Six years in business isn’t long enough to justify a retrospective exhibition. But fashion label DI$COUNT UNIVERSE was never one for convention.
The Melbourne brand known for its more-is-more approach is opening up its archive of 500-plus pieces.
In typical DI$COUNT UNIVERSE style, the display won’t be presented in chronological order. When Broadsheet visits during set up, the designer’s Collingwood studio space is crammed with sequinned and studded mannequins, and clothes hang from the walls and roof beams. There’s a glitter trail out the door and down the street.
You’ve likely spotted DI$COUNT UNIVERSE clothing on celebrities such as Rihanna, Kylie Jenner and Katy Perry; or when they were at the centre of a controversy with Miley Cyrus.
“The first time I saw their clothes on the runway, the models were wearing gimp masks,” says the NGV’s fashion curator, Paola Di Trocchio. “Their clothes were this explosion of colour and energy.” Earlier this year the NGV acquired three of the label’s pieces, two of which were displayed in the exhibition 200 Years of Australian Fashion.
“Apart from how fun and outrageous their work is, the thing I really love about them is their brand strategy,” Di Trocchio says. “They’re rebellious and playful but at the same time, serious businesswomen. I thought that was very Australian – to project an image of casualness but be absolutely serious about doing things.”
Designers Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James started DI$COUNT UNIVERSE after meeting as students at RMIT. From the get-go the brand was defined by an experimental, DIY spirit.
The pair began with a blog and launched a small-run artisanal clothing brand via a web-store at a time before established brands had an online presence. They launched with no loans, backers or start-up capital.
“It was crazy, but it kind of came naturally,” James says. “We were both in the mindset that the bricks-and-mortar-style retail was definitely on the way out.”
“We thought what was happening to the music industry was going to happen to the fashion industry,” Napreychikov says.
In the early days they made bank by laboriously hand-making studded DI$COUNT jackets they sold for thousands of dollars in stores such as Miss Louise. Those jackets would cover rent, materials and a trip overseas to continue making experimental pieces for the online shop.
Napreychikov recalls, “literally riveting a piece of clothing together with studs” in Bangkok when they didn’t have a sewing machine. The brand’s trademark sequinning started in Bali where the designers discovered the skills of local beaders. The majority of the label’s hand-sequinned clothes are still made there. Smaller pieces take up to a week to hand-bead. A body suit takes weeks.
Maximalism and embellishment have always been a part of the DI$COUNT UNIVERSE aesthetic, despite fashion’s latest affair with minimalism. “You have to stick to what you do best,” says Napreychikov. “If we suddenly did hoodies with long sleeves and subversive prints, it wouldn’t resonate,” James adds. “People would see through it.”
Napreychikov and James say they’re intent on growing slowly, despite having long fooled the world into thinking they’re a much bigger operation than they really are. The brand now has a small team and a network of makers in Bali. “People write to us like we’re Topshop,” Napreychikov says with a laugh. “We faked it until we made it.”
The retrospective exhibition is a farewell of sorts for the designers who are moving to New York next year to further their business. With half of their online orders going to the US, it’s a logical move.
Di Trocchio sees DI$COUNT UNIVERSE as part of a collective of Melbourne designers in the late 2000s who exemplified the collaborative nature of Australian fashion. “The designers of the time had a community experience and offered a lot of mutual support. Di$count UNIVERSE shows what fashion can be – joyous, experimental and a little bit cheeky.”
Di$count Universe ‘It’s-too-soon-for-a-retrospective’ Retrospective Exhibition is on at DI$COUNT UNIVER$E Private Gallery, 32–34 Wellington Street, Collingwood from November 29 to December 9, Mon to Sat 12pm–6pm. Tickets are $10 at the door or available here.