Australia’s Colourful Legacy

After years of shunning our colourful fashion history, Broadsheet meets the new generation of Australian designers embracing the vibrant aesthetics of fashion’s past.

It can be hard to look back at the past. The bad hairstyles, the experimental makeup, the ill-considered fads. But fashion has a way of repeating itself and what was once shunned by the cool kids inevitably comes back in vogue. In the case of Australia’s current fashion climate, it’s colour that has come back around. Tonal clashes, hyper prints and colour blocks have rocked the typically black-clad fashion crowd and young Australian designers are doing it better than anyone.

In many ways, colour has always been a part of Australian fashion’s DNA. Think Prue Acton’s mod colour combinations in the 60s and Peter Tully’s vibrant, avant-garde designs of the 80s. Though not all have stood the test of time, the vibrant pathways paved by past designers are proving incredibly inspirational for a new generation, resulting in a fresh design vernacular in Australian fashion.

Ken Done, the man responsible for giving Australian landmarks a good dash of colour in the 80s, recently collaborated with Natalie Wood of art-influenced label Something Else. What resulted was a collection dubbed Submerged, a fusion of Done’s signature paintbrush strokes and Wood’s modern touch. Wood, who is renowned for her use of colour and penchant for artistic collaborations, relished the chance to work with Done. “I love his use of colour and…how much work he has done. That energy is inspiring,” she says. “He really captured something about the Australian lifestyle that has become so iconic.”

Wood is not alone in her love for Australian icons. Designers Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett, of maximalist label Romance Was Born, are admirers of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, whose designs for Flamingo Park in the 70s and 80s continue to make their mark today. “Growing up in the 80s, we both had a strong affinity for colour, print and texture and I think that’s why we feel so strongly about Jenny and Linda’s work, because they were true colourists and experimentalists. They always did what they loved and never followed trends – they made the trends!”

And after 40 years in the business, Jenny Kee is still leading the way. Last year she helped launch L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival with a retrospective of her designs, as well as a new collection of silk scarves, titled Art of the Scarf. “For me now, small is beautiful and my Art of the Scarf range is collaged and inspired from the history of 40 years of work,” she says. The collection was so well received that Kee has created another “large-impact” addition, set to be released at the end of March. “The new silk scarf designs…will be pared down from maybe 50 artworks until I have distilled all the beauty into one jewel-like piece of silk,” offers Kee poetically.

Jessica Shipard, of emerging accessories label Colony, is another designer with a keen interest in Australia’s colour legacy and like Kee, high-impact pieces. With her vibrantly printed scarves and lenses gaining a loyal following, Shipard is quick to throw her praises behind Florence Broadhurst, the print designer made famous in Australia during the 60s and 70s. “Florence Broadhurst was my hero growing up. I really admire the fact that her prints and colour choices were so bold and risqué at the time, but they have become timeless classics, proving that timeless doesn’t necessarily have to be monochrome and minimalist.”

Much like Broadhurst, colour is a major part of Shipard’s design process. “Out of every aspect of designing, colour is the part I most enjoy but also the part that I battle and deliberate over,” she admits, explaining that she aims to achieve a tonal balance that is striking, unexpected and wearable.

For Karla Spetic, a Sydney based designer lauded for her graphic prints and unique colour combinations, finding the right hue always plays an integral role in her design process. “Colour is all about energies and evokes a certain feeling,” she says. “Most times it is the starting point in my work.” In previous seasons, ?peti? has garnered interest for her archetypal Australian imagery including outback vistas and terrace houses. This season, she has served up another striking combination with her new collection, Heart, contrasting wattle yellow and ruby red with soft tones and a pop art print.

Melbourne designer Sara Phillips, fashion takes its cues from the elements. “I think the amazing weather and landscape here makes every Australian love colour and a statement print,” she muses. Since launching her eponymous label in 2009, Phillips has become renowned for her Australian references. Last season she transformed native plants into a desirable print while her current winter collection sports images of Australia’s landscapes courtesy of aerial photographer Richard Woldendorp.

From outback scenes to native flora and beyond, it seems an Australian-inspired colour renaissance is upon us and Kee couldn’t be happier. “When Linda Jackson and I first returned home in 1972 after living in Europe, we saw Australia with such fresh eyes,” she urges. “We developed a form of Australian style inspired by the beauty of the country.

“[Now] designers like Romance Was Born and Sara Phillips are looking back into the beauty of this country again.” And our wardrobes are reaping the benefits.

Published in Broadsheet