the design council that changed australian fashion

Looking back at Melbourne's Fashion Design Council, the legendary organisation that established a city's scene and showcased an array of local & independent talent.

by Sasha Geyer
15 December 2015, 10:55am

The grandly titled Fashion Design Council (FDC) was a Melbourne-based organisation that ran for a decade, from 1983 to 1993, which stemmed from a fashion-focused club night. The club nights were thrown by a group called Party Architecture whose 'Fashion 82' and 'Fashion 83' events, held at St Kilda's Seaview Ballroom, were the first of their kind to collectively showcase the local emerging talent in both fashion and art. 

Christopher Graf's collection as part of The X-hibitionists Parade in 1984 - Photo by Andrew Lehmann, Courtesy of Christopher Graf

Marketed as "the beginning of a continued acknowledgement of new Melbourne fashion", the 'Fashion 83' show brought together the three people who would go on to become FDC's founders: Robert Buckingham, Robert Pearce and Kate Durham. This parade was recorded for a 26-minute documentary that was scrapped after various failed attempts to obtain a grant for its production and distribution. While the film never saw the light of day, these efforts were reinforced to actualise an idea of Durham's: to create a platform for local, independent designers and revitalise Melbourne's fashion scene. "There was a sense something was happening in fashion" explains co-founder Robert Buckingham, "and we felt we had the opportunity to do something meaningful". The idea won a $4,000 grant from the Victoria Ministry of the Arts and the Fashion Design Council was born, heralded as "the newest force in fashion".

Robert Pearce, Kate Durham & Robert Buckingham - Courtesy of Robert O'Farrell & Punk Journey

Durham, Buckingham and Pearce all came from different backgrounds and had specific roles within the FDC. Durham was a jewellery designer who was very connected to the art and design community. "For me, fashion was a fantastic remedy to the art school training I'd had, which was full of holes philosophically", she recalls. Buckingham had been involved in a film company called The Rich Boys and had been behind the Fashion 83 documentary. He contributed to the business aspect of the FDC. Robert Pearce, who was slightly older than the two and died in 1989, was "a proper baby-boomer who grew up believing youth could change the world", as Buckingham explains. Pearce had a graphic design background and created pamphlets, sets and other visual elements for the parades and events. He had gained a following for his radio program En Masse Fashion, where he'd read articles from copies of, then-rare, international magazines such as i-D, The Face and Interview. Culturally, the FDC had emerged from the local punk scene, which had been an outlet for disillusioned youth who were bored with Melbourne and longing for hotspots like those in London and New York.

Official Pamphlet of the Fashion 84 'Heroic Fashion' Parade - By Robert Pearce, Courtesy of Kara Baker

The FDC would host a range of parades and exhibitions with one major showcase at the end of each year. Every year the parade accelerated in scale and size; the 'Fashion 84' event titled Heroic Fashion boasted over 30 designers, 100 models and was presented over three consecutive nights at the now-closed St Kilda nightclub, The Venue. In 1987 the FDC moved its parade to the 3000-seat Palais Theatre. The following year a Nestlé sponsorship saw the 88 and 89 shows relocating to Rod Laver Arena, a venue with a seat capacity of 15,000. The shows themselves would combine music scores, performance, art and theatricality on a scale that was unique for fashion at the time. 

Kara Baker's 1989 'Sirens' Collection a part of the Fashion 89 Parade - Courtesy of Kara Baker

The FCD involved an eclectic range of Australian designers. It featured notable names such as Jenny Bannister, a very young Martin Grant who now designs in Paris, Peter Morrissey, who is a judge on Project RunwayChristopher GrafBettina Liano and Kara Baker, the only designer to present at all of the parades. "It was exciting to be involved in the FDC because it was created to promote us", Baker remembers, "after the first three years my business doubled in turnover every year!" As there was no house-style, the diverse aesthetic ranged from classic couture-like gowns to more theatrical and provocative garments.

Other notable events run by the FDC included a show at Moomba in 1984 titled Fashion Rocks in which the iconic New York artist Keith Haring, who had been working in Melbourne at the time, painted a street-scouted male model in a jockstrap as three male dancers performed around him. Other events and parties would be thrown at hotspots such as the Metro nightclub and in other cities around Australia. 

The FDC Shop - Photo by Penny Jagelio, Courtesy of Alasdair Mackinnon & Punk Journey

The FDC Shop - Photo by Penny Jagelio, Courtesy of Alasdair Mackinnon & Punk Journey

In 1989 the FDC Shop opened as the group's retail space at 234 Collins Street. The store stocked a range of designers and was also used as a gallery space. Alasdair Duncan Mackinnon, a menswear designer who'd also shown at several of the parades, ran and managed the store. During a slow time culturally in Melbourne's CBD, the FDC Shop sought to reinvent fashion retail. Due to a difficult financial period, affected by several recessions in the early 90s, as well as a change in Melbourne's fashion and design climate, both the shop and the FDC closed in 1993. 

Robert Buckingham took his FDC experience and went on to become the creative director of the Melbourne Fashion Festival from 1996 to 2003 and now works as creative director for MPavillion. He also runs his own consulting agency among other endeavours. Durham continues to work as an artist, specialising in jewellery, sculpture and drawing and is an activist for the rights of asylum seekers.

Clipping of The Melburnian's 1989 Report on Fashion 89, featuring looks from Bettina Liano, Liza Stedman & Jenny Bannister - Courtesy of Glossy Sheen

The FDC's main ethos of showcasing independent fashion offers an interesting legacy. Robyn Healy, head of RMIT's School of Fashion and Textiles has engaged in extensive research into the FDC and suggests that "the recognition of emerging designers and mechanisms to support these designers through funding schemes and public events" is a key example of the FDC's ideological impact. Healy outlines the way 'micro' fashion enterprises are recognised as a major feature of the Australian fashion industry from PageantChorusMaterialByProduct to Lui Hon, as well as the way underground fashion is distributed online, as significant developments. In October, three RMIT students organised their powerful Salumi Salon show through crowd funding with great success. Similarly to the FDC's collective approach, Matthew Linde's Centre For Style has explored a variety of mediums that have combined local and international fashion and art. The list goes on, and there is a real buzz surrounding independent and underground fashion in Melbourne right now. While 30 years may be a lifetime in fashion years, the relevance of the Fashion Design Council and its validity as a local reference point remains remarkable. 


Words Sasha Geyer

fashion design council