Jul 22, 2010 12:00AM

Fashion Fantastic

FASHION, published by Thames and Hudson Australia, is an epic volume by Mitchell Oakley Smith profiling a plethora of contemporary Australian and New Zealand designers. A labour of love by Smith, FASHION includes profiles of established visionaries such as Akira Isogawa and Easton Pearson alongside up-and-comers like Romance Was Born and Arnsdorf. Accompanying 70 profiles of our most celebrated design talent are plenty of gorgeous images that attest to the flair and vision of our homegrown designers. Oyster caught up with author Mitchell Oakley Smith to chat about putting the volume together, the future of Australian fashion and the creme of antipodean designers.

Tell us a little about your book.

Essentially, FASHION is a collection of 70 profiles of contemporary Australian and New Zealand fashion designers. It is dedicated to and inspired by the designers it profiles and, I think, evidence of the ever-increasing value of our industry. When you look through the book ? which contains over 50,000 words of text and over 350 campaign and runway images ? there's a real sense of Australian style evident, one that's otherwise hard to explain or pinpoint. I think the past ten years have been very important for Australian fashion, and it's at a point now where it's comparable (not stylistically, but in terms of artistic and commercial value) to international markets. It's something we should be very proud of, and I think this book, the first of its kind in nearly three decades, celebrates that.

How did the idea come about? How did you get started?

I was working as a fashion and design journalist for a newspaper at the time and found that there was no tangible reference to look to for information and, beyond that, inspiration. Magazines don't have the capacity to wholly represent such a broad industry, and so there was no hard evidence of our industry at this point in time. In saying that, my book doesn't and never intended to include every single designer in the industry, for it would be nigh impossible. But rather it's a comprehensive cross section of fashion design in the region, and includes both menswear and womenswear across street, swim and couture.

What do you think sets Australian designs apart from overseas designers?

I think, most importantly, climate. Australian designers take the framework of fashion ? say, the suit ? and interpret that for an Australian audience, which is more laidback. Beyond this, our country is made up of so many different cultures, and I think this has had a big influence on our aesthetic, and is part of the reason we don't have an overriding sense of style like other countries do. Our national identity isn't tied up in a sweeping style of fashion. It's much broader than this.

There hasn't been such a comprehensive showcase of Australian designers since the early 1980's. Did you set out to document Australian talent, or present it to an international audience?

When I began writing the book I knew from experience that people in Australia and overseas were really interested in Australian fashion. That there's so many television shows and public events dedicated to fashion is evidence of its place in broader society today. I think that the book will be of great interest to other designers, as well as students, retailers, consumers and fellow creatives. Overseas, too, is proving to be strong for sales of the book, which makes sense given so many of our designers (Toni Maticevski, Josh Goot, Willow, et. al.) show overseas to great acclaim.

Tell us a bit about the designers featured in your book. Who were you most excited about featuring?

I set some parameters in curating the designers who would be featured in the book. All designers are, for the most part, in creative control of their collections, are based in Australia or New Zealand, and design collections on a seasonal basis. I spent over 200 hours interviewing the designers (which is a lot of transcribing), but they were all so interesting and different from each other. I loved speaking with the designers of Birthday Suit (the girls behind the performance art group The Kingpins), as they draw on so much of their art works and performance history. I also loved chatting with Nic and Susien from Lover; what they did online, in setting up a MySpace and website before anyone else, was revolutionary, and has allowed them to establish a community around their brand. They're at a point now where people say "that film is so Lover", or "that book is so Lover." For a brand only a decade old to be at that point is truly special.

Who would you consider amongst your favourite established designers, and why?

Designers like Akira and Easton Pearson have a fantastic history, and in designing their new collections draw on their past. Australia is quite young in that we don't have long-established fashion houses like Europe, but these designers (and the likes of Zambesi and Nom*D in New Zealand) are drawing on over 20 years of experience, and their archives represent the development of fashion in the region.

Which designers should we be keeping our eyes on?

There's some fairly new designers in the book. We all know Dion Lee will continue to do great things, just as Romance Was Born will keep pushing boundaries and entertaining us. Other young-ish designers that I'm interested to watch are Therese Rawsthorne, Jade Sarita Arnott from Arnsdorf and Yeojin Bae. Their initial years have been very promising.

What was the most fun part of putting the book together?

It was definitely interviewing all of the designers. I've personally learnt so much about fashion ? not just the Australian industry ? by putting this book together, and now feel well placed to work on the second edition (which we'll release in a few years, maybe with some new designers, and including many of the existing). Going through archives of images was also really interesting, particularly for designers that have been established for 30 years.

Were there any hiccups along the way?

It was hard to find a publisher at first, as fashion isn't typically something that gets published in Australia. There was several knockbacks until I met with Thames & Hudson, who had just started publishing local books. Beyond that, my computer died and I lost a few profiles that I had just written (thankfully everything else was backed up). I had to re-write those few profiles, and it drives me crazy to think that the original words might have been better. I guess I'll never know.

How many man-hours went into the book?

It's hard to say really. There was 200 hours of interviews, and so about 300 hours transcribing those interviews. I'd say about 500 hours writing the profiles, and about the same editing and proofing the pages. Then there was countless emails setting up interviews, getting information, accessing images, sourcing credits? It took 2 years in total, and I definitely lost a social life for a good part of it. But it's all been worth it.

What's next for you?

As I said, there'll be subsequent editions of FASHION every few years. I'm also working on another book right now (that's too early to discuss just yet, stay tuned?). I'm about to go on tour with the book; I'll be speaking on panels as part of fashion festivals in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and New Zealand over the next 8 weeks, which is both exciting and scary.