Alasdair Duncan MacKinnon: Patchwork of society

Alasdair MacKinnon created Patchwork of society in 1989 for the Powerhouse Museum exhibition Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art – an ambitious show that brought together over fifty independent designers, milliners, jewellers, shoemakers and textile artists, confirming them as a vital force within Australian fashion. Many worked outside the mainstream industry in the realm of limited production and one-off garments, and, like MacKinnon, viewed independent practice as a politically charged and meaningful art form.

MacKinnon was a member of Melbourne’s pioneering Fashion Design Council (FDC, operative between 1983 and 1993) and established his eponymous label in 1985 with the intention to redefine menswear codes. His aesthetic married traditional tailoring with conceptual endeavour to produce a rakish sartorial style that reconfigured masculine ideals. Dandyish Edwardian silhouettes, woollen suiting fabrics and hand-printed shirting and linings distinguished his designs. Retailing from a small studio in Albert Park, MacKinnon produced two collections per year. By 1987 his garments were featuring in local magazines Follow Me and Stiletto.

Patchwork of society is characteristic of MacKinnon’s work: innovative in construction and visually dapper. On one hand, the outfit is an unorthodox take on conventional professional attire. Yet on the other, it is an exhibition piece composed of multiple narratives. At the time, MacKinnon’s intention was to create a garment with a consciously Australian identity. Consequently, Patchwork of society is an amalgam of local, historical and personal references.

Ingeniously, the jacket and trousers have been constructed by patchworking archival swatches of men’s suiting. These were sourced from the Yarra Falls Mill in Abbotsford, which was a leader in producing woollen yarn fabrics in Australia during the mid twentieth century. Incorporating various pinstripe, plain and plaid fabrics, Patchwork of society alludes to the Australian ‘waggas’ (quilts) made during the colonial and depression years from tailors’ swatches and woollen remnants.

The reverse of the jacket features an appliqued galleon which references MacKinnon’s family heritage. His father was a ship’s captain and memories of his naval dress jacket hanging in the closet resurface in MacKinnon’s choice of motif. Likewise, the ribbon insignia across the jacket’s cuffs, formed from Yarra Falls clothing labels, is a nautical note.

MacKinnon conceived Patchwork of society in collaboration with other independent designers whose artisanal methods he admired. As such, the outfit features metal buttons (imprinted with a ship motif) made by Karl Millard, bespoke cowhide shoes by Brendon Dwyer and a rust-coloured Cityscape hat by Mandy Murphy. The irregular crown of Murphy’s hat was inspired by sawtooth factory roofs around inner Melbourne, as well as by John Brack’s iconic painting Collins St, 5p.m., 1955.

With its handcrafted aesthetic and confluence of narratives, Patchwork of society is an engaging work that illustrates the way in which independent designers of the era repositioned Australian fashion within a much broader discourse. By injecting new ways of thinking and making into contemporary design, or by modifying traditional forms of practice, designers such as MacKinnon were part of a movement that helped establish independent fashion as an important aspect of Australian cultural practice.

Danielle Whitfield, Assistant Curator, Australian Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).