HIGH AND SLOW: THE PASSIONATE (AND PRECIOUS) LOCALS BEHIND “MADE IN AUSTRALIA” FASHION (WITH A NOD TO MARIANO)

Fashion has polarised: fast and cheap at one end, slow and luxurious at the other. Guess which end Janice Breen Burns found this brace of neo and traditional metiers…(Longform post; allow 10 minutes read time. This feature first appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.)

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Simon Zdraweski wrote a poem about pleats once. A poem in Pleats, 33 verses. Then he bought a pleating business – the last but one in Australia – and learnt the centuries-old skill of hand pleating. It seemed the only sensible thing to do with all that unrequited passion: “There’s just something about pleats…” Last year, Toni Maticevski had Zdraweski pleat several pieces for his collection and the newly minted artisan – formerly an international tax consultant, of all things – was happy beyond measure. The future of his ancient company, Specialty Pleating, seemed bright. And so it was; sort of. Zdraweski is one of a rare breed of fashion artisans, tingling with passion, champing to engage and collaborate with high-end designers, but stumped by costs, crippling regulations, a market overly tuned to “cheap”, and a culture of secrecy around sources and suppliers.

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It’s the same-old same-old confluence of sad facts plaguing local fashion for decades and triggering the extinction of many small and artisan operators. But is fashion in transition? Is fast beginning to slow? The term “slow fashion” means smaller wardrobes hung with a handful (not hundreds) of high-end, often locally made, fashion investments. And “Made in Australia” is increasingly associated with “slow”. “Our industry is in a great place,” says designer and industry advocate Lisa Barron. “Consumers are becoming more appreciative of homegrown products.” She should know; her customers are predominantly “intelligent corporate women”, she says, with a connoisseur’s appetite for “slow”.
The promise of a slower industry bodes well for artisans such as Zdraweski and the four more – a handful of the thousands working, often from bolthole workrooms – I tracked down for this feature. So far, they’ve been hanging in there, giving it a crack, crazy-passionate enough to work, sometimes, for as little as $5 an hour. A few industry changes would be transformative. Some want to pass on their skills to apprentices and proteges, for example, but can’t. Some want to develop their business model to cope with small volumes, but can’t. An open directory of their skills, available to all local fashion manufacturers, could also work wonders. “We do need to relax the regulations a little bit,” Barron says, “to allow an environment of more free enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit.” Amen to that.

 

FRANCA TUCCI : THE “STRUCTURED BONED BODICEWORK ARTISAN” (THE BONING LADY)

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In another century, Franca Tucci might have sewn tapered shards of whalebone into the jacket she is working on now, to deeply kink its waistline and force elegant swells into its bustline, bustle and hips. But this is now and, although Tucci’s couture skills are centuries old, her “whalebone” of choice is rigilene, a futuristic, featherlight and flexible centimetre-wide tape she buys by the bouncy roll and snips into the rib segments she needs.
“I prepare a little casing for them, see?” – she turns the jacket inside out – “to cover the ends, make it perfect. It has to be as beautiful inside, as it is outside.”
And so it breathtakingly is: 12 meticulously shaped and measured panels for the bodice front and back, 12 more fused to the base canvas for stiffness, 12 carefully shaped and covered ribs of rigilene, one bodice-shaped layer of thinned wadding to smooth any errant dimples or ridges and, finally, 12 more meticulously cut panels stitched to finish the jacket’s outer skin.

And this is just the bodice. And this is just the toile.

“Two years ago I worried this [art] was going to die,” says Tucci. “But now, I don’t think so. People are wanting bespoke, they want special.” Her skills, akin to fine corsetry, conjure shapely, three-dimensional garments out of two-dimensional ideas. “I have to get inside a designer’s head,” she says. “I have to swim around in there.”
The designer’s sketch for this jacket – a Dioresque bar style Tucci that has been thickly padded to farthingale effect over the hips and buttocks – is on her worktable with dozens of pinned and marked paper pattern pieces. She hefts an industrial iron with steam shot to set the half-finished jacket’s fantastic shape on a dressmaker’s mannequin, and steps back and forth between the sketch, pattern, notes, table. “This is me,” she says, laughing. “Back, forth, back and forth, check, change, check, check…”
As a girl, Tucci attended fashion college but “I was no good at it, up the back, not understanding”. Her couture skills evolved in decades on the job; first for a knitwear company, a childrenswear brand, then, prophetically, a bridal workroom. “‘That was it. That was what I loved; the drama of the gown, the fit of the gown.”

 

THE BEADER: DESPINA “DESI” PARISH

Desi Parish. Photo: Janice Breen Burns

Desi Parish. Photo: Janice Breen Burns

Half a century after she slipped her first silvery bead onto her first hair’s-width needle, Despina “Desi” Parish is still utterly besotted with her rare and lovely art. “I loved beading then, I love it now. I’ve never stopped.” She demonstrates for me now, swirling her needle through a tiny hill of gold glass beads, each the size of a grain of sand. “You see, I’m not looking for the holes,” she says, concentrating, “I’m feeling for them, then I flick them onto the needle. It’s very natural for me.” Flick, flick, flick, and three miniscule beads are ready for fastening into a pattern as fine as ant tracks.”It’s very, very fine, the way I do it,” Parish says. “I don’t go through the fabric, you see, I work on the top layer so no one can see the stitches and work behind.”
Parish learnt beading at 13. “I fell in love.” She and an older sister had to find jobs to support their family (“That’s just how it was in those days”) and, as luck would have it, a beading and embroidery house in Collins Street, run by one Blanche Photios, was hiring. “So I was taught by the best,” Parish says of Photios. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Photios (relative of Sydney’s Photios Brothers) taught Parish how to tease out a single gossamer fibre from the surface of a gown and, with controlled tension, tug through a looped thread with bead attached until it sat flush without a whisper of pucker or hint of a nick in the silk. Parish can repeat the process until myriad beads, crystals or sequins form a thin crust and appear to float across the fabric. “If it’s a millimetre out, I’ll unpick it and do it all again,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist; that’s what I’m known for.”
Parish beaded for Hartnell, John Claringbold, Prue Acton, Mariana Hardwick and many others. In the 1960s, she won a Gown of the Year award for her own design of culottes and jacket, beaded for 600 hours. These days she teaches the odd class, consults and beads for a bespoke designer, and beads garment samples for another local designer who then replicates her work en masse in Bali for a fraction of Australian production costs.
Parish is hopeful her labour and skill will one day be fairly calculated into the prices of locally produced garments and there will be customers, educated and willing to pay. In the meantime, though, it’s lucky she does love her art, “because it’s $5 an hour or less”. She laughs, and acknowledges that her skills, in this country at least, may be close to extinction.
THE PLEATER: SIMON ZDRAWESKI

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There’s something about pleats; the soft sharp volume of them, the graphic grace of their swing, left, right, as a woman walks. Melbourne fashion legend Lillian Wightman felt it in 1938 when she introduced the first of several incarnations of a particularly lovely sunray pleated tea dress, “the Pleat Model”, for her famous Collins Street boutique, Le Louvre. Eighty years later, Simon Zdraweski, a former international tax consultant and now proud but struggling owner of Specialty Pleating, the workshop that hand-pleated various versions of Wightman’s luxurious frock for decades, feels it too. “It’s hard to put a finger on; maybe something about their femininity, what they do to a fabric, ” he says of pleats. “They give it another feel, another look, they change it so completely.”
Up to three metres of silk were laboriously hand-pleated flat, then rolled into heavy paper moulds, steamed for an hour, cooled for several more, unrolled and checked for millimetre-off imperfections, and finally folded into the waist measurement of a skirt for one iconic Le Louvre dress. The result was a slim, soft tube that skimmed, flatteringly neat over the hips, but lifted and expanded, just so, in a breeze, and as the wearer moved.

In school skirts – Specialty Pleating’s bread and butter line – the knife, accordion, sunray and box pleats produced a more businesslike, but equally graceful, feminine effect. Years ago, on his honeymoon in Venice, Zdraweski stumbled on a museum devoted to the 19th century Italian grandfather of pleating, Mariano Fortuny. Zdraweski was so moved, he wrote A Poem in Pleats; 33 verses for his wife’s 33rd birthday and dedicated to the master’s art.
His passion for pleats hasn’t diminished. “But this might be all gone by Christmas if something doesn’t change,” he says, gesturing around his airy Williamstown factory warehouse, stacked to the corrugated ceiling with hundreds of brown and white paper rolled pleat moulds, some so ancient their edges are tattered and stained.
Specialty is one of just two hand-pleaters left in Australia and, he estimates, less than 50 left in the world. Its school uniform volume business is petering out, but Zdraweski’s heart skips whenever another high-end fashion visionary, committed to local artisans, discovers his workshop. He’s recently hand-pleated or laboriously machine pleated work for designers Toni Maticevski, Jason Grech and Lara Pallini. But he needs more like them. “There used to be 30 or 40 people here,” he says sadly. “Now there’s only me.”
THE LASER CUTTER: LINDA VYDRA

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Linda Vydra’s lofty little Collingwood warehouse is an archetype of the modern creative studio, an elegant mess of desks and workbenches scattered with arty paraphernalia and dominated by a couple of half-a-car-sized flat-top machines, chugging away in its middle. One is Vydra’s digital printer, unfurling today’s order; a bolt of leaf-patterned fabric. Through the other’s filmy lid, I can see a flickering pin-point of intense yellow light, skittering across the surface of something. Paper. “It’s a wedding invitation,” says Vydra, 29, an advertising and fashion design graduate. “This is the laser.” The machine’s beam, she explains, shoots out of a laser tube, into a series of mirrors, onto the surface material (papers, most fabrics but not knits, leather, even neoprene) at a temperature controlled to cut cleanly through. “Silks sear really nicely because they’re quite thin,” says Vydra. “As long as they’re not white; then you get a slight brown edge.” The thicker the material, the more charred debris at the cut edges and the “dirtier” the job. Leather and neoprene are particularly awful. They spew fumes during cutting and need laborious cleaning afterwards. But their results are among the most strikingly beautiful, as Vydra’s lasered lattice neoprene bridesmaid gown for Rebecca Judd attests.
I watch the laser beam now, wiggling around the paper surface, tracing an impossibly intricate pattern on the wedding invitation. A small software screen tracks the beam’s progress. Vydra explains that, for materials softer than paper, she experiments to ensure a laser pattern’s “negative spaces” don’t end in little fingers of fabric “flopping forward” when incorporated in a garment. “We’re careful of a lot of things at that artwork stage.”
Wedding invitations, signs and other pretty paper products are Vydra’s solution to her laser cutter’s idle moments. And in the absence of high demand from small local fashion manufacturers since she bought her first machine and taught herself the skills she needed 10 years ago, there have been quite a few. But times appear to be changing, and at both ends of the fashion market. She recently cut 200 crop tops with lasered palm leaf pattern for active sports brand Running Bare, and conceived the artwork – from a wisp of an idea – for the lasered lace bodice of Melbourne couturier Aldo Terlato’s Logies gown design for actress Jane Allsop. “More small, higher-end labels who want to tell a story about being made locally are coming to us.”
THE DIGITAL PRINTER: EMILIE CACACE

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Emilie Cacace’s career path locked in when she was just a baby, her bassinet popped into a quiet corner of her mother’s screen printing studio. It was the 1980s – the Good Old Days of screen printing fashion fabrics – and Penny McIntyre, a perfectionist and innovator by reputation, employed 20 staff and counted Jenny Kee, Linda Jackson, Ken Done and many top fashion luminaries among her clients. Cacace gurgled nearby as her mother nutted out new ways to convert their visions into bright and subtle bolts of cloth. “I did study fine arts and (visual communications) at uni,” Cacace says, “but I deferred to work here in the holidays once and, here I still am, 10 years later.” It was roughly the time McIntyre and her partner, Ian Davies, switched from a mostly screened-printing process (layers applied, colour by colour, to build up a design) to the freer, virtually limitless left-to-right dye-dispensing digital printing machines from Japan.
The leap revolutionised fashion around the planet. “Screen printing is still around, but limiting because of the number of colours (12) you can use,” Cacace explains. “Digital means absolutely anything can be printed onto fabric.” The machines seem simple to operate but, Cacace says, she and technicians such as Ben Mar are in fact a new breed of skilled artisan. “You can’t just plug these in. They almost have personalities of their own,” she says. “It’s – if I can put it this way – a more feminine process, a more emotional process. You have to be very sensitive, very creative.” She describes how textures and tonal qualities of the digitally printed fabric, for instance, can be infinitely varied by external elements. The more intuitive knowledge of fabrics, dyes, designs and even atmospheric conditions a technician can apply, the better and more beautiful the result.
Cacace is creative director of Think Positive and boss of its plant and 10 staff in Alexandria, NSW, while McIntyre and Davies oversee expansion and a new plant in Britain. Their clients are still fashion’s top operators, many committed to using local suppliers: Ellery, Camilla & Marc, Josh Goot, Viktoria & Woods and, yes, Jenny Kee too, all these years later. Business, says Cacace, is good. “China isn’t as cheap as it used to be,” she says. “And we’re always bending the process, to make it better. We’re always evolving.”

Main photo, top: Simon’s inspiration, a model for Mariano Fortuny, circa 1907, in a verions of his iconic Delphos gowns. From Archivio Museo Fortuny, ©Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Museo Fortuny