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Two colourful Australians are making a name for themselves in Paris

Koala couture

Romance Was Born, an Australian fashion label, has made a foray into Paris couture. Luke Leitch meets the pioneers

Romance Was Born, an Australian fashion label, has made a foray into Paris couture. Luke Leitch meets the pioneers

Luke Leitch | October/November 2018

The pealing calls of currawong and lyre birds mark the start of this highly unusual Paris debut. The air is scented with lemon myrtle from subtropical Queensland. A model emerges wearing an intricately knit pink jumper featuring a crochet intarsia koala perched on a eucalypt frond. Another is adorned with two yellow-crested cockatoos on the magnificent front of her sweater-dress. Yet another shows off a bead-fringed, tiered flapper frock with images of Uluru and the Sydney Opera House.

They wear feathered headdresses and agate earrings. Among the most spectacular looks is a red silk-satin dress that features Waratah flowers at the shoulder, breast and hip, each painstakingly sewn by hand. One dress transforms its wearer into a witchy yet comely galah (a type of cockatoo). Only the final outfit makes a concession to the ceremony of Paris couture: it is a wedding dress, as Paris tradition dictates. This one, however, is wildly Australian, crafted in diagonal tiers of torn tulle and lace, one-shouldered, and fringed with yellow feathers and beads – a nod to the bush-torn dresses in Peter Weir’s 1975 film “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, and to the coloured plumage of that cockatoo.

It is July and the Australian label Romance Was Born is taking its first steps on the catwalks of Paris. Couture Week is the flashy apogee of the fashion year: this is when Chanel, Dior, Valentino, Armani and a self-selecting elite group of European brands present the hand-crafted and spectacularly costly collections that are the artistic raison d’être for their sprawling industrial empires of ready-to-wear clothes, fragrances and sunglasses.

Yet this show is different. Though it’s taking place in Paris, the venue is a rickety old basketball court – rather improbably, it’s actually the world’s oldest. And though the timing is right, this debut is a guerrilla incursion: it appears nowhere on the official couture schedule.

“We’re not calling this ‘couture’, we’re calling it ‘kinda couture’,” says 36-year-old Luke Sales, co-founder of Romance Was Born. For the label’s first show in Paris – and its first outside Australia – “it’s important to show we’re not trying to be French. No ballgowns!” That explains the choice of the basketball court, says Anna Plunkett, the other half of the duo: “To show in a fancy salon would have been too much. We are very serious about what we do – but what we do shouldn’t look too serious. And we don’t want to look like everyone else.” Plunkett and Sales are over-cautious. The collection that emerges on the rickety parquet bears no resemblance to anything else in contemporary fashion.

There are other successful Australian fashion brands, such as Ralph & Russo, Zimmerman and Ellery. Yet none telegraph their down-under provenance like this label, which Plunkett and Sales founded in 2005 while still at fashion college.

But is this really couture? Though none of the items was stitched together in a Paris atelier, every piece is handmade. Some beading was completed in India, the jewellery was created in California, but most of the work was done in Australia. Knitters and quilters were recruited from around New South Wales, including Janelle Porter, Sales’s mother, who patched together a kimono made of souvenir tea towels, and a young crochet specialist named Katie Jones, who fashioned the cockatoos. Others sewed the jackets and dresses made of vintage French lace and the scarves drawn from the archive of Bondi-born knitwear and print designer Jenny Kee.

Back in Sydney, where they are based, Plunkett and Sales have a small but enthusiastic set of clients who commission one-off pieces. “Some of them spend as much on his clothes as an entire boutique would every season,” says Sales. Their devotees include actress Cate Blanchett and Catherine Martin, who has won an Oscar for her own costume designs. Recently the National Gallery of Victoria and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney have started to buy items for their own collections.

Yet even in Paris couture is a niche business: garments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a price that reflects the many materials and hours spent making them. In Australia most dressmakers who work to order focus on bridal wear, so the market for couture beyond that is very small indeed.

To complement the couture collection, Sales and Plunkett (left) have been developing a ready-to-wear range that is rapidly growing at home and started expanding its international presence two years ago. Bergdorf Goodman, a New York department store, and the British-based online retailer Matches Fashion recently started stocking their items. The desire to stimulate that side of the business prompted them to try their luck in Paris after their 13-year gestation in Australia, says Sales. The hope is that by making a splash with couture, more customers will be drawn to an off-the-rack range that runs from A$280 ($204) T-shirts to intricately decorated dresses and jackets that cost more than A$2,000.

Romance Was Born was born after Plunkett and Sales had worked alongside each other as friendly rivals and sometime collaborators for three years at fashion school. Together, they were urged to enter the prestigious Trieste-based ITS fashion competition in 2005. They were the only Australians to reach the final. Though they didn’t win, they were offered internships at the Christian Dior atelier, then under John Galliano. But they turned it down: “We didn’t realise what that meant,” said Plunkett. “And we thought we’d feel homesick, fish out of water who couldn’t communicate with anyone. Plus our parents didn’t see it as an opportunity. So we went home.”

They launched the label in Australia. Romance Was Born held its first show in 2006 after an Anzac Day sausage sizzle in a Sydney pub called the Cricketer’s Arms (where Plunkett worked shifts behind the bar). Entitled “Regional Australia”, it was a bricolage of hand crochet found in “op shops” (charity shops) and French lace gifted by Galliano, which also drew on their upbringings in quieter corners of the country. Their motifs included hats crocheted with eyes to scare off magpies (which both had worn as children) and ironic references to Australian sports legends. Their second collection, “Nocturnal”, mixed an Aussie-tinted interpretation of disco-wear with decoration based on the nation’s large population of night-loving animals.

By staying in Australia and isolating themselves from the rest of the fashion world, Romance Was Born has since developed a rich and unusual visual language: a highly considered assembly of intensely packed colour and ornament that draws on every facet of Australiana, as some American and European labels do with the iconography of their own nations. Not all their collections are local: past themes include yetis and Marvel superheroes. Yet the overt Australian origin of their work seems like a hopeful calling card at a time when many other locally brewed cultural phenomena have gained international traction, from flat white coffee and avocado toast to Margot Robbie and Chris Hemsworth.

After all of their models had taken one last turn around the basketball court in Paris, Plunkett and Sales emerged for their bows in a soft cloud of dry ice and currawong calls. One fashion title later described the show as “truly transportive”. It looks like Romance Was Born are in it for the long haul.