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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

Digging For Australian Roots

From original to aboriginal, designers are inspired by nature and native art

27 Октября 2015

Vintage pieces by Romance Was Born in the archives of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney
Vintage pieces by Romance Was Born in the archives of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney

The swimwear was vivid with Australian symbols; baubles of yellow wattle among leafy greenery, all under the Speedo label.

Vintage Speedo swimwear in the archive of the Powerhouse Museum
Vintage Speedo swimwear in the archive of the Powerhouse Museum

These colourful pieces were not on toned bodies on Bondi beach, but rather in the nearest fashion gets to a laboratory: temperature controlled, touch-with-gloves-only museum storage.

Deep in the bowels of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, I found what I had been looking for on this visit — fashion that could be defined as “Australian”. Glynis Jones, the museum’s Curator of Fashion and Dress, gave me the full tour, from convict uniforms to the free settlers’ simple dresses or colonials’ fancy hats. But the pieces that really grabbed me were from the 1970s: intense illustrations, colourful clothes and complex knits from Australia's fashion pioneers, designer Jenny Kee, in partnership with fashion and textile designer Linda Jackson.

A typically colourful and kinetic fashion drawing by Jenny Kee
A typically colourful and kinetic fashion drawing by Jenny Kee

I had met Jenny the previous day at the Australian Fashion Laureate awards, where she looked as I remembered her. 

Suzy with the Laureate winners, from left to right: Peter Strateas and Mario-Luca Carlucci of Strateas.Carlucci (Best Emerging Designers); Jenny Lewis and Liberty Collins of Scanlan Theodore (Best Australian Retailer); Suzy Menkes; Nancy Pilcher (Australi
Suzy with the Laureate winners, from left to right: Peter Strateas and Mario-Luca Carlucci of Strateas.Carlucci (Best Emerging Designers); Jenny Lewis and Liberty Collins of Scanlan Theodore (Best Australian Retailer); Suzy Menkes; Nancy Pilcher (Australi

She would hang out in London with Anna Piaggi and Zandra Rhodes, who had just made her “Down Under” road trip. Everything Australian, from flamingos to wattle, was in fashion. In the museum’s underground storage, according to Roger Leong, Senior Curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, those early fashion inspirations are often studied by today’s designers, especially Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales of Romance Was Born.

Cate Blanchett wears Romance Was Born to the Screen World’s exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, in September 2009
Cate Blanchett wears Romance Was Born to the Screen World’s exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, in September 2009

A striking Jenny Kee patchwork crochet was adapted by the duo to dress Cate Blanchett on the red carpet, earning her the soubriquet “Kate Blanket”! It caused almost as much of a stir as when Princess Diana wore Jenny’s “Koala” sweater at a polo match in 1982.

Princess Diana wears Jenny Kee’s
Princess Diana wears Jenny Kee’s "Koala" sweater at a polo match with Prince Charles (in yellow) in 1982 - a wedding gift from Kim Wran, New South Wales Premier Neville Wran’s daughter

In this early spring in Sydney, with papery peonies bursting into bloom and purple Jacaranda on the skyline, I realised the wisdom of the recent decision to bring Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia forward to a date in May 2016, thus concentrating on the retailers’ favourite season: Resort.

Edwina McCann, my colleague as Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Australia, underlined the importance of the Resort collections that are increasingly the focus of international brands.

Edwina McCann, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Australia, with Suzy at the Australian Fashion Laureate ceremony. She later gave Suzy a tour of Sydney’s fashion hot spots
Edwina McCann, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Australia, with Suzy at the Australian Fashion Laureate ceremony. She later gave Suzy a tour of Sydney’s fashion hot spots

As I walked through the vast Westfield shopping centre in the Pitt Street Mall, I realised how crucial Resort must be to lure tourists from South Asian countries, where the temperature never has a wintry chill. But in these global economic times, how easy is it to define a country’s culture and absorb that into modern fashion?

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Suzy with Nancy Pilcher, former Vogue Australia Editor-in-Chief and Vice-President of Editorial Development for Condé Nast Asia Pacific, who was awarded the Australian Fashion Laureate 2015 for her contribution to the fashion industry

Suzy with Nancy Pilcher, former Vogue Australia Editor-in-Chief and Vice-President of Editorial Development for Condé Nast Asia Pacific, who was awarded the Australian Fashion Laureate 2015 for her contribution to the fashion industry

Suzy at the Sydney Opera House

Suzy at the Sydney Opera House


In Australia I saw Collette Dinnigan and her racy lace, and also Dion Lee, whose work on drape and knotting I have seen at his shows in New York. Both are strong designers, but without a visible link to their homeland’s aesthetic.

Suzy with Collette Dinnigan, who was named Australian Fashion Laureate 2015, and who also has a retrospective celebrating 25 years in the industry
Suzy with Collette Dinnigan, who was named Australian Fashion Laureate 2015, and who also has a retrospective celebrating 25 years in the industry

At the Australian Fashion Laureate awards, the winner in the womenswear category was Toni Matičevski, born in Macedonia and based in Melbourne, where he started his career 10 years ago.

Toni Maticevski, who won Best Womenswear Designer 2015 at the Australian Fashion Laureate awards
Toni Maticevski, who won Best Womenswear Designer 2015 at the Australian Fashion Laureate awards

At his Sydney studio, in one of the English cottage-style streets in Paddington, I saw bold and streamlined clothes, rather than the soft and loosely-tied outfits of his fashion history.

The designer said that the ideas — such as the vivid orange of the new season – were “something in my system, removed from what I usually do”, and that his aim was to focus on “texture and technique”.

When I stepped into the Romance Was Born studio, I was engulfed by colour: bold vases of flowers, elaborate outfits and simpler digitally printed T-shirt dresses for store commerce. No wonder that this is the pair who turned down an internship with John Galliano, adored Christian Lacroix and are falling in love again with the new Gucci by Alessandro Michele.

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A jumpsuit from the Romance Was Born archive

A jumpsuit from the Romance Was Born archive

A typically vibrant outfit by Romance Was Born

A typically vibrant outfit by Romance Was Born

Another colourful piece from the Romance Was Born archive

Another colourful piece from the Romance Was Born archive

Luke Sales of Romace Was Born in their Sydney studio

Luke Sales of Romace Was Born in their Sydney studio

Suzy Menkes with Luke Sales and Jenny Plunkett of Romance Was Born, in their Sydney studio

Suzy Menkes with Luke Sales and Jenny Plunkett of Romance Was Born, in their Sydney studio


Together, they filled me in on their first decade: working with Australian artists, believing in fantasy, and adopting a romantic dynamism to enliven their county’s “pedestrian mentality”. Add to that “an obsession with colour”, seen in each explosive pattern.


I too am intrigued by fashion's new “New Romantics”. But I was still looking for something uniquely Australian that did not involve knock-out colour, complex pattern nor koalas, flamingos, and tribal patterned didgeridoos.

On a rare free afternoon I visited Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales to look at aboriginal art. The rhythmic, hand-worked dots depicting rock holes, terrain and vegetation, are applied with such intensity and subtlety that they might well inspire decorative art.

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Painters of the Western and Southern Desert Regions: Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (left), Untitled, 2004; and Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole,  2004

Painters of the Western and Southern Desert Regions: Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (left), Untitled, 2004; and Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole, 2004

Painters of the Western and Southern Desert Regions: Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (left), Untitled, 2004; and Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole,  2004

Painters of the Western and Southern Desert Regions: Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (left), Untitled, 2004; and Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole, 2004


Searching online, I found a major effort to keep Aboriginal handwork alive, but few examples of the repetitive patterns printed on cotton, in the way that I found bales of African prints in Nairobi markets, say.

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Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions

Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions

Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions

Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions

Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions

Painters from Australia’s Western and Southern Desert Regions


I am sure that Australian colleges are far ahead of me in encouraging students to look to their roots. For that is the best way for a nation’s fashion to seed and flower in our global world.

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