Studibaker Hawk was formed in 1982 when fashion student Janette Smith and artist Wendy Arnold began producing what they described as street couture, selling it through a stall at the Paddington Markets in Sydney. Experimenting with new print and fashion ideas, the pair pioneered an original version of mid-1980s high glamour for the Australian market.
Encouraged by local boutique owners, interstate buyers and the fashion jet set who often purchased entire racks of their clothing, the first Studibaker Hawk studio was established the following year. Joined by ex-architect David Miles, the three designers lived and worked in an old knitting factory in Rozelle – complete with a namesake blue Studebaker parked out the front – defining and producing the recognisable look for which the label had become known.
Extravagant hand-printed taffeta and tulle creations using metres of lustrous fabrics were inspired by and took construction elements from 1940s and ’50s fashion magazines. However, the vibrant Studibaker aesthetic owed as much to the glitzy faux-opulence of soap stars in Dynasty and Dallas as it did to Dior.
Studibaker’s signature style and reputation was consolidated throughout the 1980s with collections of party wear and evening wear. Evening dresses were characterised by an emphasis on silhouette, line and volume, but the most important feature was their original hand-printed fabric designs. Varying from highly structured geometric patterns to loose-flowering prints, each fabric range had to be intensively hand-printed due to the special combination of metallic pigments and fabrics used. A press release by Studibaker Hawk reported that by the end of the decade the small print studio was producing up to 20,000 metres of fabric each season. HQ magazine noted that every schoolgirl desired a Studibaker dress and every boutique wanted one for its window.
In 1985 Studibaker Hawk’s position within the fashion industry was acknowledged when they received the prestigious Australian Fashion Industries Award – winning with a small range of five party-wear dresses. By the end of the decade their upmarket dresses were stocked in Australia’s most exclusive boutiques and could be found among the racks of designer collections in department stores such as David Jones, Myer and Grace Bros.
Empress, 1984, was one of six dresses presented in the 1984 Studibaker Hawk summer collection. A finalist in the Australian Fashion Gala Awards, it was selected to be worn by the Australian representative in the Miss World Beauty Pageant in Tokyo.
Featuring many of the elements that were an important part of Studibaker’s design vocabulary throughout the decade, Empress reveals a synergy between space, surface and silhouette. Cleverly balancing structure with volume, the strapless dress is constructed with a long-line, fitted and boned bodice which emphasises the figure. In a reference to elegant 1950s ballgowns, the skirt is separated from the bodice by a band of shiny black cockerel feathers and comprises two tiered layers of satin taffeta. Edged with wadding and wiring to give a sculptural profile, the outfit is completed by a dramatic, high side split revealing extra layers of black ruffled tulle beneath.
The shimmering surface effect in metallic and glitter pigments features a unique screenprint of iridescent peacock feathers. Spectacular, ornamental, like plumage itself, Empress is an outstanding example of the design skills and print prowess that defined Studibaker as one of the country’s most successful and talented independent labels.
Danielle Whitfield, Assistant Curator of Costumes & Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).