Style and the Cities

“What I love about Melbourne is that its inhabitants are very fashion literate. There’s a retro awareness which allows people to cherry pick from the eras and adopt a look that is most flattering for them.”

Each city boasts its own signature style and in evaluating which might cross the finishing line first  for this season anyway  the following form guide needs to be consulted.

Sydney

If ever there was a sartorial show pony, then Sydney is it. Brash and buff, it is Versace to Melbourne’s Armani, Perth’s Jil Sander and Brisbane’s Missoni. It’s a distinction that’s not lost on Eva Galambos, owner of Sydney boutique Parlour X. “During winter, Sydney people either hibernate, or they venture out inappropriately dressed and scantily clad, as if in denial about the weather. In other words, rain, hail or shine, Sydneysiders love to show their flesh, their well-maintained curves, their muscles and, most importantly, their tans.”

As a result, Galambos explains, this attitude manifests itself in fashion that is “light, sporty and relaxed, as opposed to structured and tailored”.

The sentiment is echoed by Jamie Blakey, designer and founder of Sydney fashion label One Teaspoon, who believes Sydneysiders aim for an approach that strikes a balance between coolness and comfort. “The city’s style has a relaxed confidence about it. Because of the climate, we can get away with the less-is-more approach. Sydneysiders do casual better than most, and we have a great way of pulling together an outfit that is as comfortable as it is stylish. We are great at accessorising and are not afraid to have fun.”

The notion of having fun with fashion provides plenty of ammunition for the city’s fashion critics, who decry Sydneysiders as trend slaves with cash to burn and Pavlovian responses to whatever Gucci or Prada tells them is “so last season”, at which point they dump their Fendi Baguette bag like last week’s stale bread.

“This is a city whose style places great value on the bag and the shoes,” concedes Sydney fashion designer Tim O’Connor. “However, it is also quite laid-back while remaining sexy and sophisticated. Women are well-groomed without looking like they are trying.”

While fashionistas around the country are probably snorting into their decafs at the last sentence, the idea of Sydney’s laissez-faire loucheness is a recurring theme. “Sydney is less applied than, say, Melbourne, and less considered,” notes stylist Nicole Bonython-Hines. “In addition to this, the warmer Sydney climate requires fewer items of clothing so there is certainly a bit more flesh shown. This means our skirts are often a bit shorter and our jeans a little skinnier.”

As the host of the country’s longest-running and best-established fashion show, Australian Fashion Week, Sydney is also the breeding ground for designers whose work has gone on to receive acclaim in fashion meccas such as Paris and New York. From young guns such as Josh Goot to international denizens including Collette Dinnigan and Akira Isogawa, Sydney continues to foster design talent and provide a market of consumers prepared to experiment with a new look. After all, it’s not like they have to wear it forever.

  • Quintessential Sydney: Ksubi skinny jeans, Therese Rawsthorne top, Miu Miu flats and a Balenciaga Motorcycle bag.

Melbourne

The saying goes: “Melbourne dresses to show off its clothes  Sydney dresses to show off its body.” Considering itself more subtle and sophisticated in its fashion philosophy, the Victorian capital’s European feel filters down into its choice of clothing. Having designed for Melburnian labels including Ty + Melita, Bettina Liano, and now Calibre, Ty Henschke is well placed to comment on the city’s signature style.

“There is definitely an idiosyncratic coolness to Melbourne fashion,” he says. “People stand out because of their own interpretation of trends rather than just the wholesale acceptance of the look of the moment. The city’s climate encourages layering which means people here combine items to great effect with a carefully thought out more-is-more approach.”

The consensus among fashion insiders (the type of people who exist in two seasons only — spring/summer or autumn/winter), is that Melburnians have a finely-developed awareness of their individual look.

“What I love about Melbourne is that its inhabitants are very fashion literate. There’s a retro awareness which allows people to cherry pick from the eras and adopt a look that is most flattering for them,” says Bonython-Hines. “Effort is made, resulting in a look that is ‘done and proper’  which can be seen in everything from make-up to accessories.”

For designer Kirrily Johnston, a Melburnian living in Sydney, her home town’s style is a combination of historical, aesthetic and visceral factors.

“I find the continental feel of the city hugely appealing, as well as its energy,” says Johnston, adding that these elements manifest in a style that is simultaneously elegant and contemporary. “Sydney city just doesn’t appeal to me. There’s no vibe. It’s not elegant. I love the harbour and the beaches, but the actual city has no soul.”

The eye for detail reflected in Melbourne’s fashion tastes is, according to Johnston, in part a reflection of the city’s overall appreciation of underplayed flourish. “For example, Melbourne has some wonderful buildings. The [neo-gothic] Manchester Unity building on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets is my all-time favourite. Then there are the laneways featuring gargoyles, intricate awnings and mosaic tiles.”

While Sydney may boast the likes of Peter Morrissey, Alex Perry and Wayne Cooper, Melbourne also emphasises outstanding quality with the likes of Scanlan & Theodore  a brand that has come to typify the best of high-end local design.

  • Quintessential Melbourne: Scanlan & Theodore top, Comme Des Garçons jacket, Zambesi pants and Lanvin.

Perth

It’s well-known that our nation’s most westerly metropolis has given birth to a disproportionately high number of Australian supermodels relative to its population  think Megan Gale and Gemma Ward. However, the city is also beginning to emerge as a serious player in the nation’s style stakes. According to Mariella Harvey-Hanrahan, director and co-founder of the Perth Fashion Festival, this is because “being removed from Australia’s other fashion cities has necessitated people in Perth finding their own style  whether it be a funky brooch or edgy combinations of patterns and stripes. I also believe our isolation works in our favour  it makes us work harder and not be distracted by what everyone else is doing with fashion.”

This was certainly the case when local girl Michelle Jank burst onto the national fashion scene a decade ago. She was the first student ever to be asked to design a solo collection for Mercedes Australian Fashion Week (as Rosemount Australian Fashion Week was then known). Now based in Paris, her feminine bowerbird style  think vintage fabric from op shops given new life as detail on ‘look-at-me’ frocks  has been embraced by Sarah Jessica Parker and Cate Blanchett, who described Jank as “the anointed one”. In her wake followed a stream of Perth designers, including Anthony Kendal and Jaclin Chouchana.

Harvey-Hanrahan believes, “Western Australian designers find their style away from the mainstream. What’s more, their brand is their own personal style.”

As a result of this geographical cocooning, they often emerge from their chrysalis onto the national or world stage in an assured and fully-formed blaze of fresh colour. “The reason you see so many WA designers showing their collections on international catwalks is because their look is never one-dimensional,” adds Harvey-Hanrahan. “Each designer shows his or her personality, and the product can be simple, fresh, colourful or elegant – but always original and stylish.”

For retailer Christian Tana, of Perth menswear emporium Parker & Co, the staple items in a man-about-town’s wardrobe include designer jeans such as 7 for all mankind, a trench coat that can be worn with jeans, driving loafers and “resort wear, like Armani or Paul Smith designer shorts and linen pants”.

Tana adds that Perth’s burgeoning style identity is linked to both economic and climatic factors. “Sydney and Melbourne have always had the international spotlight,” he says. “Yet in the face of the [resources] boom, all eyes are on Perth. So, of course we are dressing to impress in the style stakes. There is a new air of confidence in Perth and it’s evident through the very strong demand in our stores for luxury high-end labels like Ermenegildo Zegna, Brioni, Armani and Kiton.

“Perth has definitely flourished. It’s evident in how we live. There are more millionaires and more restaurants and cafes per capita here [than anywhere else in Australia] and this is reflected in our fashion sense.”

In other words, it comes down to that scourge of modern marketing speak  lifestyle. Perth’s fashion has evolved to accommodate a desire to make a statement that’s all lower case  no capitals or exclamation marks required  while watching the sun sink into the sea at Cottesloe with a martini in one hand and an exquisite satin clutch in the other.

  • Quintessential Perth: Stella McCartney sundress worn with K.Jacques sandals.

Brisbane

Ha, ha, ha. We’ve all heard the Brisvegas gags and descriptions of the Sunshine State as a polyester wonderland punctuated by squalls of Hawaiian shirts. While this sartorial stereotype may have once held sway, it is now accumulating dust in the history cupboard along with BeDazzler rhinestones and all that hypercolour.

“Brisbane is fresh and fun,” says Kerrie McCallum, Queenslander and editor of InStyle magazine. “There is a burgeoning shopping scene in Fortitude Valley with some unique shops run by some switched-on retailers and you’ll notice the area is more eclectic than ever. I think the increased availability of designer brands and unusual labels has caused Brisbane’s style identity to evolve in a direction that’s moved away from the brazen brights and metallics of old to a more laid-back sophisticate.”

The city’s tropical climate has led its designers and inhabitants to embrace a look that is low on fuss, but high on impact, as highlighted by the work of such diverse homegrown talents as Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton of sass & bide, Leona Edmiston and silk siren Juli Grbac, who won the inaugural series of Arena TV’s Project Runway Australia.

According to Lindsay Bennett, director of the city’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival, Brisbane’s recent style renaissance has come about as the result of two distinct factors. “International fashion has become much more accessible to consumers [in Brisbane] in recent years, courtesy of retailers such as Jean Brown, Samantha Ogilvie and Nancy King. In addition, support for local designers is very strong in Brisbane and the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival has been the most significant venture in recent years for emerging labels.”

Jean Brown Group director Amber Long agrees. “Queensland has always harboured a set of fashion-savvy consumers. The difference now is, that with the development of the design industry and the expansion of retail in Queensland, women in Brisbane can now access the world’s leading luxury and fashion labels on their doorstep, rather than being forced to travel to Sydney or Melbourne to view collections.”

Bennett notes that in being provided with a platform upon which to gain national and international exposure, Brisbane’s designers are growing in confidence from season to season as their wares are picked up around Australia and globally. And there’s not a white stiletto or stubbies and thongs combo in sight.

  • Quintessential Brisbane: Funky Easton Pearson top, Karen Walker shorts, an Yves Saint Laurent bag and Nat-Sui sandals.

And the Winner is…

Vested interests. For fear of alienating either their readers, customers or clients, few of those interviewed for this article were game to nominate their choice as Australia’s most stylish city. As often as not, the conversation turned into a discussion on semantics  of the “How do you define style?” ilk  before a compromise was reached in the form of a secret ballot. Assured of anonymity, votes were cast and it was Melbourne that came out in front. But only by a nose.

Words by David Smiedt - Published in Voyeur October 2008
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Christmas in the River City
Visiting the South-East for Christmas this year? Keep the young ones busy and experience Christmas, Brisbane-style with spectacular light shows and enchanting summer wonderlands.
Brisbane: the city of FIT
Brisvegas. Brisneyland. The River City. Whatever your preferred description of the Queensland capital may be, one fact is wholly undeniable; Brisbane is a fitness lover’s paradise.
Melbourne by Design
A local’s guide to uncovering some of the best and boldest design experiences in Melbourne.