Sightings of Toni Maticevski outside of his Yarraville studio are so rare some people wonder if the Melbourne fashion designer even treads this Earth.

“The other day someone posted on Instagram, ‘Oh my God, he really exists! Because I posted a picture of me with two models,” says Maticevski, laughing.

You’ll rarely see the fashion designer sipping champagne at an opening or posing on the red carpet: he simply isn’t interested.

“Seeing my face everywhere doesn’t sit well with me,” he says. “I’m really reserved and my work is the brand first, as opposed to me.”

With his under-the-radar approach to fashion, Maticevski could be Melbourne’s answer to Martin Margiela, the legendary Belgian designer who is so reclusive very few people know what he looks like.

Yet Maticevski is a magnet for some of Australia’s most high-profile women, including former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins (who married in Maticevski), Rebecca Judd, Lindy Klim and actors Rose Byrne, Asher Keddie and Claudia Karvan, who all make the pilgrimage to Yarraville for an audience with the softly spoken designer.

“I knew him by reputation but I only put a face to the name after I’d worn a few of his red-carpet dresses and I met him in the showroom,” says Karvan.

“I suppose because it’s the red carpet, I expected someone more flamboyant. But he is very calm, warm and direct. And he totally smashes that red-carpet look.”

Left: AW16 PURE; right: AW16 DARK

Since he founded his eponymous label 17 years ago, Maticevski has seduced the fashion industry with presentations in New York, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne while managing to stay the shadows.

Now, Maticevski is finally being forced to step into the spotlight. On August 13 Toni Maticevski: Dark Wonderland opened at Bendigo Art Gallery. It’s a retrospective exhibition showcasing the beauty and breadth of his designs over a 20-year career, including work for companies such as The Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company.

“Toni Maticevski has managed to defy the boundaries of fashion, crossing the line that divides fashion design [and] fine art,” says Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan.

Exhibition highlights include the gown worn by Princess Mary to the King of Denmark’s 80th birthday and the gold-lamé gown worn by Jessica Mauboy for Eurovision 2014. There are 63 garments on display, along with jewellery, accessories and sketches.

The exhibition coincides with the launch of The Elegant Rebel, a book featuring more than 200 images and illustrations spanning Maticevski’s career. With contributions from respected editors, actresses and influencers, the visual archive by Manuscript editor and publisher Mitchell Oakley Smith charts the evolution of a designer at the top of his game.

“Toni exists beyond geography because if you didn’t know where his studio was you wouldn’t necessarily assume he is Australian,” says Oakley Smith. “The quality of what he produces is akin to a traditional French couture house.”

An arch romantic, Maticevski has a highly sculptural, feminine design signature that often juxtaposes a darker edge with beauty and lightness. Since launching his brand, Maticevski has been driven by a desire to experiment with new ideas that challenge his creativity rather than to cater to current trends.

“What I realised going through the archives for the exhibition was that my ideas didn’t reflect a time in regards to a trend per-se,” says Maticevski. “It was and has always been about a cut, about a shape, about how my hands treat the fabric and how my eyes see proportion.”

Unlike the majority of designers in Australia – probably the world – the designer personally makes every single sample garment from scratch. While most designers employ teams to do this grunt work Maticevski designs, draws up the patterns, cuts the fabrics and sews them together all by himself to create a new 80-plus-piece collection three times a year.

“If I had to sit at a desk that would be pointless for me and I may as well close up,” he says. “The part that saves me from going crazy is being able to create stuff,” he says.

The Bendigo exhibition celebrates this commitment – obsession, even – to creativity on a breathtaking scale, yet the as-ever humble Maticevski plays down the significance of showcasing his career spanning two decades.

“It’s more a look at the archives than a retrospective,” he says. “I wanted to give thanks to, and highlight the work of, all my supporters and make my history available for everyone to see.”

Toni Maticevski: Dark Wonderland has extended its season at Bendigo Art Gallery. It will now close on January 15, 2017.

This article was updated on November 18, 2016.