Many of your collections revolve around classic summer items that are ideally suited to the Queensland climate, including loose-fitting garments made from natural fibres in bright colours, and, quintessentially, thongs! Does the local environment and lifestyle directly inspire what you make?
The Australian lifestyle has a massive influence on my approach to designing; from the selection of natural textiles such as silk, linen, georgette and cottons that breathe; to the bold colour and sensual cuts that come naturally when you are living in a subtropical climate. Australian women have mastered the natural, chic style that is integral to our laid back culture. The aesthetic also appeals to the international shopper; visitors to the country fall in love with our lifestyle, and the clothes that are reflective of it.
London was where you first started your career, but you decided to return to Brisbane to launch your label, where you now have two boutiques. What made you decide to return, and has it been a conscious decision to have both the garment production and retail for Tengdahl here in Queensland?
London was a great launch-pad for my husband Brett and I to start our careers, but we wanted to give our family an Australian upbringing and so we moved back to Brisbane to begin the next phase of our lives here. I was born and raised in South Brisbane; at the time there were very few jobs in the fashion industry – and very few Brisbane designers. I felt an immense loyalty to the burgeoning local industry, and wanted to forge a career here, dreaming of one day contributing to the development of the industry here.
By the late 1990’s, my label was expanding rapidly, with several stand alone stores in Brisbane an Sydney, as well as being stocked nationally in David Jones. The scale of the business required me to either move my workroom out of the local area to accommodate a higher production and dispatch capacity, or scale the retail end of the business down to retain the craftsmanship, personalised attention to detail, and local manufacturing that had made the brand a local household name. I chose the latter, and nearly a decade on I am so glad I did. So many of our ‘Australian’ labels have moved off shore; and with them have gone jobs and learning opportunities for the next generation of designers.
Keeping garment production in Queensland has its financial drawbacks, but this is outweighed by the fact that it enables me to be responsive to the feedback and needs of my clientele, and in control of my chain of supply – ensuring all garments and their materials are sourced and produced ethically. We also launched an e-boutique three months ago and have been overwhelmed by how many of our clients who live rurally or overseas have reconnected with the brand. I feel very fortunate to have been doing something I love for so long.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
My mother was a seamstress and some of my first memories are of me playing beneath her sewing machine, collecting remnants of fabric. During my childhood, my most treasured possession was a large glory box of French lace, sequins, antique shell buttons and beading. I still have the box and occasionally delve into it, to use a piece here or there on a current design. After school I studied fashion design at MSIT (Metropolitan South Institute of TAFE). While trying to break into the industry I worked as an aerobics instructor. I noticed that the active wear at the time was boring so I created a range of sports wear for my class, and when sales took off, the range funded my first collection as a fashion designer.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
Regular trips to Paris and Milan provide me with direct industry reference and invaluable international exposure, while travel to exotic places like Asia, India and the South Pacific Islands always feeds my creativity. But being on the ‘shop floor’ – talking to women, fitting them, gauging their feedback, and hearing what they want more of – definitely forms the foundation of my style inspiration. When designing a collection, I often have a specific woman in mind; be it a conversation I’ve had with her, an insight into her personal style, or a story she has told me about her life. I’ve never felt compelled to design to ‘trends’; for a clothing pattern to be wearable, relevant and beautiful in ten years’ time it must balance wearability and style. Style provides women with a meaningful way to convey who they are, what they stand for, and who they want to be.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
My proudest ‘design moments’ have been quite personal. After decades creating outfits for the ‘special moments’ in other women’s lives, it was an incredible experience to design both of my daughters’ ball gowns. They are two of the dresses I will always cherish most, because of the pride I have in the two women I made them for.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Leisure, glamour, and (our first fashion precinct) Brisbane Arcade.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
Yes! Whenever I visit Sydney or Melbourne I become even more aware of the distinction. We are more carefree, fun and experimental up here. We take our fashion seriously, but we eschew the excessiveness and pretension that often comes with being ‘fashionable’. Ours is a vibrant, fun, pragmatic, thoughtful, and wearable approach to style. Whenever I think about quintessential Queensland style, I always come back to one word “effortless”.
Published in Issue 8, on December 3, 2013.