson to create limited-edition prints for his current collection. “Matthew is from the international art world so I am attracting that sort of global customer,” he says.
Damian Burke, a general manager of Australian department store David Jones, is also global-minded; “Our brands are thinking globally, and their collections have become wider, incorporating casual, city, as well as swimwear looks.”
The internet has revolutionised Australian fashion, making the collections immediately accessible. When Romance was Born launched its website last September, its first customers were from New York, while My-wardrobe.com has seen 182 per cent revenue growth from Australia in the year to May 2013.
“Australia was a closed market before online shopping,” says Vogue’s McCann. “Our designers were only available in a few stores overseas. Now etailers put our designers next to Stella [McCartney], and that has changed perception as well as accessibility.”
But still, as designer Dion Lee says; “People aren’t looking for coats or knitwear from Australian designers, they are looking for the easy-going lifestyle, relaxed attitude and culture of the country.”
For a review of ‘Australia’, Royal Academy of Arts, see ‘Outback and beyond’