Try everything under the sun
Kerr launches David Jones season
Around 300 guests glammed up to welcome in the new Autumn/Winter designer collection at David Jones.
Living in what they believe to be the unassailable style capital of the world, the French are renowned for a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to getting dressed.
The women of Paris shrug up the sleeves of their blazers and trenchcoats and wear them over casual T-shirts with jeans, or with trousers and sky-high heels in a fascinating melange of "I just threw this on" and sophisticated sex appeal.
Actor Jane Birkin and any Birkin-related offspring (Lou Doillon, Charlotte Gainsbourg) fall firmly in the former category, while former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld and stylist and Chanel muse Ines de la Fressange tend to the latter among the many examples of female French style who have helped to sell countless Breton T-shirts, Birkin bags and ridiculously expensive Balmain skinny leather trousers.
Across the channel, England has its own dual style tropes: the English rose and the English rocker/eccentric. The best known pin-up for the first category is, of course, the Duchess of Cambridge, with her ladylike lengths and demure dresses, all the while flying the flag for British brands such as Mulberry and Burberry.
Kate Moss is the undisputed queen of the undone English, with her smudged kohl eyeliner, mussed-up hair and endless stream of rocker boyfriends that has finally resulted in a husband (Jamie Hince, of the Kills). But even then she could not forsake bad boys: she asked disgraced fashion designer John Galliano to create her wedding dress.
The US has its glossy Park Avenue princesses who live in luxe American designer brands such as Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, with their blow-out specialist (American for a blow dry) on speed dial, and closer to home even New Zealand has developed a signature look - via Belgium, it should be noted - of moody, broody black clothing incorporating enough voluminous layers under which to hide a family of five.
But what of our own national dress?
If you are reading this on the beach, chances are you are in a two-piece swimsuit or boardshorts. It was a Frenchman, Jacques Heim, who invented the bikini, but it is Australians (and Brazilians and Californians) who have claimed it as their own.
The bikini is integral to our sartorial sense of self, best worn Puberty Blues-style in the surf with a handsome surfer beau nearby to hand you your towel.
Another Australian style trope is heritage dressing, for which Hugh Jackman's moleskin- and R.M. Williams-clad Drover was an international pin-up in Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia.
These images are an important part of our style story but do they match the way we see our fashionable selves today?
"When you go down to North Bondi, the guys and girls look fantastic," the editor of Vogue Australia, Kirstie Clements, says. "You see all the bodies, the casualness and they pull it together in a way that looks really appropriate there."
If there is an Australian style stereotype, Clements "would like to think it's a fresh young woman in a cossie who also looks great in jeans and is breezily confident. Think about the sundress and natural hair. It's gorgeous when you go down to the beach and you see that."
In 2009, Clements co-edited Vogue Australia: 50 Years of Australian Style with writer and Vogue contributor Lee Tulloch. The book begins with the early days of Helmut Newton photographs and Maggie Tabberer's model poses, swinging through the 1960s and capturing the creativity of the '70s and the sex appeal of the '80s. But it is the swimsuit images, predominantly taken by photographer Patrick Russell, that best convey how intrinsic the beach lifestyle was, and still is, to Australians. In Russell's pictures, the light is harsh, the bodies fit, the tans so deep that the pages practically sizzle.
"The girls and guys had that tan that had almost gone red," Clements says. "It looked really great at the time but it's really wrong now, it's that very un-PC image of being burnt in the afternoon."
The bikini is still an important fashion statement for many Australian brands, such as Zimmermann, Seafolly, Jets and Speedo. But that relaxed style has translated to a broader apparel sector that is now reinterpreting our notion of casual dress and selling it to the rest of the world.
Zimmermann, Camilla and Marc, Josh Goot and Dion Lee are among the designers turning our athletic lifestyle and love of colour and print into internationally marketable commodities.
They follow Collette Dinnigan, the first Australian to mount a full-scale ready-to-wear parade in Paris (in 1995), at the invitation of France's peak fashion body, the Chambre Syndicale. Brisbane fashion label Easton Pearson also presents its East/West fusion designs in Paris, as does Akira Isogawa.
According to the fashion section of the Australian government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website (yes, there is a fashion section): "Australian fashion reflects a vibrant, creative nation, rich in colour and fresh, exuberant style. Australian fashion labels are now sought after around the world."
When Zimmermann began exporting two decades ago, "it was definitely a calling card" that the brand was from Australia, designer Nicky Zimmermann says.
"There was something very interesting to them in the distance thing and the exotic island thing, but now it doesn't matter where you come from, as long as you have a product that sells and stands on its own," she says. "When we go to sell apparel, they really feel it has its own point of view, it's based in colour and print and has a certain relaxed casualness that is different to America and Europe."
Camilla and Marc designer Camilla Freeman-Topper agrees her international stockists respond to "vibrant, young, rich and colourful prints" and a notion of body-conscious designs born of our outdoors lifestyle.
"The girls here love their bodies, they have good bodies and unfortunately they do flaunt them a little too much sometimes," she says with a laugh.
Clements says higher hemlines are an unfortunate hallmark of Australian apparel in recent times, to which even a cursory visit to Potts Point or Kings Cross on a Saturday night will attest. "It's gone a little bit down the Kardashian route with the little dresses and the fake tan. It's a hangover from that season of the little dress and the big shoe that came out in Europe a little while ago. Australian girls just embraced it like crazy and they don't want to let go of it.
"I sound like a grandma when I'm talking about this, but there is a difference between being trendy and being tarty."
The development of a looser, more relaxed Australian style compared with what was being worn in Europe can be traced back to colonial times, says the fashion curator at the State Library of NSW, Margot Riley.
"There's been a local style that's been emerging since white settlement," she says. "The men found it easier than the women, as they were a little bit more willing to break with the traditions of England. The whole migration experience forced people into a world where they were unable to follow the rules of fashion that had been so class-conscious and class-related in England. Some men in Australia began dressing better than they could have in England, because they realised it would imply they were successful even if they weren't, and the opposite was that if you were a successful man, you could be more individualistic and wear country clothes in the city, for example."
But women were slower to develop a distinct style of dress that was appropriate to the Australian climate.
"They were probably very nervous about being seen to be unfashionable, and were often described as being overtly fashion-conscious, making up for the fact they were so removed from the fashion cycle overseas," Riley says. "The perfect example is when Jean Shrimpton came out for the Melbourne Cup and was looking totally laid back among all these buttoned-up women with horrible hydrangea hats. They were so intent on following the rules of fashion that Australian women didn't want to break away."
But following the overt celebration of Australiana in the 1980s by the likes of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, and the subsequent development of a unique Bondi surf and fashion culture thanks to brands such as Sass & Bide and Ksubi, a distinctly Australian approach to fashion emerged.
"I do think it's a certain looseness and confidence with accommodating our climate and lifestyle factors," Riley says. "On a good day I would like to think it's a laid-back glamour and unstudiedness."
The best poster girls for an Australian style today are our models, with Abbey Lee Kershaw, Catherine McNeil and Miranda Kerr among those now following in the long-limbed footsteps of Elle Macpherson and Sonia Klein.
"Australian models definitely have an individuality about them," says the director of Chic Management, Kathy Ward.
Ward, whose agency represents Kershaw, McNeil and and Kerr, says that while other international models channel conformity by wearing head-to-toe looks by a single designer, "our girls have a very eclectic look and an 'I don't care' attitude".
"They select pieces from op shops and combine them with a designer [piece] and they make them look incredible," she says. "They are also not motived entirely by money and in some cases give up an international career to live in Australia, so there is that carefree attitude as well as a cool factor."
Any follower of fashion returning here after living overseas for some time would be shocked by the changes to retail. The recent arrival of international high-street brands such as Gap, Zara and Topshop, coupled with the increased number of luxury brands now with stand-alone stores in Australia, has helped our country's shopping options evolve to mirror those available to consumers overseas.
"I don't know that I would see things in Australia as that distinctive now," Clements says. "We are shopping online, we watch virtual fashion shows and Australian designers are now competing against high street and luxury brands that weren't here before."
Style is mingling all over the world, with the ubiquity of the same chain stores and luxury brands resulting in a kind of United Nations of fashion options and trends.
"Things that are hanging in Paris, London and Tokyo are hanging here," Clements says. "You are seeing less and less of a distinctive style in Paris now, and it's the same with London. Style is quite global now because the world is global now."
From The Sydney Morning Herald