Alannah Hill and the art of reinvention

"Glamour is magic, a weapon for a girl to wield in this world" … fashion designer Alannah Hill describes her role as ...

"Glamour is magic, a weapon for a girl to wield in this world" … fashion designer Alannah Hill describes her role as that of "dreamweaver". Photo: Georges Antoni

Last year, Alannah Hill's world collapsed. A long-running dispute with her business partner saw her leave the iconic fashion label she created almost 20 years ago. She moved from a mansion to a bedsit, fretting about how she'd support her young son. The grief from her mother's death two years prior was still raw. Sometimes, she'd get up early, drive until she found a quiet street and sit there until dusk, seeking refuge from the chaos.

"I was utterly devastated," Hill says, breaking her silence on the split that shocked Australia's fashion industry. "I was inconsolable. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I just stayed home, too broken to venture out. I couldn't even bear to hear my name spoken."

My voice was being diluted. My wit and my personality were gone. In the end, we had to make a deal.  

The reason is that she no longer owns her name - her former business partner, Factory X, does. "Leaving my brand was not my ideal outcome ... I never imagined this would happen," says Hill. "I thought I'd be there forever."

Since the partnership imploded last year, Factory X, co-founded by David Heeney, has continued the Alannah Hill label, albeit without any input from its namesake. But you have not heard the last of the woman who is one of Australia's most eccentric and loved designers.

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In an exclusive interview with Sunday Life, Hill reveals her plans for a new label, Louise Love; "Louise" being her middle name. "I just had to have a name that was linked to me," she says. "Louise Love is a brand new girl ... actually, she is a reinvention of a girl who was almost buried alive."

Hill is full of enthusiasm on the day we meet, the result of her new venture. "Get off my grass!" she screams at the birds pecking at her nature strip, chasing after them in a towering pair of ruby platform heels. "That lawn is my pride and joy."

Hill begins a tour of her inner-Melbourne beachside home, which she bought after settling with Heeney last year. "Follow me, luvvy!" she says. It's an enchanting space, practically an Alannah Hill store writ large. Enormous chandeliers fill every room, with plush scarlet carpet abutting the ivory and baby-pink walls. The furniture is French, upholstered in luxurious rose and purple velvet, complemented by ornately patterned mirrors.

But the fantasy stops at the entrance to 12-year-old Edward's bedroom. "He put his foot down and said, 'Mum, I'm not having pink walls and red carpet,' " she says. Instead, it's a suitably boyish blend of greys.

Before I can follow up her intriguing theory that the house is being haunted by a gay ghost, Hill herds me into the downstairs powder room. It's a sanctuary of cherry-blossom wallpaper, a beautiful French mirror and Chanel perfume for air freshener. This is typical Hill: impeccable attention to detail, making every moment special, no matter how mundane the reality.

It also helps you understand why walking away from her business - and losing her name, in particular - left her devastated. "It was like a death," she says. "I felt that my identity had been hijacked and I couldn't talk about it, which was torture."

"It was at least a two-year dark night of the soul for Alannah," says her partner Hugo Race, a rock musician and former member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. "There was a period where all she could talk about were the latest legal issues ... now it's like the first coming of spring."

Hill, 52, has an endearingly warm and tactile manner and despite almost a lifetime's obsession with hair and make-up, there is nothing vain about her. Famously, no one has seen her without make-up for decades - not her partners, nor the doctor who delivered her son. (The exception is Edward, who woke from a nap when he was younger, looked at her unpainted face and asked, "Who are you?")

Hill credits her rise into the stratosphere of the fashion world to the hardships of her early years. Compulsively honest, she can't bear to gloss over any detail, no matter how painful. She told one journalist, for instance, how her Catholic family of seven were crammed into a two-bedroom shack in rural Tasmania. Unable to afford toys, she and her siblings would play with the bones given to them by the butcher. Her drab clothes drew taunts from classmates, who cruelly nicknamed her "Wardrobe". Yet she found little respite at home, where her mother, frustrated by her own circumstances and upset by her daughter's desire to leave, would put her down.

"Mum said, 'You can't sew, Lan. You're not going to get a boyfriend. Nobody loves you, dear. You can't go to Melbourne. You can't cook. You can't have a baby.' "

Her working-class community, though tight knit, had a tendency to cut down anyone deemed "too big for their boots". Wherever she looked, she saw people pushed into "being brown", as she once described it. "And if you weren't being brown, bad things happened to you."

As a teen, she had an experience that would set the course of her life. Captivated by her mother's polyester lace curtains - the only pretty thing in the house - she unhooked them and smuggled them into her room. She swathed herself in the drapes, applied an elaborate coat of make-up, then puffed up her hair and put on her mother's high heels.

"I was 13, I was naked, I would have looked ridiculous," she says. "But I felt like a different person. I was transformed. I knew at that moment I'd found my calling."

Mimicking her mother's reaction to her new look, Hill takes a drag of an imaginary cigarette and slips into a working-class drawl. "Mum just went, 'You really think that's going to do it, do you? It won't work, because people will see behind those curtains. You'll just become a theatre show and the curtains will fall - and then what? Then what?'

"And I was like, 'Ooh, I've got to get double curtains now, I've got to triple up. I've just got to keep putting more armour on.' "

At 15, Hill moved into a housing commission unit with a friend, working at a circus and a topless bar. At 17, she moved to Melbourne with six suitcases of clothes and $30. She roughed it in boarding houses, took what work she could get, and naively answered an "acting" ad - she found herself in a dingy room being prodded to take her top off. Still, her new-found freedom was exhilarating.

She scored a part in the cult movie Dogs in Space, starring Michael Hutchence, but realised acting wasn't her thing. Later, while working in a cafe, she met designer Jill Gould. Hill's warmth and attitude impressed Gould, who employed her at the Chapel Street boutique Indigo, where Hill worked for 15 years and launched her eponymous label.

"Fear can be a great motivator," she says, stressing that despite her tough upbringing, she knows her parents loved her. "Most movers and shakers have come from a background where they weren't encouraged. I wasn't encouraged."

From the start, Hill cared little for trends, simply creating what she loved: elaborate combinations of lace, sequins, beads, bows, florals, pinks and reds. Her designs were exuberant, daring and sensual, each given a distinctive name such as "I Loved Him to Death" or "Sex with the Ex". She obsessed over making every store which bore her name an opulent wonderland, wanting to re-create for her customers the joy she felt when she dressed up as a girl. This is why she speaks of her work with a missionary zeal; why her eyes flash and she grabs my arm when she talks about her new label.

For the most part, her 17-year partnership with Factory X - which produces brands including Dangerfield, Gorman and Jack London - was fruitful. Her designs and the money and business savvy of David Heeney made it one of Australia's best-known women's labels, with more than 40 stores and clients including Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue and Taylor Swift. But tensions surfaced a few years ago. Sources say Heeney and Hill locked horns on several matters, from the website design to Heeney's desire to launch an Alannah Hill-branded alcoholic beverage.

Heeney is said to still be upset by Hill's gaffe about the sexual harassment claim made by Kristy Fraser-Kirk against former David Jones boss Mark McInnes. (Hill is reluctant to trawl over the episode in which she said, "I wish he'd touched me up," then apologised by holding a "sorry sale" that raised almost $200,000 for the White Ribbon Foundation. She describes it as "history".) But the pair's biggest fights concerned the pace at which Heeney wanted to open new stores, including discount outlets, and the increasing use of price reductions. Insiders claim Hill argued that her carefully-crafted brand was being tarnished by the outlet stores and frequent discounting.

Complicating matters is the fact that Edward's father, designer Karl Bartl, founder of the Jack London label, still works for Factory X. Though Bartl left Hill just four days after Edward was born, the pair remained friends. But Hill's departure from the company has strained their relationship. "I lost Karl, in a way, and I understand that," she says. "He's part of the machine."

Hill is bound by a legal agreement not to divulge the precise details of the business split and Heeney did not respond to repeated requests for comment. "My voice was being diluted," Hill says. "My wit and my personality were gone. It became so personal between David and I. He had deeper pockets and in the end, we had to make a deal.

"When it became clear that David had a very different vision for the business, I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do next.

"I knew I wanted to keep designing and making beautiful clothes, but I wanted to do it in a way that comes naturally to me - and that is boutique style, not so many stores, not so many designs, and not produced to the scale that Factory X were determined to embrace."

Louise Love will open mid-year as an online store with a limited collection. Already, Hill is sourcing samples and suppliers. Her dream is to grow the internet business, then open at least one store in each state. The first 30 online customers, she promises, will have their garments personally delivered by her. She has started with an "online diary": a tableau of images, words and even life tips.

"Glamour is magic, a weapon for a girl to wield in this world," Hill says, describing her role as that of "dreamweaver".

Of course, the industry will inevitably see her new label as being pitted against her old one. In Factory X's favour are its financial might, an established brand and a chain of shops. But Hill was the highly visible and popular face of her former label - and her new brand will reinforce the fact she's gone. Will her fans follow her?

David Bush, the former general manger of fashion for David Jones, sees room in the market for two brands. "The Alannah Hill brand will be successful in one direction and Alannah herself will be successful in another," says Bush, now the director of DBC consulting. "Because they're not together any more, you'll see their style diverge and evolve differently."

Author and former Vogue editor Kirstie Clements agrees. "People connect with a designer rather than just a brand," she says. "Alannah had a conversation with her customers. She wasn't just following trends and throwing them out. Customers will recognise her designs in the window because they're so distinctive."

Of course, the handful of local designers who've shut up shop recently, including Kirrily Johnston, Lisa Ho and Bettina Liano, has caused some to forecast doom for the entire industry. Bush says bluntly, "We're good in this country at pointing out bankruptcies but we're not great at celebrating successes. The Australian fashion industry is alive and well. The designers who went by the wayside ... they had very different reasons for disappearing off the landscape."

Hill, however, is not driven by a desire to amass another fortune. This is a labour of love, a return to the days of creative control. And by her side is Race, her partner of four years and the love of her life. They met in 1981 but, overwhelmed by their intense mutual attraction, neither made a move and they lost touch.

A friend reintroduced them a few years ago. Months of letter-writing followed, in which they discussed philosophy, love, sex, death and life. It blossomed into love.

Race has proposed more than once, but Hill keeps turning him down. "I just remember Mum saying, 'You can't be a bride! No one's going to marry you, Lan. You're going to look shocking in white.'

"I could easily marry Hugo tomorrow, but I'd see Mum saying, 'He'll drop you the moment you say yes ... they don't love someone, dear, if they think they've got them.' "

Race takes her hand gently and kisses her. "I couldn't have done this without Hugo," Hill says. "I've got the wind in my sails. I need to be creative. I need to dress girls. I get genuine joy out of it.

"I have done this before and I will do it again."

Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair by Michael Brennan. Make-up by Noni Smith. Alannah wears dress by Wheels & Dollbaby