The state of our style

By Zoe Walker

Fashion writer Mitchell Oakley Smith has put together a new definitive collection of Australasian fashion designers.

Designs by New Zealand fashion label Cybele have been influential enough to feature in the new Fashion book. Photo / Martin Sykes
Designs by New Zealand fashion label Cybele have been influential enough to feature in the new Fashion book. Photo / Martin Sykes

With a title that gets straight to the point, Fashion (Thames & Hudson: $95) is a new book from Australian fashion writer and GQ Australia associate editor Mitchell Oakley Smith. Profiling 70 Australian and New Zealand fashion designers, from industry stalwarts like Akira Isogawa to exciting newcomers like Dion Lee, the 352-page book is an in-depth snapshot of Australasian fashion in 2010. Seven local designers were selected by Oakley Smith to feature in the book, including Cybele, Jimmy D, Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, Nom*D, World and Zambesi. We had a chat to Oakley Smith, who will be coming over for New Zealand Fashion Week to attend shows and give a seminar on the state of New Zealand and Australian fashion as part of the New Zealand Fashion Weekend.

You have written about fashion for the likes of GQ and The Australian. Where did your love of fashion come from?
I've always been interested in art and design, and I think my love of fashion developed from here. This makes sense in retrospect, as I treat the subject of fashion design as art; designers as artists.

What inspired you to write the book?
I was working as a journalist for a newspaper and found there was no definitive guide to the Australian fashion industry. When I looked further, I found that there hadn't been a book of its kind (a collection of profiles) since Elina Mackay's The Big Aussie Fashion, which was published in 1983. Fashion doesn't and never intended to cover each and every designer in the Australian and New Zealand industry, for such a task would be nigh impossible. Rather, it aims to provide a clear and relevant cross section of the contemporary market. I think students, retailers, designers and fellow creatives can gain a lot from the book, but it's not written in an esoteric manner that excludes those that simply love fashion.

There have been a few books on New Zealand fashion released recently - Angela Lassig's book with Te Papa on contemporary New Zealand fashion, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins' upcoming book Dress Circle which delves even further back - but there don't seem to be many on Australian fashion. Why do you think this is?
I think that New Zealand has a much more identifiable aesthetic, which is perhaps a result of its geographic isolation. Australia, on the other hand, has had a vast number of immigrants and is a much larger country; perhaps because of these factors there are many varied aesthetics. Why someone hasn't written a book, however, is a question I can't answer. Perhaps it seemed too hard a task, given how broad the industry is.

Publishers aren't typically welcoming of fashion proposals, either.

You have a wide range of designers, from the established names to emerging labels: how did you choose which designers and labels to profile?
Of course there's an element of subjectivity, given I wrote the book alone. However, I did set a criteria to ensure I covered all genres of fashion design and not just my personal favourites. Essentially, all labels are currently producing collections on a regular/seasonal basis, are designing the collections themselves, and present a unique point of view.

What about the New Zealand designers, how did you select them? Did you have advice from anyone in the industry here?
I gained advice from colleagues who'd attended New Zealand Fashion Week, and also researched current books and web archives.

Are there any New Zealand designers who you wish you could have profiled but had to edit because of space constraints - or would include if you were to do a follow up?
I'm attending New Zealand Fashion Week, so I guess we'll see ... I am planning, with my publisher, to revise the book every few years.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a second book with an Australian art curator. It has a global focus and we're planning for a release late next year. I'm curating a special exhibition with an Australian menswear designer, as well as doing my regular work writing for newspapers and magazines.

You interviewed a huge range of designers for the book - were there any especially interesting stories or facts that you discovered during your research?
I found it interesting and inspiring that all of the designers are so versatile and hard-working. They design their collections, they cut and sew, they answer the phones and they work in their own stores. There were more than 200 hours of interviews - which was a lot of transcribing.

From these interviews you'll have a really good understanding of the history of these labels, and of the contemporary Australasian industry as a whole - but what is next? Where do you see the industry going now?
It's a very interesting question. The future of the industry will be determined by several factors: internet and new media; globalisation; production moving offshore; the rapid growth of the industry in the past 10 years vs the small size of the country; the introduction of mass retailers (Gap, Zara) to Australia. As well as this, I don't think the Australian market can sustain many more brands. There's so many young designers coming out of fashion schools, but are there customers to buy the clothes? We need to establish a more classic style of fashion business whereby students work in other houses before attempting to start their own labels.

Much is made of the "Australian look" vs the "New Zealand look" - do you see these differences, or is it an old fashioned attitude, what with the rise of somewhat "darker" young Australian designers?
I agree that it's a tired argument. We should appreciate and applaud each designer - whatever their location - for their individuality. Of course, much can be read into their location.

What do you like most about Australian and New Zealand fashion, when looked at from a wider, global perspective?
The vastness of Australasian style. You can't identify it as much as, say, Belgian or English design, which reflects our society.

Who are your favourite labels?
I think Romance Was Born is fantastically innovative and continue to inspire and excite me. Dion Lee is quite obviously a technical and stylistic genius. Other young, niche designers, such as Arnsdorf, Yeojin Bae and Therese Rawsthorne show great promise and have really honed their own style, rather than following broader trends. Then there's the more established designers - Easton Pearson, Akira and Collette Dinnigan - who have stayed true to their skill base and aesthetic and it has paid off.

You mentioned that you're coming over for New Zealand Fashion Week, what will you be doing here?
I'm coming to see the shows. It's my first time in New Zealand, and I'm really looking forward to understanding the style and culture more, as well as meeting some of the designers. I'll also hold a seminar about the place of Australian and New Zealand design in a global context.

* Hear Oakley Smith speak at the NZ Fashion Weekend, Sept 25 & 26. Tickets available from iticket.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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