DRESSING UP IN THE EIGHTIES
By Kenn Bushby
My boyfriend Robert and I are invited to our neighbour Thina’s 21st Birthday. It’s a costume party and is to be held on the pool deck of Brisbane’s newly opened Hilton Hotel. Very swish. Not content with an invitation for two, I devise costumes for us that require an ensemble.
I am the Bride. I wear size 14 combat boots, oversized boxer shorts, a bodice and bouquet that I make with silver sprayed plastic flowers, and tulle – metres and metres of cheap white netting draped and flung about and trailing. Yari provides the beehive up-do, glued with a truckload of Final Net. Global warming, renewable energies and environmental sustainability are terms we are yet to hear and we are unconcerned about the precarious condition of the ozone layer. It is the Eighties, and we are concerned about having very high hair.
More plastic flowers and a veil go on top. I’m now seven foot tall and I’m gorgeous. I’m a bride. Robert is, of course, my groom. So handsome in his smart black suit and bowtie; poor darling – he doesn’t know that he is marrying a monster. He is attended by Nick from across the hall; if not the best man, certainly the handiest.
Miss Murphy, herself no slouch with a few metres of cloth and a safety pin, gets busy with a flummery of pink tutus and more cheap netting for her appearance as matron of honour and for bridesmaid Sharon, who is married to Nick from across the hall.
Wendy Bradford guest stars as mother of the bride in a blowsy frock with a matching hat and gloves, and an intravenous drip disappearing into her handbag. We all wear masks; semi-transparent plastic full face masks through which you can distinguish facial features, but come luridly adorned with lipstick and eye shadow. The mother of the bride’s complete with a ciggie in the corner of her mouth.
It’s not exactly performance art, but when we exit the elevator to the Hilton Atrium Bar and make our way across the foyer, the pianist starts pounding out The Bridal Waltz and we get a round of applause.
It’s a cliquey scene, Brisbane’s independent art obsessed, and I am probably not the only person who feels that their place is peripheral.
If it’s Tuesday, we are at John Mills National, or at any other show that is opening. I go with Gayle Storm. We wear a battle-dress of black, look absolutely bored, drink the wine and suck Benson & Hedges one after another – Extra Mild for me, Special Filter for Gayle. We stand to one side of the room and spend the entire time saying dreadful things about what everybody else is wearing.
If it’s Thursday, we are at Short Circuit at the Hacienda. DJ Jane Grigg is spinning records and my pals are all there. Donald and Scott, Mal and Barb, Sheridan and Maryanne. Brendan Smith is there. Tim Gruchy is there. All the dance monsters are there.
If it’s Sunday, it’s a replay of Thursday. We are at Warhol in Upper Edward St, or wherever else Johnny Griffin is playing.
Lehan Ramsay is having a party that requires an item of handmade headwear. Apparently I will go to a lot of trouble to be seen in public with some ridiculous thing on my head and I spend days making a tray of cocktails out of silver card, clear acetate and coloured lighting gel. It’s a sensational thing and I win the prize for best ridiculous thing on one’s head, but I can’t imagine whom I’m trying to impress.
I start to do some styling and design work with the Belltower girls; Chrissy, all blonde ambition and bluster; Lindy, the technical skill and stability; and Margo, the muse. I love Margo. She’s the real deal – a genuine fake. She will become in the decades to follow, Japanese, German and finally American, as she Mata Haris her way around the world.
Lindy Stokes and I down an entire bottle of Peach Schnapps on the back steps of my apartment in Dunvegan. We are on our way to a party in St Lucia and decide that our fashion imperative will involve a single item of clothing and one length of cloth only. I go shirtless in a cropped jacket and a piece of dark wide-striped silk faille – green, red and gunmetal – wound very tightly into a full-length hobble skirt. It’s very chic and I can’t walk, but I can stand in one spot and hold a drink, which I do until I have one too many and fall arse-over, unable to right myself, onto a glass topped coffee table that shatters beneath me.
I start to work with Andrew Campbell at his photography studio in the Valley. We photograph models Annabelle and Sean wearing jackets that I’ve customised and send an image to Stiletto magazine. It’s published and I’m hooked.
We shoot a story for Barbara Heath featuring a series of oversized brooches (Communication Devices, “Aids for the Hopelessly Inarticulate”). I cast an unlikely assortment of models and non-models including Annabelle, Dave Macpherson, Lance Leopard’s mum Carmel and Ray Cook. Cookie becomes a cover boy for jewelry trade magazine Lemel, with a XXXX stubbie and a fag in one hand, looking like an alien craft has momentarily touched down on his left lapel.
We photograph Yolande in a winter story for Stiletto. She wears tartan dresses from Belltower, layered jersey pieces from Lyn Hadley, and the beautiful Crown Matrimonial. We’re having a bit of a Coco moment at Belltower so I plaster her with camellias and satin bows. Amazingly, they publish the entire story as a five page editorial, highlighting Brisbane fashion.
Somehow I’m now a fashion stylist though it is not a job title recognised by many; certainly not the frontline public servants of the Department of Social Security. There are one or two girls in Brisbane, of the pointy blonde variety, calling themselves stylists, but they work with the modeling agencies and belong to the fashion establishment headed by the Retailers Association of Queensland. I’m interested in weirder shit and have no desire to rub shoulders, or anything else, with the Daniel Lightfoots, the Keri Craigs and the Di Cants of the world.
For a long time, the U.K. has been the cultural innovator and the source of much inspiration, but the work now coming from Japan is sublime. Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake are the new masters of the fashion universe. Robert has realised his mistake and fucked off. Without an ally, the Russians have invaded and my Dunvegan apartment is beginning to resemble a marbled mausoleum. I have a yen for Yokohama and off I go.
My friend Monica is living in the small Japanese city of Gifu, working for a well connected woman called Kai who manufactures and imports fabric. I plan to have a couple of months holiday and a lie down on Mon’s tatami. Kai takes a look at my portfolio and has other ideas. Ten days later, I’m on the shinkansen to Tokyo and am introduced to a middle ranked designed called Ritsuko Shirahama who employs me as collection stylist for her Tokyo Collection show. I’m not entirely sure how that has happened, but very quickly my life has an entirely new shape. Although somewhat out of my depth, I am used to making something out of nothing, and here at least I have a materials budget and a workroom full of adorable boys and girls to help. I am regarded as something of a dignitary, a trophy and a pet. Japan is buoyed by the economic bubble and well aware of its moment in the zeitgeist; to have a big, swishy foreigner in one’s design office holds no small cachet. Tokyo Collections is a month away. I work hard and make a real contribution.
Ritz’s show is well received but she doesn’t have an ongoing position for me. The mysterious fashion network galvanizes and I am introduced to Kansai Yamamoto, who does. I am employed as his Paris Collection Accessory Designer. Kansai is one of the big guns. He has built an immense, international business and oversees a vast number of brands and licensing agreements, but his design work comes from a pure, creative source. It’s he who designed the costumes for Ziggy Stardust. When David Bowie sings “Like a cat from Japan”, it’s Kansai to whom he refers.
He is a formidable taskmaster, inventing lofty and sometimes incomprehensible concepts which I attempt to realise. I become an ideas robot, at times drawing up to eleven or twelve hours a day. I learn to design in a way that is habitual and disciplined; how to hammer an idea into something concise and essential, and how to take a simple component – a motif or a period detail – and develop it into something complex and evocative. Perhaps I could do that already, but I certainly hone some practical skills under the editorial flourish of Kansai’s pink fluro marker.
I work with five other designers, four of whom are motorbike speed racers and turn up to work wearing red, white and black Kansai designed racing leathers; it’s all very Power Rangers. If Kansai is the charismatic master, it’s his sister-in-law who is terrifying. I’m not exactly sure what her job is, but she storms about broadcasting in her absolutely confident, hilariously inaccurate English. She could be played by Lily Tomlin rather well.
A couple of blocks, away Brian Donovan is having a not dissimilar experience in the architectural offices of Atsushi Kitagawara. We meet for lunch or beers after work to lend support and air grievances, not the least of which is our salaries, a pittance compared to those of our sneering English teaching expat friends. Brian discovers an English designer called Christopher Nemeth and takes to wearing corduroy breeches, knee padded and overstitched, and fantastic duck-feet leather lace ups.
I go to work in combat boots and full-length pencil skirts; sarong-like in summer and customised blanket wraps in winter, with plain white Miyake shirts. It’s a world away from the sweaty style constraints of Brisbane. Nobody bugles at me in the street and calls me a faggot.
Margo lives in Tokyo now too and works at a glitzy hostess club. She dresses to impress and takes her cues from Romeo Gigli; lots of organza and velvet; voluminous collars on bosomy dresses cut very short; romantic and trampy at the same time. Weekends are high earners for the best girls and early Saturday evenings at our house are a frenzied style swap meet for the resident flock of hostesses, who I frock up in tight bits of stretchy tat and very high hair.
The European Collections conveniently land a month before the Tokyo Collections on the international fashion calendar. I straddle both jobs; five months at Kansai working on the Paris show, a month at Shirahama tarting up the Tokyo show, followed by a few days in Thailand or a visa run to Seoul, then back to my desk at Kansai.
I love living in Tokyo and the expat experience suits me well. For two years, I manage both jobs successfully until a glitch in scheduling has me doing both collections at the same time. I’m working day and night and swilling too much vodka. I get through the work, but my skin is suddenly yellow and not in a “turning Japanese” kind of way but in a time to have a lie down and give your liver a break kind of way.
Six weeks in a Japanese hospital is an option with limited appeal, so I return to Brisbane.
I have barely returned to my pale blotchy loveliness, when I bump into Chrissy Feld who seizes upon a platinum hair brained scheme. Peter Brown is planning a show at Transformers to promote Spring/Summer ’89 in his store The Mask. There is very little time but if we can send out ten pieces we can be included. Beats sitting around with a cup of dandelion tea, so I’m in. We set up in a room in Dunstan House on Elizabeth Street and conjure mini dresses, short shorts, bustiers and cropped jackets that are sparkly and sexy and fun. They are red, white and gold; heavy with beaded fringing, ecclesiastic motifs and irreverence.
Ladies and Gentlemen… Glamourpussy.
Overnight we are in business and GP’s a hit. Little wonder since the Brisbane fashion downtrodden are still getting around in shoulder-padded burlap sacks and drop-waisted taffeta evening gowns. It’s time to get slutty. We move to the first floor of 45 Adelaide Street and for two years produce fabulous pieces of tat and sometimes some wonderful pieces of fashion. We manufacture locally on a small scale and sell nationally. The magazines love us and we routinely turn up in Elle, Mode, Follow Me and Studio Collections. Vogue takes an occasional bite; we’re a bit flash for them.
Our new address has space for my studio, Chris’s office and a good sized workroom where our intern Liam Revel cuts his teeth and a good deal of cloth. Daniel Healy comes on board as cutter. Tom Burless, Sheriden Kennedy, Lehan Ramsay and Lindy Stokes work upstairs on level 2. We have a great design relationship with Tom who designs and makes the GP jewellery, belt buckles, pocket patches and insignia.
The late Eighties are exhilarating and non-stop. I share an apartment in New Farm with the gorgeous Marty Michel who dances for the Queensland Ballet. Chrissy, Tom and Liam all live around the corner, and every morning is a last minute pile into the Pussytruck, Chrissy’s open-top army jeep, to barrel into town. We exist on adrenalin, black coffee and Peter Stuyvesant – extra mild – soft pack.
I work with maverick choreographer Gil Douglas and cook up 78 Tourette, a contemporary dance project with Jemma Wilks and ex-Ironing Board dancer Anthony Patterson. I do the art direction, costuming, promotion and mothering. Much of the creative work currently being made in Brisbane comes from the need to address an evident cultural void, to counter boredom, to mark territory as one’s own. 78 Tourette is a response to that, and we do it on the strength of our combined dole payments. Jem wears low slung, black satin bell-bottoms, and the boys, Guns N’ Roses short shorts to launch at Jane Grigg’s club Swell where the tone is “Deep in Vogue”, thank you Malcolm McLaren. More club gigs follow in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Melbourne until the inevitable move to Sydney, where they are joined by Tobin Saunders and Annette Evans.
I work with fashion coordinator Georgia Straughan to co-produce and direct a collection show for Japanese designer Masakazü. I work with Gayle Storm to design the promo campaign including a Masakazü Who? teaser and a poster, shot by Paul Goldsmith. We convince Queensland Art Gallery to host the event and an enormous T-shaped runway is installed above the interior watercourse. Tim Gruchy is brought in as technical director and to add his trademark projection. It’s a project on a challenging scale; more than ninety people contribute their artistry, muscle and skill. The gallery is packed and the show overwhelmingly received.
I work with Lehan Ramsay to photograph Tom Burless’s jewellery. We shoot Rhana Devenport as a showgirl; slightly disheveled, but resplendent in a gold beaded corset, gold starburst headdress and Schiaparelli pink lips. I have always thought of Rhana wearing Schiaparelli pink lips, ever since I spotted her, long before I met her, browsing in the basement fabric department of Bayards.
Glamazons were rare sightings in Brisbane in the very early Eighties, least of all in the basement fabric department of Bayards.
I work with Ray Cook to shoot doe-eyed boys in corsets and feathers. I’m invited to contribute a piece to Lehan Ramsay and Anna Zsoldos’s Billboard Project. It’s exciting to blur the lines between fashion and art, and much like dressing up, it’s what you can get away with…
Lehan is having another party and this time it’s for a select group, invited to attend dressed as another attendee. Liam Revel hilariously goes as Chrissy Feld in a short platinum wig, gold platforms and a red GP mini dress. I’m nominated to go as Rhana Devenport and in a clandestine manoeuvre get my hands on some of her own clothes. I wear fabulous navy and white spotted palazzo pants and a flowy navy top, flats, an avalanche of blonde waves and of course, Schiaparelli pink lips.
At Glamourpussy, Chris and I work well together; she takes care of the nuts and bolts of the business and is a sensational salesperson. I get to concentrate on the design, the photographic styling and the shows. I love directing fashion and work hard to make our shows unexpected and memorable events. When possible, I work with Gil Douglas to punch up the production dynamic, and the now five member 78 Tourette occasionally come back to Brisbane to dress up and play up. Our models, most of them semi-professional at best, are loyal and usually work unpaid. But that is the spirit of the time. We love what we do. I don’t draw a salary either; I live on the dole and do disability arts support work on the weekend to pay the rent.
We win a national design competition sponsored by Mode magazine but astonishingly, when we submit the same pieces to the annual RAQ Awards – in a tawdry attempt to garner some respect from Brisbane’s fashion establishment – we are ignored. What a bunch of cunts. I am furious, but the award night is not a total right off; I get to dress up as a cowboy and my mum gets to meet Ray Martin.
A month later, the Christmas issue of Elle magazine is released – December 1990. In spectacular response to the RAQ’s lack of vision and savvy, smack bang on the front cover, beaming and looking a million bucks, Linda Evangelista wears a red sequined mini-dress and red feathered bolero, both by Glamourpussy.