Mr Brown found himself banded together with a select bunch of Melbourne's suitably subtle stylemeisters by that superior scribe of all things fashion & chic, Ms Janice Breen Burns. Her stylish seven were asked to bring forth a treasured item or ensemble from their carefully curated wardrobes, that evoked a special story for their carer.
This article appeared in Melbourne's The Age Saturday edition on February 7th 2015, in the Spectrum supplement. Wonderfully penned by Janice Breen Burns with brilliant image capture by Simon Schluter.
Or read about these fascinating folk and their treasured togs below.
In a hundred years, Adrian Lewis' shiny blue tuxedo could conceivably be installed in an art museum. It might swivel on a plinth with a plaque: "Evening wear, circa 2015, debonair Melbourne gent". Or something similar. Technology will have evolved; perhaps a hologram of Lewis himself, all snake hips and perforated Prada shoes, will animate the suit, his black diamond cufflinks glint as he twists and maybe, this long-gone society cool-cat will even explain, for the curious gallery-goers of 3015, why his tux was so perfectly perfect for him, for his style, for his personality, and for its time. Why it was so treasured, and worth preserving. They will hang on his every holo-scripted word.
Fashion is after all, endlessly intimately and universally fascinating. We get it, because we wear it, see it all around, judge it, make complex decisions about it every day. Fashion is the story of us. And, a century from now, there is no reason to believe we will be any less moved by it as a visual history of human expression, both intimate and universal, than we are now. "Fashion is exciting because it is such an accessible form of design," says Tony Ellwood, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, host of the blockbuster Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition. "It is one that people automatically relate to and understand."
In art museums around the world, fashion and costume exhibitions have recently begun reversing flagging attendance numbers, capturing new audiences, ensuring futures. Records have been broken, queues stretched for blocks, people who might otherwise never have visited an art gallery, are doing so to file past frocks, move in close to inspect weft, weave, delicate embellishments, French seams, to learn the social impetus behind trends, and the stories behind wearers.
All this, ironically, in an era of unprecedented mass fashion production and mega-chains: H&M, TopShop, Zara, Uniqlo, et. al., churning out eye-popping numbers of historically cheap clothing. Perhaps it is happening BECAUSE of it. Just as many of us are dressing to global trends for peppercorn prices, looking similar to each other in so many ways, our fascination for the rare, the unique, the stories behind fashion, is also blossoming. A counter fashion trend. The word "heirloom" has even been bandied in fashionable circles for the first time since the early-20th century. And, it is being bandied as an adjective. Longevity has returned to the lexicon of luxury fashion. Wardrobes and landfill sites may indeed be brimming with $39.99 frocks and $10 T-shirts, but categories of fashion worth treasuring and storytelling are also swelling. Adrian Lewis' midnight blue satin tuxedo is a fine example. Nicole Jenkins' silk scarf is another and Phillip Rhodes' Homburg hat, yet another. They are among seven people, renowned for their striking style, we invited to nominate their favorite wardrobe item, and to tell us the story behind it. In a hundred years, they might also be telling it again…
As exuberant and colourful as his art, and as passionate and boyish a fashion maverick as he ever was in his youth, Brown was key in the clique of flamboyant expressionists who built Melbourne's identity in the 1970s and 80s, as a source and hotbed of avante garde and high fashion from designers as far flung as Antwerp, Paris and Tokyo. "I've always lived this way; exuberantly is a good word for it. I think you MUST live your life authentically; you MUST be passionate in everything you do." Brown regularly explodes out of his own envelopes, forcing his art into new directions barely recognisable from the last; from muscular distillations of pop-cultural motifs of alley life and graffiti for example, to vivid abstract pattern fields pocked with hopping blue birds.
Brown's hat is a remodelled version of many he has worn since the early 1980s, from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren's World's End London boutique. It was his signature style, in other words, decades before US singer Pharrell "Happy" Williams adopted it as his own. Brown's coat, with its striking pattern of alien foliage and shadowy skulls, is an elaborate marvel from a recent Yohji Yamamoto collection. Brown owns it by a quirk of timing after being embarrassed (but chuffed) to receive an envelope full of birthday money from a group of loving friends. "We [Brown and his partner] were in Tokyo and I saw this coat; so exotic! I put it on and swanned around in the shop, then I looked at the price and – whoosh! – I put it straight back but Peter said, 'Nooo! THAT's what you're going to spend that money on!', so I bought it and felt very special; it's a piece of love."
Veteran milliner of biting intelligence, wry-to-arid wit, oft-arched brows and magnificent whiskers with a penchant, in sartorial matters, for excellent craftsmanship over fashionable fads. "I often encounter young shop assistants who want to spruce, or fix me up. I think they think; if only I got myself in order, I might look quite nice. But I've never bought a fashionable thing in my life. I've always thought those [fashionable] things are for good-looking people." Rhodes is one of few classically trained (at the table of infamous millinery legend William Beale) milliners in Melbourne. It is a distinction that lures many of the city's more discerning clients for his couture designs, a substantial seasonal order from Myer for his ready-to-wear collections, and a permanent spot on the Melbourne Theatre Company's list of revered costumers (millinery) for productions such as La Cage Aux Follies and Geoffrey Rush's The Importance of Being Earnest.
For Spectrum's photo shoot, Rhodes chose this refugee from the MTC dress-up box, an Homburg-style hat which he trimmed with a jaunty spray of Austrian pigs-bristle, itself a gift from an intuitive sister. "She saw it and thought it would be perfect for me. It was. The hat was apparently made for a Chekhov production but never used, possibly because of its energy. When [an actor] walks on stage with a prop, you see, it has its own energy. You must extinguish the energy (put it somewhere), or do something with it. Anyway, it was handed to me: 'You should have this; you would actually wear it'. Perhaps because I'm a bit old-fashioned in my manner? A bit oldy-worldy? And I do wear it. It's been perfect; so beautiful, so beautifully made. William Beale always said that something extreme, something extrovert, should be faultless and this is; it speaks to the quality of its making. I am wearing it with my Kenzo [elaborately embroidered vest] that I bought at Daimaru 20 years ago. I love it because it's ornate. I don't feel overly flamboyant in it, but it is quite decorative."
Collector, award-winning author (Love Vintage, Style is Eternal) and much-admired owner of Circa Vintage, a remarkable storehouse of fashions dating back through the uber-glamour decades of the 20th century, to her earliest treasure, an exquisite 1832 silk gown "that pre-dates Melbourne". Out of Circa's ever-swelling racks, Jenkins sells to like-minded private collectors (local and global), and lends to filmmakers (including for the yet-to-be-released film The Dressmaker starring Kate Winslet), stage and television costumiers, photographers and stylists in search of vintage fashion's Holy Grail: authenticity. Ladylike, quietly spoken with a tendency to black frocks and practical, low-heeled shoes, Jenkins' elegant conservatism (the product of a classic social struggle, she confides, of the naturally introverted) is visually countered by bright lipstick and a shock of fuchsia pink hair: "My cherry on top."
Jenkins tells the story of her lavish hand-screen printed silk scarf, big as a rug and predominantly pink, by controversial Melbourne artist Christopher Graf:
"Before I moved to Melbourne from Sydney, I would come here to buy clothes, stroll around Chapel Street, see what everyone was doing. The crown jewel in the 1990s was the remarkable shop of Christopher Graf, a glorious wonderland of a shop, everything sugary, so colourful, so beautiful. All your troubles would just fall away. I always wanted to buy everything. But then, for whatever reason, he left Chapel Street. Such a sad loss. Later when I moved to Melbourne, I found we had friends in common on Facebook and I wrote, thanking him for the happiness, the joy he'd given so many people. I wanted to support him; we should all support local artists so they can keep working. Eventually we met, at Fashion Torque [the regular industry soirees hosted by stylist Philip Boon and designer Jenny Bannister] and – oh – it was such a pleasure and a privilege! I love his incredible sense of colour, the way he mixes those subversive, naughty elements in his work. I love the world through his eyes. One day, a package turned up and in it was this amazing scarf …"
Melbourne's gentleman jeweller, as renowned for his warmth and wide circle of A-listed friends as he is for his clipped English consonants and impeccable etiquette. Lewis' client list for custom-designed, hand-crafted exquisitries is long and discreet; his diffusion project, a limited-edition series called Adrian Lewis One of Ten, will be his first toe-dip into technology-assisted fine jewellery design in a 20-year career. Modernity and tradition are comfortable halves of Lewis' persona and wardrobe.
"I've always been interested in fashion, but I suppose my English background means that plays out on a conservative level," he says. In the 1990s, Lewis was regularly listed on The Age's "Best Dressed" list for his neo-classic jigsaws of cutting-edge European and Japanese labels. "I still buy a lot of Japanese, but I also wear Rick Owens, Chronicles of Never, custom shoes by Andrew McDonald ..." They're all unarguably Arctic-cool niche brands, but high on quality, low on overt visual impact. "Some people dress for attention, a louder statement, others for those quieter points of difference; the play of textures, fabrics, colours, the twists and turns, the gorgeous simplicity of a beautiful thing."
Today, Lewis' story is one of connoisseurship more than provenance, a descriptive tally of his perfectly perfect tuxedo, dress shirt, bow-tie, cufflinks and shoes. "I have three tuxedos in my wardrobe but I love this Hugo Boss most because it has an edge; it's a gorgeous midnight blue, not black, and it's shiny satin, not matte. It's iconically classic but it's also got that twist. The shirt is simple too; a finely textured cotton jacquard, no (visible) buttons. And, the bow-tie, hand-tied. I would NEVER wear a fake. There is something so sexy about a hand-tied bow-tie. The shoes are Prada, perforated leather; you simply wouldn't wear a patent shoe with a suit like that. The cufflinks are black diamonds, four carats each in simple 18-carat white gold settings. I designed them myself and wear them everywhere. They're perfectly simple; an absolutely perfect expression of classic simplicity."
The Human Chameleon, fledgling milliner and pouting sprite-about-town best known for drifting in the wake or posing on the arm of exotic milliner Richard Nylon. The pair concoct fantastic complementary ensembles before many of Melbourne's PR-driven social kneezups and arrive to a clatter of camera shutters and admiring clusters of fellow A-listers. "I'm not afraid to wear stupid things," she says.
In daylight and out of the limelight, Walker is no less a head-turner. "Ironically, I never started to dress up to stand out. In the beginning, I did it to fit in: I was the ugly duckling, the awkward one who looked like a boy amongst all these well-formed girls. I couldn't do the mini-skirt and high heels with the top and boobs thing because, well; 'Who does she think she is? Is she trying to be gorgeous?'. Walker's friends dressed for boy-catching while her own modes synchronised with her moods, wit, whims and music. "I listen to pop and go out in glitter and sequins, sometimes I listen to R & B and wear drop-crotch pants and high-top sneakers, other days I listen to folk and walk out in long flowing skirts and lots of beads. I dress up because I get bored easily. I like to keep life interesting and exciting by transforming into a new characters. I find 'normal' very boring. I usually have a wig in my handbag for quick costume changes."
Walker was in radio before quitting (from boredom, naturally) and switching to fashion studies. Nylon was one of her tutors, then her friend, then employer and co-costume conspirator. The pair's creative synergy has blossomed into a small pop-cultural phenomenon that slipped quickly into Melbourne's offbeat heart. "I'm lucky to live in such a creative city ... You can get away with anything!"
Walker's oversized cardigan was a gift from her grandmother. "She bought it in Hong Kong, in the 1970s I think. She loved going dancing, ballroom dancing, but a long-sleeved cardigan was too hot so she put in the chiffon sleeves. The pattern is iridescent sequins and there's beading, and it has a beaded fringe. My nan [Doreen, 94], is a very elegant lady, loves shiny sparkly things, a bit like a bower bird, and wouldn't go anywhere, even to Woolworths, without a twinset and a hat. The cardigan's too big on me but I don't care; I like a boy-style fit. I think there's a bit of a grandma inside me; I'm romantic, and I do like my tea." (Walker's sequinned shorts and glitter heels are from Lady Petrova and her "Heart over Heels" headpiece, her own Human Chameleon design.)
A uniquely feminine force; part bombshell glamour, part Mary Poppinsesque primness, who has lured thousands of young female fans to her niche-net blogging moniker, Lady Melbourne. She is foremost a journalist and, for that professional distinction, rare among fashion bloggers. Her output is original and exclusive and predominantly sprung from fashion's "better end", its loveliest and most flattering products and procedures favoured by, and photographed on, her alter-ego, Lady Melbourne. Montague was blogging before many knew what it was, so has also naturally expanded her job-list to teaching and speaking about how it is best done.
Montague's wardrobe story – of a va-voom coral crepe wrap dress and luminous lavender/white wool coat – springs from her first loves: Melbourne itself, and the clutch of small-fry manufacturers still producing glamorous, good-quality fashion in the city.
"I was born and bred in Melbourne, went to Northcote High. I've lived in other cities: Sydney, London, but there is no place like Melbourne. I love it. And I love this label, Kuwaii, because they work here, they make here. This crepe dress is three or four years old, and I'll wear it a lot longer. The block colour, the style; it suits my figure and my personality and it's just so well made. The coat is Kuwaii too. There's only one of these and it's mine! I went in to the showroom to do a pre-order and they were only going to make this style in charcoal and navy but, I saw this wool. Look at it. So beautiful! So, they made it for me in that, with silk cotton lining. I think clothes are a reflection of who you are, your emotions and your connections and this coat is like that to me; it's calming and serene and beautiful like Melbourne's sunsets and jacaranda trees."
The dark beauty behind Heart of Bone, a collection of fine metal and gem skull rings touted as tiny iconographic works of wearable art, Abrahams is a traffic-stopping glamazon, equally renowned for her eclectic career in antiques, art and fashion, and for her brood of happy, curly blond kidlets. Heart of Bone was launched last year after Abrahams' apprenticeship of sorts under cult jeweller William Griffiths of Metal Couture. The collection's popularity rocketed among Melbourne's art and fashionisocrats and Abrahams' remarkable marketing skills also quickly secured its first international clients including Miley Cyrus, Joel Madden, Jean Paul Gaultier and Katy Perry.
Abrahams' story is of a beloved, albeit disintegrating leopard jacket, a pair of platform bootlets so high they would topple a less practiced wearer, and a simple T-shirt she transformed with a set of Sharpie pens. "I used to be an avid op-shopper when I was a teenager. I used to wag school and do every op shop in Melbourne. I picked up this coat in Sandringham at the local op shop, which isn't around any more. It's from the 60's and is in a pretty sad state now. Every time I wear it, it rips in another place and breaks another piece of my heart. I did this hand-drawn skull with Sharpies [pens] on a Kloke Tee shirt. It's an awesome shape for a pop-up installation I did at Alice Euphemia which, sadly, is no longer there either. All good things must come to an end, I guess. These Giuseppe Zanotti boots are so special to me. A very dear friend bought me these for my birthday a few years back. He's gone too now. Every time I wear them I think of him. And these are all my rings that I carve in my Richmond studio. They are all based on iconic characters and I love them each in their own special way. Hopefully these will all outlive the leopard jacket and I'll be able to hand them all down to my daughter. If she wants them, that is!"