The city of Brisbane covers a region of 5,949.9 sq. km in Queensland’s south-east. Settled by Europeans in 1824, it has grown to be Queensland’s largest city with a metropolitan population of 2.2 million. As the state’s capital and centre for business, Brisbane has naturally been an important site for the local fashion industry. It holds the highest concentration of drapers, dress-makers, tailors, boutiques and department stores, and it is the epicentre of fashion in Queensland, servicing the regions through mail-orders and Brisbane-based retail franchises.
Places to Shop
In the period from the late 19th Century to the early 21st century, Brisbane has seen cyclical patterns of centralised and decentralised fashion consumption. Though the CBD, or “the city”, has been reasonably steady as a significant site of Brisbane fashion retail, other prominent fashion districts, such as Fortitude Valley, have seen periods of decline and renewal.
In the late 19th century, fashion was primarily made, bought, and sold in the major urban pockets serviced by train and tram networks. Dressmakers and retailers clustered around Queen, George, and Adelaide Streets in the city; Brunswick and Wickham Streets in Fortitude Valley; and the Five Ways in Woolloongabba. These areas were home to drapers, a variety of small and independent boutiques, arcades, and the major Brisbane department stores.
Popular early CBD and Fortitude Valley department stores included McWhirters, McDonnell & East, Waltons, Allan & Stark, T. C. Beirne & Co., Finney Isles & Co., and Overell & Sons. These stores catered to a wide range of markets and their founders were quite closely interlinked, emerging from an initially small pool of merchants as the city and its markets grew.1
In the mid-20th century Brisbane’s suburbs were ripe for fashion retail as the rise of cars and suburban sprawl shifted focus away from the city and Fortitude Valley. A major turning point for the consumption of fashion in Brisbane was the 1957 opening of Chermside’s new Allan & Stark Drive-In Shopping Centre (later known as Chermside Shopping Centre, now ‘Westfield Chermside’). It was the first of its kind in Australia, and Brisbanites quickly gained a taste for retail-therapy in air-conditioned comfort. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s this successful suburban retail model was replicated with large drive-in shopping centres opening in Toombul (1967), Indooroopilly (1970), Upper Mount Gravatt (1970), Carindale (1979) and Capalaba (1981). The Myer Centre was opened in 1988 in Queen Street. This city location rivalled its suburban retail counterparts in scale, attracting shoppers back to one of Brisbane fashion’s traditional staging posts.
In more recent times, there has been a conscious revival of Brisbane’s forgotten urban fashion districts, with boutique shopping returning to the valley (primarily Ann and James Streets, and ‘Emporium’) and the city, with Elizabeth and Brisbane Arcades, and Edward Street, catering to high-end fashion in particular. The development of upmarket shopping centre Queens Plaza in 2005 saw an influx of international luxury brands reach the Brisbane market. For the first time, Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co.⎯among other global fashion heavyweights⎯opened up stores in Brisbane, indicating Queensland’s place as a viable segment of the important and growing Asia-Pacific market.
Brisbane has a notably strong independent retail sector for its size, offering respite by way of variety from the dominance of large shopping centres and multinational chains. Online shopping has been a distinct challenge to independent fashion retailers (with many Brisbane consumers taking advantage of their increased access to international fashion brands), however many independent high-fashion retailers, such as Camargue, Blonde Venus and Jean Brown (all in Fortitude Valley) have managed to withstand the pressures of this changing environment.
Design, Manufacture & Production
From the late 19th to the early 20th century Brisbane had a small fashion manufacture industry. Garments, shoes, and accessories were produced in some small to medium sized factories in inner suburbs such as West End and Fortitude Valley. One notable example was Ponds Dress Factory, located on Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley. This mail order fashion firm also housed a small ‘frocks and coats’ retail outlet (the factory premises were taken over during WWII as the American Army Clothing Repair workshop). Available fashions were a combination of locally made or imported, though almost always using imported fabrics from Europe or even Japan.
Interestingly, textiles manufacture was never a prominent industry in Brisbane, even though the capital has been an important site for Queensland’s cotton and wool industries, particularly in the early 20th century.2
From the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries there were a number of successful designers and dressmakers catering to the Brisbane market, including Janet Walker, Miss Scott, Paula Gubar, and Gwen Gillam. As an alternative to available ready-to-wear garments, print press (such as The Queenslander magazine and Queensland Figaro) distributed mail-order patterns of the season’s latest fashions from Paris, Vienna, London, and New York for reproduction by home-sewers, dressmakers, and tailors.
In recent decades, there have been a number of Brisbane-based fashion designers who have managed to open and sustain successful boutiques in Brisbane, primarily in the CBD and Fortitude Valley. These include Easton Pearson, Sass and Bide, Tengdhal, Maiocchi, Dogstar, Keri Craig, and Pia Du Pradal.
Social scenes and events, such as balls, galas and horse races, have been opportunities for Brisbane to dress-up. Brisbane has been home to many of Queensland’s most popular nightspots, with Cloudland⎯built in 1939 and sadly demolished in 1982⎯perhaps its most memorable. Known as the Southern Hemisphere’s Largest Ballroom, it hosted hugely popular social events and major international music acts in its heyday of the 1940s to the 1960s, and was Brisbane’s connection to bourgeoning American youth culture, bringing together the latest in music, dance, and fashion.
Brisbane has recently received attention for hosting some internationally significant fashion exhibitions held at the Queensland Art Gallery/ Gallery of Modern Art: Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future 2010 (a major touring exhibition from Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris), Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones in 2010 (a collaboration with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum) and Easton Pearson 2009. The establishment of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Festival in 2006 also contributed to raising the national and international profile of Queensland fashion.
As it has been since the late 19th century, Brisbane remains an important focal point and central marketplace for the production, consumption, design and development of Queensland fashion.
- M. R. MacGinley, "McDonnell, Francis (Frank) (1863–1928)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonnell-francis-frank-7343/text12747, accessed 26 June 2013.
- Queensland Places, Brisbane and Greater Brisbane. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/brisbane-and-greater-brisbane
- Queensland Places, Fortitude Valley. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/fortitude-valley
Published in Issue 1, on August 27, 2013.