fig. 1
Robert Pearce (designer)

‘Brazen hussies, glamour pusses, spivs and bright sparks; rising stars, mischief–makers and the phenomenal dreams of groovy fashion designers implode onto the catwalk’, so reads the flyer for the Fashion Design Council’s parade Fashion Babylon held at the Metro nightclub in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on 16 December 1988.

The evening presented a mixture of fashion and performance, including fire-breathing unicyclists, tap dancers, film, video and music. The multidisciplinary event, which was a vehicle for promoting the cutting-edge work of independent fashion designers, was part of the remit of the Fashion Design Council (FDC) of Australia, a non-profit collective which had been founded in Melbourne in 1983 by fashion illustrator and graphic designer Robert Pearce, artist Kate Durham and arts law graduate Robert Buckingham.

An emerging new force

The genesis of the FDC lay in two important alternative art-fashion events staged in Melbourne in 1982 and 1983 by Party Architecture.1 Fashion 82, 22 June 1982 and Fashion 83, 17 May 1983; both held at the Seaview Ballroom, St Kilda. Party Architecture was created by independent radio 3RRR presenter Julie Purvis and music journalist Jillian Burt. For further details see Merryn Gates, ‘Making it up as we went along’, Art Monthly Australia, issue 242, August 2011, pp. 48–51. Pearce, Durham and Buckingham had been involved in the 1983 parade and together they recognised a need for the continued support of emerging and alternative fashion, emanating from the street and the nightclub scene of the early 1980s. Armed with funding from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, the FDC launched itself as ‘the newest force in fashion’ at an inaugural fashion party held at the Hardware Club in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, on 20 February 1984.

As an organisation the FDC not only took on the practical role of promoting the new precocious fashion talent in Australia, but also aimed to highlight the role of fashion in contemporary culture.2 See FDC statement in Occupation–Demarkation (exh. brochure), Gryphon Gallery, Melbourne, 1987. This ideal guided the nature of the FDC’s activities which, while providing practical support, also looked more broadly at fashion as a concept.

Within this framework, the FDC aimed to be all-embracing and membership was not restricted to fashion designers. Working primarily as a promotional body, the FDC staged an annual parade, regular fashion events at nightclubs, exhibitions and seminars. Although the creative talents which collectively embodied the movement were diverse, it drew together like-minded people who supported non-mainstream fashion and its place as an art form. The annual parades reflected the wide-ranging talents on show and their staging leant towards the theatrical and, at times, the anarchic. In the early parades of 1984 and 1985, both held at The Venue in St Kilda, Melbourne, designers supplied their own models, often drawn from friends and family.3 Fashion 84: Heroic Fashion, 26–28 November 1984 and Fashion 85: Revolt into Style, 2–5 December 1985; both held at The Venue, Upper Esplanade, St Kilda. With approximately thirty-five designers featured in each parade, there were upwards of one hundred models backstage.4 Transcript of interview with Robert Buckingham, 19 April 2000, RMIT Design Archives, p. 11. However, the parades were well-rehearsed and choreographed, with Robert Pearce directing the look and feel of the shows, while also producing the illustrations and graphics for the catalogues and fliers.5 Pearce was also known for his fortnightly two-hour fashion program titled ‘En masse’, broadcast by 3RRR.

Boosting local design

Before the creation of Australian Fashion Week in 1996, the FDC parades and events enabled the work of small-scale designers who eschewed conventional fashion practices to come to the attention of media and potential buyers. The validity of this area of creativity and its potential to boost local design was recognised over the years through funding given by state and national government bodies. In addition, fashion as an area of artistic expression had begun to gain more formal recognition in the years preceding the foundation of the FDC. In 1980 the Art Gallery of New South Wales staged its Art Clothes exhibition which included the work of leading exponents of this movement in Australia; some, like Jenny Bannister and Peter Tully, went on to show with the FDC.6 Art Clothes, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 20 December 1980–1 February 1981.

FDC parades included a mixture of more established artists and independent designers alongside emerging ones. Many people who had shown in Fashion 83 showed regularly in FDC parades later on, including Clarence Chai, who ran one of the few alternative fashion outlets in Melbourne; Jenny Bannister, who was described as a ‘fashion sculptress’ and had been producing avant-garde works since the mid 1970s; the designer Desbina Collins who made high-end, one-off evening wear; Inars Lacis who produced sharply cut men’s and women’s wear; and Kate Durham, whose jewellery expressed a playful and eclectic approach to body adornment.

Among the emerging designers who joined the organisation in the early years and whose careers developed and matured throughout the 1980s under the aegis of the FDC were Martin Grant, Christopher Graf, Kara Baker, Bruce Slorach and Sara Thorn, Fiona Scanlan, Peter Morrissey and Leona Edmiston, Brighid Lehmann, Tamasine Dale, Gavin Brown, Vanessa Leyonhjelm and Richard Neylon (now Nylon). Although Melbourne was the hub for the FDC, it attracted members from around Australia and, in 1988, extended its parades to Sydney.

Breaking away

The local arts and fashion scene in Melbourne in the early 1980s was particularly vibrant, and the city saw the establishment of two significant arts festivals which promoted cross-disciplinary and experimental areas of creativity.7 The Melbourne Fringe Festival was founded in 1982 and it overlapped with the Melbourne International Arts Festival when the latter was established in 1986. At the same time, a growing group of young designers chose to start out on their own rather than take the usual path of first working for a commercial fashion house. Their mode of work was more closely aligned with studio-based practice as they worked in isolation, producing limited and one-off pieces.

By the mid 1980s a spontaneous, creative convergence saw young artists and designers take up residence in Stalbridge Chambers, a nineteenth-century building in the heart of Melbourne. Robert Pearce set up a studio for the short-lived but influential Crowd and Collections magazines, and the FDC based its headquarters in a room on the sixth floor. During this period other tenants included designers Desbina Collins, Martin Grant, Fiona Scanlan, Gavin Brown’s Plain Jane label, milliner Tamasine Dale and artist Jenny Watson; creating a vibrant and supportive atmosphere for individual creativity.8 See Diana Bagnall, ‘A fashion hot house’, Vogue Australia, March 1987, pp. 200–05.

FDC parades and exhibitions also created a competitive atmosphere which stimulated local talent. Martin Grant, named Cointreau Young Designer of the Year in 1988, was feted for his pared-back classical lines which were both sophisticated and fresh. Kara Baker, who worked under her Sirens label, produced tailored outfits with a playful edge, while Christopher Graf used colour and detail with theatri-cal flair, and Jenny Bannister’s unorthodox use of materials and found objects challenged the very idea of fashion. It was also a time when printed fabric design in Australia was being revitalised. Artists like Gavin Brown, Sarah Thorn and Bruce Slorach challenged the norm with their bold and often transgressive designs which ran riot across the fabric.

As the FDC matured as an organisation, it began to stage parades which were more professional and had a more commercial edge. Sponsorship and naming rights for the annual parade was secured from Nescafé in 1988 and 1989, and the event was held before large audiences at the Tennis Centre in Melbourne and the Entertainment Centre in Sydney.9 Nescafé Fashion 88, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 28–29 April 1988 and Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, 6 May; Nescafé Fashion 89, National Tennis Centre, Melbourne, 21 July 1988, and Entertainment Centre, Sydney, 14 July. Fashion from the fringe was now gaining a wider acceptance.

Beyond the catwalk

The FDC also organised a number of exhibitions that enabled fashion to be viewed beyond the catwalk and situated within contemporary art spaces. One of these was the Material Pleasures exhibition mounted by the McClelland Gallery, which showed a selection of evening wear, sketches and photographs created by FDC members. It was exhibited in Melbourne in 1985 and toured to Victorian regional art galleries.10 Material Pleasures: An Exhibition of Contemporary Evening Wear from Members of the Fashion Design Council, curated by McClelland Gallery in association with the FDC, 4 August–6 December 1985: McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin, 4–17 August; Westpac Gallery, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, 21 August–15 September; Benalla Art Gallery, Benalla, 20 September–3 October; Shepparton Arts Centre, Shepparton, 10–22 October; LaTrobe Valley Arts Centre, Morwell, 27 October–14 November; Sale Regional Arts Centre, 17 November–6 December. Exhibitions and events supported by the FDC also tackled the concept of fashion; for example, in 1985 Robert Pearce curated Image Codes: Art about Fashion in conjunction with FDC and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.11 Image Codes: Art about Fashion, FDC & Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1985. Here Polly Borland, Rosslynd Piggott, Jenny Watson and Maria Kozic, among others, investigated the multifaceted notion of fashion through art. When the London-based performance artist Leigh Bowery visited his hometown of Melbourne in 1987, the FDC supported a one-off performance titled No Fire Escape from Fashion that included dancers from Michael Clark and Company wearing his costumes.12 No Fire Escape from Fashion, performance by Leigh Bowery, supported by the FDC, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 14 February 1987.

The 1980s was also a time when contemporary Australian fashion was starting to be acquired and exhibited by public art galleries and museums. In 1989 the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (now the Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney staged the exhibition Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art that featured fifty-two designers and labels, a number of whom had been part of the FDC.13 Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 7 June–13 August 1989; Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, 4 October 1989–24 February 1990. The exhibition, which toured to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, captured the vibrancy and coming of age of a group of independent designers around Australia.

Legacy of the FDC

Recognising the significance of this period of fashion design in Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria has been acquiring the work of designers from the FDC years and in 2005 mounted a solo exhibition of Martin Grant’s work produced since he had relocated to Paris in 2002.14 Martin Grant, Paris, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 9 December 2005–7 May 2006.

Fulfilling an ambition to provide a dedicated retail outlet for its members, the FDC opened a store located at 243 Collins Street, Melbourne, in 1989. By the early 1990s the organisation had largely achieved its aims, with many of its members having gained increased profiles both locally and abroad. However, the economic recession of the early 1990s forced the FDC to close its shop in 1992 and disband as an organisation in 1993.15 The FDC archives were deposited by Robert Buckingham in the RMIT Design Archives.

The enduring legacy of the FDC can be seen in the lengthy and influential careers of many of the designers who started out under its banner. Buckingham, who was director from 1984 to 1990, reflected on the shift in attitude to fashion and its acceptance in the cultural sphere during this time: ‘It [the FDC] created an environment where people thought of going to see a fashion parade instead of going to a rock concert or live theatre show’.16 Robert Buckingham, quoted in Michael Fitzgerald, ‘The last parade’, The Age, 27 June 1990. To this end, the FDC significantly assisted in creating a local audience that valued Australian independent design and creativity over imported fashion. It also highlighted the role of fashion as a vehicle for self-expression at a time when the boundaries between art and fashion were collapsing.

Laura Jocic, Assistant Curator, Australian Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).

Notes

1     Fashion 82, 22 June 1982 and Fashion 83, 17 May 1983; both held at the Seaview Ballroom, St Kilda. Party Architecture was created by independent radio 3RRR presenter Julie Purvis and music journalist Jillian Burt. For further details see Merryn Gates, ‘Making it up as we went along’, Art Monthly Australia, issue 242, August 2011, pp. 48–51.

2     See FDC statement in Occupation–Demarkation (exh. brochure), Gryphon Gallery, Melbourne, 1987.

3     Fashion 84: Heroic Fashion, 26–28 November 1984 and Fashion 85: Revolt into Style, 2–5 December 1985; both held at The Venue, Upper Esplanade, St Kilda.

4     Transcript of interview with Robert Buckingham, 19 April 2000, RMIT Design Archives, p. 11.

5     Pearce was also known for his fortnightly two-hour fashion program titled ‘En masse’, broadcast by 3RRR.

6     Art Clothes, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 20 December 1980–1 February 1981.

7     The Melbourne Fringe Festival was founded in 1982 and it overlapped with the Melbourne International Arts Festival when the latter was established in 1986.

8     See Diana Bagnall, ‘A fashion hot house’, Vogue Australia, March 1987, pp. 200–05.

9     Nescafé Fashion 88, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 28–29 April 1988 and Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, 6 May; Nescafé Fashion 89, National Tennis Centre, Melbourne, 21 July 1988, and Entertainment Centre, Sydney, 14 July.

10     Material Pleasures:  An Exhibition of Contemporary Evening Wear from Members of the Fashion Design Council, curated by McClelland Gallery in association with the FDC, 4 August–6 December 1985: McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin, 4–17 August; Westpac Gallery, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, 21 August–15 September; Benalla Art Gallery, Benalla, 20 September–3 October; Shepparton Arts Centre, Shepparton, 10–22 October; LaTrobe Valley Arts Centre, Morwell, 27 October–14 November; Sale Regional Arts Centre, 17 November–6 December.

11     Image Codes: Art about Fashion, FDC & Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1985.

12     No Fire Escape from Fashion, performance by Leigh Bowery, supported by the FDC, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 14 February 1987.

13     Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 7 June–13 August 1989; Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, 4 October 1989–24 February 1990.

14     Martin Grant, Paris, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 9 December 2005–7 May 2006.

15     The FDC archives were deposited by Robert Buckingham in the RMIT Design Archives.

16     Robert Buckingham, quoted in Michael Fitzgerald, ‘The last parade’, Age, 27 June 1990.