You established Jean Brown, a concept store that delivered international fashion labels to our shores at the same time that they are stocked in the Northern Hemisphere. What kind of reaction have you had in Queensland?
Enormously supportive. From the very first day of trading, we had clients from as far as North Queensland fly in to buy labels that had not been easily available to them before. I believe a number of Australian stores are now adopting the same idea of bringing in collections as, and when, they are available to our northern counterparts. But, in 2007, this was very new to Australia, not just to Queensland.
Jean Brown housed an archive of vintage and antique handbags dating back to the 16th century. How did you incorporate this historical collection into the store alongside contemporary designer items?
One of the key ideas behind the Jean Brown store was the marriage of retail and gallery at a conceptual level, but also to demonstrate the relationship of fashion history to contemporary design, and the importance of the handbag as an everyday object in the story of our past.
The handbag is, more so than any other object, in my opinion, a mirror of our times. The design, aesthetic, or use of the handbag throughout the centuries and decades reflects the time in which it is used: whether it be the tapestry carpet bag from the early 19th century representing the birth of modern rail travel and the increased mobilisation of women with it; the petite Bakelite flapper bag marking the advent of modern plastics, sufficiently housing a miniature lipstick, powder puff, calling card case, and fronted with a little clock and a dangling perfume atomiser, redolent of the ‘modern woman’ who needed nothing else for a good time; the ‘abstract expressionist’ tote from the mid 50s, beautifully shaped, but with very little practical space to hold anything much, to make it all about form over function; or the 21st century Anya Hindmarch ‘I am Not a Plastic Bag’ market carrier, symbolising our new obsession with ecology, consumption and fashion. The handbag, as an object, is the embodiment of our history, where the ideas of fashion, culture, industry, and technology coalesce in a deceptively simple accessory, in a rather complex way.
The Archive also serves to demonstrate the sound investment in good quality accessories. Some of its pieces date back hundreds of years and the collection itself shows that good quality lasts and pieces can be handed down from one generation to the next.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
Jean Brown was named after my grandmother, the quintessential mid-20th century woman. Wearing gloves, hat, matching shoes, and handbag for the everyday occasion… the idea of ‘dressing up’ represents such a recent part of our history and I wanted to bring that personal memory and influence to our clients.
My mother was definitely my most personal influence. She had a very unique and quirky, yet elegant sense of dress. She amassed huge volumes of international Vogue magazines that I pored over as a young girl, and she was always dressed in the latest fashions.
As a child and teen of the 80s, I remember very clearly identifying with the runway looks of Alaia. That silhouette is so significant to me, even though I never had the figure to pull it off. As a more than stick figure in my teens, I preferred chunky shoes, socks to the knees, pink hair. That sort of thing.
I have an enormous collection of vintage clothing, mostly from the 60s, however as I am now in my 40s I am quickly ageing out of those pieces. Luckily I know I have a little girl to pass these down to.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
The street. Always have.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
When my mother passed away (when I was quite young), I inherited her jewellery box. A few pieces from her costume jewellery collection are the most special. A gold Egyptian collar is one, but the most prized is a Whiting and Davis gold mesh snake bracelet.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
No, but there are definite tribes. And I think there is one concept that pervades: subversion. Perhaps unlike any other state, coming out of a very conservative government in the 70s and 80s, there were a huge number of alternative fashion tribes (also in music and arts) and the idea of ‘difference’ is still very pervasive. Even in the mainstream, people tend to thwart Australian fashion mores with a tendency towards what is not being done by our southern sisters: colour over neutral; more is better than less; vintage is favoured over new, etc etc. Quite an interesting study actually.
Published in Issue 7, on November 19, 2013.