Priscilla misses on individuality

British clothes buyers just wouldn't take the bait at the first Sydney Fashion Week. Lee Tulloch reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Yes, there were muscle men in gold bikinis and leggy blondes wearing micro-mini skirts with flip-flops and enough satin and sequins to deck out the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert II. In the end, however, the Australian fashion industry's first fashion week, held in Sydney from 7-11 May, looked more like an intimate replay of the fashion weeks of New York or Milan than a rummage through the contents of Dame Edna's closet.

Lynette White from Liberty and Catrina Jamieson and April Glassborow from Harvey Nichols were three who braved the 20-hour flight from London to view the ready-to-wear collections of the 14 designers selected to present individual parades.

"I came with a very open mind," Glassborow says. "The thing we've been asked by a lot of people is, 'What are your preconceptions about how Australians dress?' - and the natural answer is to say that it's casual. But it's not really true because all the Australians I know in London wear the best clothes. They look so smart at all these parties."

What did they hope to find in Australia? "An individual stamp," says Glassborow. "Because there are so many designers around, you've got to find somebody who's got a mark of their own, a look of their own, that makes you think, 'This is something new, we want to buy it.' "

"I don't think we thought of it as Australian in particular - it is a new market," adds Jamieson.

Jamieson and Glassborow were interested in the swimwear by the young Sydney designer Nicole Zimmerman. They also liked the work of Mela Purdie of MJM Lifestyle, who collaborated with the Australian textile printer Marblesque to create wildly coloured kaftans and other separates out of fabrics that use a liquid seaweed process to create marbling effects. They were impressed, too, by the collections of Collette Dinnigan, whose lingerie is already stocked by Harvey Nichols. While several collections appealed, however, the chequebook stayed closed. Glassborow puts it down to the seasonal problem: everything just ends up looking out of date.

The Australian designers showed that 10,000 miles away from Europe is still not enough distance to escape the influence of Gucci and Prada. If the international media and buyers were looking for something fresh from Australia, they found it in less than a handful of collections, although the liberal use of colours such as turquoise, the deliberately relaxed styling, the inevitable sounds of aboriginal music and the tanned, Amazonian models, were all irrepressibly Australian - like Alexander Perry, who poured the Home and Away star Melissa George into sequinned knickers and thigh-high boots. Nowhere was there to be seen Australia's one genuine contribution to world fashion - the surfwear labels like Mambo and Piping Hot.

The Mercedes Australian Fashion Week is the brainchild of the tenacious Sydney fashion promoter Simon Lock, who is aiming to secure for Australia the title of fashion capital of Asia Pacific. Although Australia exports about A$1bn (pounds 530,000) of its fashion to the rest of the world, most of this in the form of oilskin bushman's coats, rabbit-fur Akubra hats and garish T-shirts emblazoned with scenes of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Contemporary designers such as Morrissey Edmiston, Martin Grant and Collette Dinnigan, whose clothes can be found on the backs of rock stars and in such stores as Harvey Nichols and Liberty, represent such a tiny percentage of the international market and generate barely a whisper of publicity, that Australian fashion has remained, until now, an oxymoron.

"Australia is limiting and irrelevant and very difficult," says 30-year- old Collette Dinnigan, who has found it necessary to show her exquisite collection of lacy lingerie and ready-to-wear in Paris for the past two seasons. She is the only Australian designer registered with the Chambre Syndicale, the body that regulates the Paris collections.

"But it also has incredible bonuses, too, because for me not to be influenced by any other European or American designers is great. I can do my own thing."

Simon Lock says the most positive thing about the five days was seeing the notoriously divisive Australian fashion industry get together in the spirit of camaraderie. "By the end of the week, everyone was thinking, 'Look, we can do it! We're really cool!"

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