Watching goldsmith Marcos Davidson swill a ring in a jar labelled ‘sulphuric acid’ is slightly confronting, especially for someone who doesn’t know the first thing about jewellery making. “Won’t it melt?” I ask, feeling foolish.
Davidson chuckles and explains that it’s part of the technical process he undertakes to enlarge the ring, one half of a his-and-hers set he made several years ago. The ring itself is an elaborate piece of work; a white gold band studded with a rainbow of precious stones, framed with miniscule carvings. But beyond the sparkle, is a story unique to the woman who owns the ring.
“Jewellery should be able to speak volumes,” says Davidson. “Clients ask for jewellery to be made and they often attach their own semiotics to a design.”
In short, an item’s ability to “speak volumes” about the owner/wearer is exactly what bespoke is about. Providing a form of relief from the fashion rat race, bespoke items make room for the wearer’s individuality without compromising fit or style, allowing for a lasting attachment with the wearer. Often meticulously designed and handmade, bespoke items also allow for a greater connection with the designers through a collaboration of ideas with the client.
Around Melbourne, there are plenty of designers whose passion it is to marry their own creative inclinations with their clients’ shape, size and personality.
Each of the designers below is part of a re-emerging push against commercial, fast-evolving fashions and a move towards more sustainable, lasting styles. For them, it’s not simply a question of if the proverbial shoe fits, but about making sure the shoe has as much life and personality as its wearer.
One such designer is jeweller Anna Varendorff. The artisan’s sculptural metal pieces are products of a combination of three essential elements that designers in the niche industry of bespoke goods consider. “I combine the client’s ideas with my own aesthetics,” she says. “Price can also set the parameters; it determines how big a piece can be.”
Apart from working closely with her clients, Varendorff’s various sources of inspiration also have a strong influence on the aesthetics of the jewellery piece. This can range from domestic objects from to reading she might be doing for her Masters degree. One of her recent collections, on sale at Alice Euphemia, is inspired by the rethinking of jewellery as an unassuming adornment, going beyond the purpose of being decorative.
Meanwhile, fellow jeweller Marcos Davidson approaches his work from a technical angle, describing his craft as “micro-engineering” and his work as “construction”.
“Like a sculpture can be site-specific, bespoke items can match the wearer. There’s a rationale behind the item and it manifests in how it looks.”
Emma Shirgwin, otherwise known as ‘Emma the Shoemaker’, is another designer whose work resembles wearable sculpture. Although she does bespoke, she specialises in structured designs that focuses on comfort, and admits that her work feels almost self-indulgent.
“My designs are usually those that I would want to wear myself,” she offers. “But people have come to me asking me to remake their favourite pair of shoes, or with their own ideas.”
While most of Shirgwin’s customers come to her for her comfortable, contemporary designs, those who come to James Roberts’ shoemaking nook at Captains of Industry tend to look for the more classic styles of the likes of oxfords and brogues. Along with his partner Theo Hassett, Roberts fashions leather shoes out of quality kangaroo leather, known for its strength and light weight.
“Clients treat the shoes as an investment, so they generally look for classic designs,” Roberts says. And a worthy investment it must be. The mammoth waiting list means it will take new clients up to six months to get their foot in door.
You might recognise Karlee Slater as the barista with the charming smile at Captains of Industry, not to mention outfits that would make Mad Men’s Betty Draper jealous. But Slater is also the talented tailor behind Golden Age Vintage, which specialises in vintage clothing for women. She believes that although fashion “moves in cycles”, people will always go back to the classics.
When asked why vintage fashions often focus on periods between the 1930s and 1950s, Slater answers that the diverse range of silhouettes for women in those periods mean women of different shapes and sizes are able to find a style to flatter them.
“Tall slim girls look amazing in the longer lines of ‘30s dresses, girls with curvy figures look great in the full skirted late 1940s–1950s styles.”
For Patrick Johnson, the London-trained master tailor behind P.Johnson, a man might as well be undressed without the classic, multi-functional suit. “A suit is like a handbag for men,” he says.
Johnson’s fittings go beyond the measuring tape. Clients are always asked about the contents of their wardrobe, their lifestyle, habits and personal style.
“A banker who sits down a lot for his work may want something comfortable but with a fabric that won’t be creased by the end of the day,” he explains.
Working closely with the clients ensures they get more for their buck, and Johnson admits that bespoke suits are not cheap. It can take six to eight weeks of highly-skilled labour to complete a suit, but it can mean a world of difference to a suit bought off the racks.
The Indonesian duo behind The Hummingbird Road, Sonnya Gunawan and Elena Tanudjaja, cater for women looking for one-of-a-kind hats and fascinators. Whereas customers usually come to bespoke designers with their own ideas in mind, the pair’s clients tend to leave the designing part up to them, giving only basic guidelines.
“Usually the design process starts from a client browsing my existing collections,” Tanudjaja explains. “Then I make sure I understand the tastes and style of my clients – what they like, what they don’t like, whether they wants something practical or elaborate.”