why we need to stop talking about the “relaxed” australian aesthetic
By allowing our style identity to become stagnant, Australia is risking the commercial and artistic integrity of our fashion industry.
Image via @romancewasborn
What really is Australian style? It's the question every fashion writer, thinker and maker is asked to consider at some point. The answer is usually the same - the much-discussed stereotype of a relaxed aesthetic. In fact our commitment to this vision of ourselves is so ingrained you could say it was pivotal in Mercedes Benz Australian Fashion Week's recent move to a resort focus.
But not everyone is so happy to accept this repeated line; many designers are bristling to break up with the decaying cliché. No local brand is more of an antidote to this idea than Romance Was Born. The label's designer and co-founder Luke Sales commented to i-D: "I think it is true in a way [that some Australians prefer a laid back style], but I also think it's a bit of a generalisation". Continuing he adds, "It just totally depends on the person. Even some of my friends would be offended by that."
Of course visual stereotypes exist all over the world - just Google "Parisian chic" for evidence of that. But it becomes an issue when assumptions feel restrictive. Style is distinct from fashion in the sense that it's inherently personal. Just because we live together in a temperate climate with an outdoorsy culture doesn't denote that we all lack fashion originality.
As a brand who have always celebrated craftsmanship and the confluence of art and fashion Romance are among the movement pushing back. And they've found opposing cultural assumptions is a pretty good business move. "Our brand is trying to move even further away from [casual wear]," Luke explains, "especially in the last few seasons. Our price points have gotten a bit higher, which is actually selling even better than our more casual [pieces]".
In the past, Australian designers have been cautioned against experimenting with higher concept pieces that require an inflated price point. Without a luxury market to rival Asia or Europe it's assumed artistry won't sell. But while that audience hasn't fully been revealed - as there isn't enough of a high-end market yet to demonstrate it - designers are confident that Australians are interested in more elaborate investment pieces. Originally thinking focusing on an alternative market would limit them Luke says, "we've managed to survive this long and things are just getting better, so I think there's definitely a market [here] for something that's not beachwear."
Romance is a tidy example for this argument; but it's also an established brand with a global following. It's not always so simple for younger brands to move into this unchartered local space. Independent Australian label Hunter is a newcomer but designer Sara Wurcker explains how she has navigated her own balance between wearability and imagination through a handmade model. "When I first started the business [in 2014] it made sense for me to hand make the clothes," explains Sara. "I wasn't sure what pieces would sell, or how well, so I produced small runs in response to customer demand."
This approach had other benefits too, "It's less harmful to the environment and a more sustainable alternative to the prevalent issue of disposable fashion." Continuing she adds "It's good for local suppliers and manufacturers and, importantly, something customers recognise and really value."
From a business perspective, designers that exist outside of a straightforward, relaxed style could also make Australian fashion more marketable overseas and attract greater investment. Tash Ianni is the founder and buyer for Manly boutique Bow + Arrow. Stocking a wide range of innovative local and international brands like Romance, Rachel Comey and Ulla Johnson, she understands the value of variety. "Diversity in the market is the most important thing," Tash explains. "Not only for personal expression, but also to foster the local industry on an international stage. So many talented designers leave Australia and it would be amazing to develop a culture of keeping them here; building our local industry and injecting fresh creativity all the time."
With a storefront based beside a beach, she explains her clientele is always looking for something more. "Just because you live near the coast, doesn't mean you always want to dress minimally."
Of course, there is always room for quality, minimalistic design as well, but the most important thing is for us to diversify the way that we talk about Australian style and also to encourage progressive design locally. "Australian fashion has become familiar with a minimal aesthetic and often like-attracts-like," Tash explains. "But that does not mean people aren't craving it. Almost every day a customer will mention how refreshing it is to see some colour."
While a more experimental local scene will keep people from building their businesses overseas, it will also help those who plan to expand. Eva Galambos of luxury boutique Parlour X has observed Australian style becoming increasingly influential overseas. Notable designers like Toni Maticevski and Kym Ellery continue to push boundaries with their sculptural design and this is something that she feels we should use to our advantage. "We see things differently," she says. "This attitude is infectious; so many of the people we communicate with, who are heads of fashion in global companies, want to experience this sense of passion and determination that is waning in their own communities."
Speaking of her own customers, Eva says they are looking not just for basics, but the comprehensive experience. "Garments which have a luxury feel and quality plays an important part in the decision making process," she explains. "[Customers] are interested in the entire picture with everything from basics, through to statement looks." By fostering our talent locally and encouraging a more comprehensive view of Australian style then, we can only further leverage our influence overseas.
Ultimately, Australia is still a comparatively young market in the fashion space, which perhaps explains why we've allowed our style identity to become somewhat stagnant. But it's time to stop talking about the relaxed Australian style and, instead, work to diversify our aesthetic vocabulary. Doing so would make us a much more global and exciting market, not just for consumers, but also designers and investors. There is no reason why Australian style can't be part of a global style consciousness; defined not by borders, but by character. And, fortunately, there are some great local designers and buyers here bold enough to push those boundaries.
Text Rosie Dalton
Images via Instagram