In the lead up to fashion week last month I approached local designers Who Am Eye with the idea of following them through the design, presentation and post-show process. The idea being that a local, independent designer has to seriously question the costs versus the benefits of showing in a consumer-biased event such as L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival (LMFF). Industry-based weeks, like the upcoming Rosemount Sydney Fashion Week present themselves as no-brainers for the exposure to buyers and the larger industry, but with so many overheads and concerns I wondered if it was worth risking the business in events such as LMFF, particularly when you operate on the periphery of the fashion scene.
Who Am Eye’s Autumn/Winter 2010 collection ‘For Glory or Death’ is in the stores already. It’s undoubtedly their best collection to date, but behind the scenes the brand’s partners, Johnny Leong and Glenn Cameron, both 26, were in need of more than just a clever moniker for the next season. “It really was or had to be one way or the other,” explains Leong. “We were wanting to further the scope and direction of the brand and were also in need of a place of our own.”
Laying it all on the line they co-opened The Untitled Shop on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, with fellow local brand Malmo. This was the first step in their plan. The next was the collection: a larger range with broader scope that could take the label away from its basics reputation without sacrificing any of the designers’ hard work or customers in their quest for a more fashion-focused business.
With this in mind ‘For Glory or Death’ was conceived with their staple silhouette – long and slim, borne of their own physiques as opposed to any trend-based commercialism – and was produced as they were prepping the new store for opening.
Many clothes makers are content with their program of producing basics for men, happy with the well-trodden path; few are willing to carve out their own niche or establish a language of their own, but if you really want to be in fashion and call yourself a designer the greatest thing you can do is identify and develop your signature.
The distinct signature of Who Am Eye is their palette – a sombre range of colours that never drifts too far from a grey scale – and the quiet acknowledgement of their idiosyncratic traits. They may seem simple but the Who Am Eye chest pocket, long-sleeve t-shirt, panelling in jersey and pleated-side seam details all contribute to a future legacy. The current collection has a beautiful red-check shirt that has been overdyed grey to produce an amazingly subtle check that only reveals itself with closer inspection. But will these subtleties transfer to the catwalk?
On the last night of the LMFF, Who Am Eye’s appearance in the Independent Catwalk show proved that they are on their way up, that their identity is growing stronger and that (besides a few women’s wear designers on the night) their commitment to locally made, quality produced clothing is largely an individual one. Other designers may have shown deliberately abstract creations or great ideas poorly executed, but Who Am Eye’s success was their ability to show creatively their common sense and commerciality. This is after all a business, not an art installation; the blend and balance must strike a chord.
Not knowing your own performance is the curse of anyone who braves public exposure. A thousand pair of eyes watch, judge and armchair critique, but as a performer you’re largely unaware of what’s taken place. Speaking with Leong following the show he’s in good spirits. “It went well?” he asks, turning a statement into a question. “I think it went well.”
I agree. It was a tight show. While many designers decided a non-descript parade of their capabilities would suffice, Who Am Eye presented their current collection with aplomb. It had the neat efficiency of the more established shows from earlier in the week, but perhaps a heavier, more ‘wintery’ approach would have been nice – some knitted socks or stockings under trousers would have kept the exaggerated, short, cuffed silhouette they showed alive, and extended the idea of rugging up, particularly given the models had their heads covered in hoods, scarves and wrapped pieces. Their bare ankles and calves seemed a little incongruous and cold. The layered check shirts of varying levels of treatment were, however, a highlight and successful inclusion.
Speaking with the duo a few days later, the immediate benefits of participation are hard to measure financially yet both are happy with their continued commitment to LMFF. “It was great that we were able to style this year, be backstage and be in control of our own looks,” Leong says, obliquely referring to the previous year, when they looked on as a house stylist sent down inappropriate looks on inappropriate models, not representing the brand or image at all. In a world where image is everything and control of it imperative, this was a valuable lesson for the designers.
Cameron and Leong will now be watching the shelves in order to see if the success of the show can be translated into success at the till. But momentum is key in this business and the team is now focussed on completing the Spring Summer 10/11 collection they will show in Sydney for the industry-based fashion week in May – no doubt with the added confidence of Melbourne and a desire to pick up more accounts. So what’s in store for summer? “It won’t be colour!” Cameron responds, Leong laughing along with him. “We did colour for our first season and we’ve never recovered; we still have bright blue and yellow t-shirts.” Still laughing the emotional ‘scars’ off, the colour experiment from their first collection (Summer 2006) won’t be easily forgotten. “We thought: summer, festivals, music, colour, but we didn’t know what we were doing and weren’t selling enough. When we saw a guy who had turned his into a sleeveless top we thought we better put an end to this and fast!”
So it won’t be colour but it will be another step in Who Am Eye’s ever-expanding evolution. After all, the name Who Am Eye is an evolutionary, existentialist idea, a question the answer to which may be found – and the essence of the label defined – only as time goes on. Quite fitting isn’t it?