BANG BANG

Brace, Dear Ones, for a rare and lovely treat. Toni Maticevski: Dark Wonderland, a retrospective exhibition that plumbs the archive of one of fashion’s most beloved contemporary designers, curated by the Bendigo Art Gallery opens August 31 runs until November 20. A glossy biography Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel by Mitchell Oakley Smith will also be released by Thames and Hudson. This preview by Janice Breen Burns first appeared in Fairfax Media.

Photo: Jordan Graham, from the book, Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchel Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

Photo: Jordan Graham, from the book, Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchel Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was driving out to Toni Maticevski’s studio in a bland industrial patch of Melbourne’s inner west.

YARRAVILLE has some nice bits; pretty streets bristling with hip shops, cool cafes. But this isn’t one of them.

MATICEVSKI’S studio’s bit of Yarraville is all big roads, big trucks, big bleak concrete pre-fabs. It’s a long way from Paris, you might say, where the fashion artist I’ve known for 20-odd years as an elegant, gentle chap, soft and slow, often funny, with hidden depths you could swim around in for a year and a freakish way with fabric and the female figure, reportedly spends a glamourous chunk of his life these days.

SO I’M driving along, wedged into a fuming queue of giant semis en route to the Princes Highway, and I’m thinking; why Toni?

FOR ALL my own love and admiration (I once choked back sheepish tears on his front row; the gorgeousness of slivered silk tendrils trailing off strikingly modern silhouettes got to me) he is still more of a low rumble on the Richter-esque scale of public awareness, than a thumping, break-through quake.

“Matt-ah-chev-skee” doesn’t roll off the tongue outside fashion circles.

HE’S NO legend like Jenny Kee or Linda Jackson. Not yet anyway. He’s no rocketing trend influencer like Kym Ellery, or arty cult phenomenon like Romance was Born, or even a premium commercial success like Scanlan Theodore. Yet. Yet. Yet.

YET TONI Maticevski, 40, is the subject of this important retrospective exhibition, Dark Wonderland, at one of our most progressive, albeit small, public art galleries. And his glossy, coffee table biography, Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel (Thames & Hudson) has been written by one of our most astute fashion observers, Mitchell Oakley Smith.

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AT THIS moment, Maticevski is on a slippery slope of fame for a raft reasons I’ll lay out for you here, but the main one is simply this: he’s amazing.

EVERYBODY says so; every significant fashion critic, editor, curator, connoisseur, client, customer.

IN 30 years of writing about fashion’s movers, shakers, fledglings and legends, I’ve never encountered such fervent admiration and lyrical waxing about a single subject. “Brilliant designer.” “Fashion genius.” “Lovely bloke.” Six months, dozens of long and short conversations, and not a harsh word, veiled criticism or bitchy aside among them.

“THERE are very few people (in fashion) who command the same level of respect,” says Oakley Smith, “And intellectually and critically there is, seriously, just so much to say about him anyway; not just about his technical skill but his creativity, his ideas…”

 “There are very few people (in fashion) who command the same level of respect..” Mitchell Oakley Smith, writer

THERE’S an air of global “on the brinkness” about Maticevski, despite some impressive cred in both fashion and higher art circles.

HIS RUNWAY shows at Australia’s Fashion Week are regularly rave-reviewed. He’s hosted three seasonal showrooms a year in Paris since 2012 and his world-wide ready-to-wear stockist list is swelling. So far 65 stores rack Maticevski, including China, Kuwait, Singapore, Turkey, Russia, Harrods and Selfridges in London, Jeffrey in New York and the notoriously picky Christine in Melbourne and Parlour X in Sydney.

FURTHER back, Maticevski showed on New York Fashion week runways from 2006 to 2010, infamously, aged 21, turned down a job offer from Donna Karan (“I still had a lot to learn..”) and worked at Cerruti in Paris for a year before chucking that in too, to start his own brand in Melbourne.

HE’S COLLABORATED on costumes for the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company, (including the 2011 production of Aviary which won him and milliner Richard Nylon a Helpmann award for Best Costumes) and the National Gallery of Victoria, Powerhouse Museum and Bendigo Art Gallery have all commissioned special Maticevski design projects.

“HE STRADDLES both of those worlds (fashion and art) and that’s quite rare for a designer,” Oakley Smith says. “You can appreciate Toni’s clothes on an aesthetic level, and you can appreciate a deeper cerebral narrative; a notion of fashion as art…”

 “You can appreciate Toni’s clothes on an aesthetic level, and you can appreciate a deeper cerebral narrative; a notion of fashion as art…” Mitchell Oakley Smith, writer

MATICEVSKI’S Yarraville studio is slightly nicer on the inside than its serviceable outside: polished concrete floors, vast windows fogged and trimmed with opaque and sea-foam silk drapes, spindle stairs that rise into the ceiling.

TODAY there’s also a mindboggling copse of racked frocks – some I recognise from seminal moments in his 20 year career – casually pushed against a wall, waiting for Dark Wonderland curator, Leanne Fitzgibbon’s tender attention and eventual transport to Bendigo Art Gallery. I gently flick through them while Maticevski is fetched.

I RECOGNISE one of the pillowy, frosted silk “doona” dresses he designed for autumn/winter 2006. Light as marshmallow, fat as crinolines and styled at the time, with metre-high turban twists of the same puff-quilted silk. Every fashion writer worth her stilettos was sitting up, antennae pinging, from that Maticevski moment on, I can tell you.

 

Photo: Georges Antoni, from the book, Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchell Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

Photo: Georges Antoni, from the book, Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchell Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

THERE’S also a lush, full-skirted dress from his Spring Summer 2014 collection, a revelation sculpted in pale neoprene (wet-suit material) that I recall bounced and rolled wondrously, like an ocean wave, down the runway.

AND FINALLY there’s one of those heartflutteringly lovely shredded silk gowns that had me squinting back tears on the “frow” of his Spring Summer 2005 show.

I COULDN’T track my own review of it for The Age, but Vogue writer at the time, Natasha Inchley, quoted in The Elegant Rebel, wrote; “…mille-feuille layers…ghostly, like wisps of cloud…a puff of wind might disperse their layers like dandelion heads….”

WHICH sounds accurate to me.

Photo: Justin Ridler, from the book Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchell Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

Photo: Justin Ridler, from the book Maticevski: The Elegant Rebel, by Mitchell Oakley Smith, Thames and Hudson, August 2016

NOW THE Elegant Rebel himself is descending from the ceiling. He’s not long back from Paris, tired but smiling, impeccable in slim, Neil Barrett jacket and at 10.30 am, already well into a typical 18 hour day.

HE FOLDS fashionably rangy frame onto blocky leather couch and we pitch right in.

TRANSFORMATION: the beating heart of his art.

“I’M OBSESSED with shaping cloth into forms, finding the balances, say, of ugly with beautiful like when you look meticulously at a flower. It’s a bit of a science; it’s balancing what is concealed, what is extended, balancing everything in the construction, the craft…it all equates to transformation.”

HIS SEAMSTRESS mum planted this obsessive seed; the wonder of what is possible. (Maticevski was born in 1976 to Macedonian parents who settled – guess where – Yarraville). “She had this sense of glamour; she could take a lipstick, and a can of hairspray, and just – transform herself…”

AS A designer, Maticevski conjures tools of transformation (minus the hairspray and lipstick); women do the rest. “I love those amazing eccentric women especially; you know the ones who create this fantastical persona with clothes. It’s a kind of performance art, this art of transformation.”

 “I’m obsessed with shaping cloth into forms, finding the balances, say, of ugly with beautiful like when you look meticulously at a flower…” Toni Maticevski, designer

I ASKED four women I know to describe their own Maticevski and without exception they described to me how it feels instead. “I feel beautiful”, “It makes me feel calm and confident”, “I feel soooo fashionable; it’s the coolest thing in my wardrobe…”

A MATICEVSKI, it seems, can work like armoury for the ego, snapping your spine gracefully straight, making you walk tall, feel fabulous, look regal, chic, sexy, all at once.

Melbourne executive Natasha Stipanov and husband Ari

Melbourne executive Natasha Stipanov and husband Ari

“HE’S A romantic magician,” Natasha Stipanov, a Melbourne executive, mate of Maticevski’s and owner of a bespoke wedding gown, tells me. “I think it’s because he’s a beautiful and sensitive man and that has a flow-on effect (in his designs)… It’s nuts how clever he is.”

BENDIGO Art Gallery’s senior curator, Leanne Fitzgibbon says much the same thing, but in a tumble of academic observations: “Toni…sculpts in fabric…has an instinctive response to feminine silhouettes…is a multi-facetted designer…master of tension and contrast…”

FOR DARK Wonderland, Fitzgibbon plumbed Maticevski’s archive for months (amazed at his foresight, to preserve so much of his oevre), teasing out his most potent and repeating themes – classicism, gothicism and sometimes, “a little bit of bondage” – to identify the aesthetic signatures linking 20 years of collections.

“IT’S NOT been easy,” she says. “His practice is so diverse; just when you think you’ve understood it, he’s subverted the dynamic again, twisted and turned it into something even more innovative and creative.”

 “Toni…sculpts in fabric…has an instinctive response to feminine silhouettes…is a multi-facetted designer…master of tension and contrast…” Leanne Fitzgibbon, senior curator, Bendigo Art Gallery

MATICEVSKI’S aesthetic can be rock tough or fragile as gossamer, or both or more together, as Fitzgibbon observes, in a play of tension and contrasts.

BUT IT is also unerringly modern, deliberately female (“I can do weird, but I never do ugly,” he says) and loaded – every pucker and pleat – with complex, analytical creative processes.

“I USED to have strange, vivid, fantastical dreams,” he says. “But now I don’t. Now ideas just happen any time; bang bang bang.”

JUST this week, he scored a whole fireworks display of ideas at Sydney Dance Company director, Rafael Bonechela’s latest production, Countermove. “It’s the most crazy thing I’ve seen in years; my head! I just kept getting visuals – bang bang – and connectors – bang bang. I loved it so much I bought another ticket for the next day.”

Photo: Monty Coles www.theloupe.org

Photo: Monty Coles
www.theloupe.org

THE “BANGS”, however, may not materialise into designs inside ten years. “I mentally sieve, mentally place them in the ground for them to sprout, they’ll connect with other concepts..the incarnation will come out when it’s ready.”

 “I used to have strange, vivid, fantastical dreams…But now I don’t. Now ideas just happen any time; bang bang bang…” Toni Maticevski, designer

KAREN Webster, who is now Whitehouse fashion schools’ head of strategy and programmes but in an earlier life was one of Maticevski’s RMIT lecturers (he graduated BA Hons. in 1998), compares his work to Cristobel Balenciaga’s, John Galliano’s, Valentino’s and Sarah Burton’s at Alexander McQueen. “Just without all the flambouyance and marketing…”

“HE IS  a brilliant designer with his own sensibility, his own ethos, NOT driven by trends.” She pounds that last phrase.

“TONI’S unique. He has a concept of the body, engineering of patterns and of drape that’s really quite formidable.”

IN 1995, young Maticevski’s passion for fashion exploded at a retrospective of Christobel Balenciaga’s couture at the National Gallery of Victoria. Webster remembers; “He wanted to test himself to the absolute limits of couture methodology.”

HE REPLACED patterns and toiles with a master’s intuitive technique of draping, cutting, pinching and pinning fabric directly onto a body or mannequin. “I don’t measure (bespoke clients) at all anymore,” he says. “I think it’s so degrading; I measure by sight. I see scale and shapes, not numbers.”

WEBSTER also recalls Maticevski laboriously honing his micro-skills, hand stitching his final collection so finely that it looked machined.

“HONESTLY, he’d have to be the most difficult student I ever taught,” she laughs. “I used to go home at night and think: “What else can I possibly do to challenge this guy…?”

 “Toni’s unique. He has a concept of the body, engineering of patterns and of drape that’s really quite formidable…” Karen Webster, Whitehouse

CHRISTINE Barro has stocked Maticevski’s luscious, deep draped frocks and technical masterpieces in her strictly curated eponymous boutique of “world’s best” fashion and accessories for six years. “There’s a lovely, architectural purity to them,” she says, that she has no trouble selling.

“ONE GIRL, beautiful figure, wore one of Toni’s pieces to the races and said to me afterwards; “But, I had all these men coming up, wanting to photograph me…!”

LIKE IT was a problem. Barro was cheerfully unsympathetic. “You know he puts this nine-inches of gauze at the back of the (skirt) hems; gives an airy bounce. I mean; even the way he angles a zip…! He’s a designer that speaks Melbourne to me.”

SO MELBOURNE, that a version of Barro’s racewear dress won the Fashions on the Field national final in its release year, and a home-made copy of it won the next. “You’re just going to have to look amazing in Maticevski,” Barro says cheekily, “It’s a no brainer.”

Toni Maticevski: Dark Wonderland will be the focus of a programme of events, including an appearance by Mitchell Oakley Smith at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival