Big sleeves, bubble skirts and layers of tulle: next-gen designers steal the runway at Australian fashion week | Australian fashion week

A crowd of eager watchers came to see the future of Australian fashion on Tuesday evening. An audience of editors, stylists and influencers at New South Wales Tafe’s Fashion Design Studio (FDS) graduate runway show – a regular event at Australian fashion week – were joined by parents, friends and some of the school’s most notable alumni, including Akira Isogawa, Bianca Spender and Nicky Zimmermann.

The event, dubbed “the Innovators”, has been staged at Australian fashion week since 1998 and has heralded some of Australia’s most successful designers. On this occasion, four graduates from the 2023 class – Samara Darling, Sara Marta, Renee Henderson and Isabella Hoyle Davies – each presented 12 looks: a mix of voluminous sleeves, breathtakingly sheer dresses, bubble skirts, tassels, embellished denim and layers upon layers of tulle.

To mark the show’s 25th anniversary, the graduate collections were followed by a parade of garments designed by prominent FDS alumni Christopher Esber, Dion Lee, Romance Was Born and Karla Spetic, as well as looks by Isogawa, Spender and Zimmerman. In a challenging climate for independent designers, it was a welcome reminder of the depth and breadth of homegrown talent.

Natalie Xenita, the managing director of Australian fashion week, said the graduate runway is an opportunity “to engage with the voices and visions of the luminaries shaping tomorrow’s design, style and aesthetic”.

Nathan McGuire, the founder of Mob in Fashion, agreed: “It’s nice to see that fresh perspective. Each of the students [have] an individual style; the potential there is great.”

Ahead of the show we spoke to the four graduates about their designs and plans for the future.

Samara Darling, Sydney

Label: Who Am U

Samara Darling from label Who Am U uses music to inspire her sculptural yet soft designs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Samara Darling created her collection while composing music. The Sydney-based graduate is a keen vocalist and as she designed, she collaborated with other musicians on a song. “Every time music was added to the track, it would then inform design decisions in terms of shape and textures,” she says.

On Tuesday night, three musicians performed the track live as Darling sent her white, black, grey and pastel garments down the runway. The looks were sculptural yet soft: wide-legged pants in a stiff cotton drill with exaggerated cargo pockets paired with a high-necked, bib-front blouse with billowy sleeves made from a sheer organza.

A model wears a piece by Who Am U at the Innovators show at Australian fashion week on Tuesday night. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Darling’s creative output is also eco-conscious. She uses remnant upholstery fabrics, swatch cards and offcuts alongside a bio-based material which is derived from algae and combined with glycerine. She describes using the material as an experiment: the mixture was poured over silk scraps and moulded into the shape of a bodice.

“I want Who Am U to be part of a culture of exploring and expanding on fashion and the connection our clothes have to who we are,” she says. “I hope to see a little bit more fun and play in the Australian fashion landscape in the future.”

Sara Marta, Sydney

Label: Marta Design

‘The beauty of fashion comes from the people who make it’: Sydney-based graduate Sara Marta. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I just love artistry. To me the beauty of fashion comes from the people who make it,” Sara Marta of Marta Design says. “I grew up watching YouTube videos of the Dior atelier where they show all the makers doing the lace appliqué and all the small little details. I am just really inspired by craft.”

This love of detail was evident in the looks Marta sent down the runway, including a sheer, ankle-length pale-pink slip dress with beaded mauve leaves joined by red swirling vines. And a white organza top with cap sleeves, embroidered with soft green leaves and orange and pink flowers, paired with a shimmering floor-length pink satin skirt.

Models backstage prepare to walk the runway for Marta Design.

Marta collaborated on the intricate beadwork and embroidery with textile artisans in India. She communicated with makers via WhatsApp, sharing illustrations and references that were transformed into her final designs. Most of this work was done on polyester tulle that could be stretched around the body for her sheer, form-fitting designs.

Marta worked with textile artisans in India to help bring her beadwork and embroidery designs to life. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/EPA

While she was studying, Marta worked in retail for womenswear label Zimmermann (whose business sold for A$1.5bn last year) and often looked to the brand for inspiration. Now she has graduated, Marta plans to move to London to broaden her experience.

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“I don’t see myself leaving Australia forever; I definitely want to come back and build my own brand here,” she says. “But I want to work somewhere where there are more resources and innovations.”

Isabella Hoyle Davies, Sydney/Orange

Label: Bella Davies

Isabella Hoyle Davies’ designs explore the idea of personal space, and keeping distance between the wearer and their surroundings. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“To start a brand, I feel like you have to find a community of people who really love and enjoy your clothes,” says Isabella Hoyle Davies of the label Bella Davies. The graduate’s collection, titled Keep Space, was inspired by the idea of personal space and keeping distance between the wearer and their surroundings. “Sort of using clothing as a kind of armour, but not appearing as armour,” she says. “My collection is very feminine so it’s done through use of shapes and silhouettes.”

Her looks included a pink and red long-sleeve top with a matching miniskirt made from velvet ruched so tightly, it sat rigidly off the body. The top sleeves featured an exaggerated cuff which covered the model’s hand – though this was offset by a ruffle which ran along the collarbones.

Strong and feminine silhouettes featured in Hoyle Davies’ graduate collection. Photograph: Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images for AFW

Davies likes to use fabrics that are rich in texture including silk organza, chiffon, leather, cotton, linen and remnant upholstery fabrics. Artisanal practices such as painting on fabric, beading and hand-dyeing make every piece feel handmade.

One of the most time-consuming pieces in the collection was a pale blue polyester dress that had been ruched and draped on a mannequin, then fixed in shape with a heat gun to make the synthetic material melt and set. Worn on the runway with a matching sheer veil, the effect of the heat-set draping gave the dress a wet look, while a flowing asymmetrical skirt created an feminine line through the waist.

Renee Henderson, Wollongong

Label: Lychee Alkira

Wollongong-based graduate designer and Wiradjuri woman Renee Henderson. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“My great-grandma was a seamstress, so it runs in my blood,” says Wiradjuri woman Renee Henderson of Lychee Alkira.

Indigenous knowledge and storytelling informed the designs in her graduate collection. She collaborated with Bayley Mifsud, a Peek Whurrong artist of the Maar nation, to create a red and white print made of circles and lines that featured on a flared, high-waisted pant and a matching knee-length coat. “She painted straight on to some canvas fabric and sent it back to me in Sydney and I was able to turn her design into a screen print,” Henderson says.

Henderson looked to Indigenous storytelling, screen prints and eco-dyed fabrics for her collection. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

In addition to screen prints, Henderson works with eucalyptus, geranium and rose petal eco dyes. The dye work could be seen in a mottled green and red organza used in the first looks she sent down the runway: a floaty maxidress with diagonal, ruched lines; and a flirty miniskirt and top, ruched with red ribbon to create shape through the torso and hips. Both outfits had a commercial ease that usually evades graduate shows.

Henderson is building an online store where some pieces from her graduate collection will be available. And she hopes to continue collaborating with Aboriginal designers and creatives. “Even now in the show we have a lot of Aboriginal models as well, which is really great,” she says. “That’s what I see in the future of Australian fashion.”


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