‹ Referred by Leah Jackson

 

Referred Chris Hill ›

Stephanie Downey

Stephanie Downey designs her independent, internationally acclaimed fashion label Dress Up from her studio in Melbourne. Working mainly alone, her designs have a certain discretion yet are sharply tailored, structured and quietly striking.

You've been referred by Leah Jackson who said something interesting - about you being not so into design, but into stuff.

It's a funny observation! I am very into design but also very into the design process. I do all the pattern cutting myself - it's actually my favourite part - I really enjoy that process of creating something two dimensional from something three dimensional in my mind. But where my ideas come from is not so inspired by fashion but so many other things. Sometimes it is the way someone is wearing something; a character in a film or the way a friend wears an old garment that starts a train of thought - but yes, I am into stuff too!

A small piece you wrote about Dress Up uses unusual descriptions for a fashion label, words that show such a sensitivity towards the wearer - The quote reads: "A self-conscious attempt at ladylike - Dress Up is an ode to vanity and the private aspiration of appearing fashionable." I love 'appearing' fashionable rather than 'being' fashionable.

There are varying degrees of confidence and of people knowing who they are. I started being interested in designing clothes when I was quite young and it was all tangled up in a time when you were so innocent, so unsure of yourself, and I think that has continued to inspire my work. I suppose it inspires me in general. That's why I write about the label that way - I really love the idea of someone wearing an outfit because they want to appear as something; they want people to perceive them in a certain way but maybe they don't get it quite right . There is something so special about that.

It gives you an insight into their vulnerability?

Yeah - I think what I am interested in with fashion is people's relationships with clothing and how they express themselves through what they wear - it doesn't matter if it is really out there or really subtle.

They have a careful femininity, yet there is also a slight erosion of femininity, a little mannish. Very charming -

I have started describing my work as feminine but it was sort of pushed on me - I never really saw it that way. I definitely design with the waist as a central point for balance which - after doing quite a large body of work - appears to be a consistent thing. It does have the connotation of being feminine but I do love masculine details and that is definitely part of my work as well. A simplicity, a lack of embellishment.

Before this interview, we spoke about film. I saw these photos on your blog, which I can see have been processed and stuck on your wall -

Yeah I took photos of the TV - it's Red Desert by Antonioni. I was trying to capture details and nondescript scenes that don't have any characters in them.

It's nice to see them developed this way, seeing that the quickest and easiest thing to do is take a screen grab.

I like taking photographs that way, getting them processed - I used to a lot more - and I can put them on my wall, rather than looking at files on my computer. I like the quality of them, and the little stripes from the television.

When you started the label in 2006, had you had much industry experience?

No - I was very naive, stubborn... headstrong. I started playing around and making a collection, I used to say it was just for fun but had quite high hopes. I ended up getting an order from a store and it went really slowly from there - it's not like it all suddenly happened. I had no money, which is why it has been very slow growth.

And that meant working on your own?

Yes, but I have had a few interns. That's really picked up lately and I have had some great relationships with some. Even though it's a very small area and I was originally quite nervous about directing someone in such a limited space, it's been fine and hopefully they have benefitted from the experience. It's nice to have company as well and be able to bounce ideas sometimes.

I wanted to ask you about rejected pieces - pieces that weren't working for you, or didn't turn out...

Something that has reached the final stages of the process?

If that happens?

Yes definitely - there are always pieces, at least one in a collection, that people don't respond to. And maybe I don't like it either, or I'm over it, so I understand. It usually turns out to be a more conceptual piece not that I design to a highly conceptual level but, for instance, the last collection had a jumpsuit that was taupe and I suppose people who want to wear a jumpsuit, don't necessarily also want to be in such a drab colour - it's not a safe thing to buy. I still love that piece though. That was a bit sad, but sometimes it makes me happy, as I can keep the sample and no-one else has it!

You have a very clear vision of what you are making, perhaps pieces that are too representative of your philosophy...

Yes, sometimes it's too literal of my intentions.

Are you aware as you are making?

Sometimes I am making, thinking that I don't think I will get many orders for it, but I hope that I do. You really want it out there. Otherwise we wouldn't do what we do. And it's important also because what is out there publicises the brand. It often turns out that the pieces that are popular with the press aren't the pieces that sell very well. But those indulgent pieces need to happen, they express who the designer is.

I have another of your quotes here: "When we 'dress up', countless images learned and copied are compiled to create something personal and unique. Dress Up is inspired by this inherent human expression, both powerful and vulnerable." It's a lovely idea - you certainly trust your audience to notice the small things in your work.

I feel incredibly lucky that people do wear my label well, so beautifully. Friends who order clothes inspire me and every now and again I see a girl I don't know and it's so touching - and they are styled in a way I wouldn't do it which looks amazing.

Satisfying to see your work living an independent life!

Yes it is!

Looking around your workspace, it's very clean!

It's very boring! I think I need that though, I'm very internal. The process is very practical, if you were watching me design a collection, you'd see it's not exciting at all, sewing and pattern making, I think to surround myself with images is not natural for me.

Considering what we were just discussing, it's like the clean workshop encourages the sources of your inspiration to be internalised, processed and translated before they come out through your work - I can see how source material around the place might interrupt that...

I agree, it's just not natural for me, sometimes it does help but maybe I'm challenging myself to make something unique. I think everything is copied but it's from a compilation; you have access to so much material; so the way it's internalised is unique to you.

You can browse and buy Stephanie's collections at dressup.net.au

Photography by Double Days.