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Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales

Express Yourself: Romance Was Born for Kids was an immersive and interactive exhibition presented at NGV International, from 17 October 2014 through to 12 April 2015. The latest in a series of projects created to engage the Gallery’s younger audience, it was arguably the most successful and beloved to date, with many visitors returning to the space multiple times. At the heart of its appeal was the exuberant and creatively playful spirit of designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales from the Sydney-based fashion house Romance Was Born (RWB). The exhibition took two years to develop, and for the team at the NGV it was a delightful journey into the creative process of one of the most dynamic and exciting design duos working in Australian fashion.

In late 2012 when the project was first proposed to Sales and Plunkett, the NGV’s Fashion and Textiles Department had an existing relationship with the designers. Curators had attended their collection presentations, and acquired and exhibited their work at the NGV since 2009. Understanding the immersive, spectacular and narrative-driven approach that they take to fashion, RWB were ideal partners to work on a new exhibition and publication for children. The NGV provided a platform for Sales and Plunkett to share their whimsical and compelling ideas with visitors of all ages. The vision was to create a fantastical, larger-than-life environment for participation, play and creativity that blended fashion, art, music and design. The resulting exhibition featured works from RWB collections past and present, the NGV collection and collaborating artists. It highlighted Sales and Plunkett’s trademark collaborative style and creative themes that continue to underpin their practice.

Romance Was Born was established by East Sydney Technical College graduates Plunkett and Sales in 2005. They famously turned down an internship with John Galliano and set about creating their own label instead. From the outset RWB became known for creating striking works that skilfully utilise the juxtaposition of contrasting colour, embellishment and jewel-like digital prints. One of their earliest collections was titled Regional Australia, and their nostalgic relationship with the Australian bush and popular culture has consistently been a key source of inspiration. Much of their work incorporates traditional craft techniques such as knitting, embroidery and crochet. It also features a distinctive aesthetic that blends adornment with humour and affectionate homage to the quirky side of Australian culture. As a fashion house, they are well known for their incredible garments, but have also designed for a number of diverse mediums, including wallpaper, furniture, art installations, fashion shoots, toys, theatre and pop performance costumes. This was all to prove relevant in developing the project for the NGV.

From their first research trip to the NGV in early 2013, Plunkett and Sales were drawn to the Gallery’s collection. To prepare them, the designers were provided with a series of behind-the-scenes tours of the collection by curators from Prints and Drawings, Asian Art, Decorative Art, Fashion and Textiles, and Indigenous Art, among others. At this stage no specific concepts were articulated about the form of the exhibition, but Plunkett and Sales’s desire to immerse themselves in the NGV’s hidden treasures was evident.

Alongside their cherished trips into art storage the artists also began working with key members of the NGV team, including Exhibition Management, Exhibition Design, Children’s Programs and Publications as their ideas began to form. Site visits to the exhibition space also became an important touchstone as the translation of abstract concepts began to take on three-dimensional form. During this process Plunkett and Sales found themselves reflecting on their own childhoods and the loose concept of ‘express yourself ’ emerged as a guiding principle. Not wanting to be limited to simply presenting fashion, they were passionate about incorporating larger themes of curiosity, unconstrained creativity and imagination as a driving force of the visitor experience. When the NGV’s inaugural Truby and Florence Williams Curator of Children’s Programs, Kate Ryan, joined the team, Sales and Plunkett were able to work closely with her to shape their ideas for the exhibition and the accompanying activity book with a child-centred view point in mind.

RWB has an established practice of working with artists and musicians on their collections and catwalk presentations, and the NGV exhibition was no exception. They invited both familiar and new collaborators, such as Nell, Kate Rohde, Del Kathryn Barton, Jonny Seymour and Sarah Contos, to contribute works of art, soundscapes and wallpaper designs to the installation.

As the project gained momentum, ideas came thick and fast, and Plunkett drew up a detailed spreadsheet to document the evolving concepts and convey them to the NGV team. Three strong themes became apparent as lists of works were refined and ideas for interactive content were discussed. Each theme had a strong lineage in the existing practice of RWB and also made sense as a framework for three distinct spaces and experiences within the exhibition. The first centred on the idea of adornment and a lush ‘more-is-more’ aesthetic. This became the basis of the Tomb Room, with its pharaoh queen enveloped in a luxurious wardrobe of bejewelled robes, wigs and exotic accessories. It also provided the first point of active participation for children: customising their own printed beard or necklace to wear home.

The next theme revolved around the idea of Australian flora and fauna, and the sensory pleasures of a bush childhood. Titled Bush Magic, this room featured works from RWB and the NGV collection alongside film footage, an interactive billabong and captivating designs created for The Australian Ballet by Hugh Colman in 1988 for their production Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. These designs were discovered on an impromptu tour of The Australian Ballet’s costume workshops on one of Plunkett and Sales’ visits to Melbourne. Along with works from the NGV collection, these costumes inspired their next collection, Bush Magic, autumn–winter 2015.

The third theme was a celebration of pure, rapturous colour, with objects from the designers, artist collaborators, the NGV collection and found treasures arranged in a rainbow configuration. Reflecting their love of clashing, vibrant colour, the installation also spoke to their irreverent and engaging practice of bringing together unlikely objects and images to create something new and unexpected. Tins of Milo were displayed alongside a figurative painting from the NGV collection, and nineteenth-century feathered fans joined blue flippers on the wall. Many of RWB’s fashion collections have been conceived in this way, with Renaissance Dinosaur, spring–summer 2010, and The Miraculous Mundane, spring 2012, being two examples. For children the installation evoked that innate and wonderful urge to draw something we find inspiring, and in this instance the drawings were created digitally on iPads and could be shared via email with friends and family.

At the culmination of the exhibition, RWB presented their autumn–winter 2015 collection Bush Magic to a rapt audience of more than 500 members of the public in the NGV’s Great Hall as the finale event of the 2015 Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival. Another important legacy of the exhibition and collaboration between the NGV and Romance Was Born will be the acquisition of an important group of works by the fashion house from their archive, along with recent works created in response the NGV’s collection and their current collaboration with legendary Australian fashion designer Linda Jackson.

Katie Somerville, Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)