“Getting dressed in the morning is kind of a form of meditation,” says Jade Niklai, curator at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Niklai was born in Hungary, grew up in Australia, studied in London and lived across Europe for more than 20 years. And these experiences continue to shape her life and work – and her wardrobe. It’s something the trained art historian takes very seriously, with a story and reason behind every outfit.
“What I wear is a reflection of who I am and what I do,” Niklai says. “I’m someone who comes from this kind of old world of Europe with a lot of heritage, trauma and history. But then I’ve also had a wonderful life here in Australia, discovering new wealth, freedom and independence. Everything is a combination of the two.”
Now based in Melbourne, Niklai has spent the past few months putting together the St Kilda museum’s latest exhibition, Chagall – devoted to modernist artist Marc Chagall – among other projects. With a work life that exists across multiple spaces and time zones, her wardrobe calls for looks that are functional, flexible and well-accessorised, communicating her love of statement bangles, rings and elaborate headwear.
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What does an average workday look like for you?
I work with overseas companies online so I have sort of two workdays. During the day, I’d have, for example, a Chagall day that’s on Melbourne time – whether it’s research and going to libraries to do a lot of reading, or actually engaging with artists in a studio visit.
And then at night-time, work starts between eight and nine o’clock and goes on till late hours. I get on a screen and get myself into a different time zone and outfit. I have to understand that these clients are in a different season and headspace and try to accommodate both.
How would you describe your personal style?
My short answer is contemporary chic with a twist, but in general I like shape and asymmetry. I mix old and new and think about high and low. Often you can see me with plastic bangles and rings along with a customised diamond or pearl piece of jewellery.
I actually don’t drive and instead walk almost everywhere, so runners also become really important. My go-to shoes are Nike Air Max 90s and I try to customise them and make different combinations.
What’s your most beloved item of clothing?
This is a hard one. It’s like asking “Who’s your favourite kid?” I’ve got so many repurposed family heirlooms, including fur coats from my grandmother and grandfather that have lived through world wars, the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They embody the history of my family and my life and it’s really important to me to keep them and to reappropriate them. These coats will definitely outlive any puffer jacket that’s currently on the market.
Do you have a go-to item in your wardrobe that you associate with a good or productive day at work?
I do. It’s a black jumpsuit by the brand Sa Dot Na, which was a Melbourne brand that no longer trades. It’s local design, great material and beautifully made. I’ve worn this for seven to eight years now and it’s my go-to. It has massive pockets, which are always helpful as a curator because you’ve always got measuring tape, pencils and other pieces that you need to carry around.
Does art and the exhibitions you’re working on inform your fashion?
Literally every day. I’ve spent the last few months thinking about Marc Chagall and was massively influenced by [him and his work]. When I was working in London with an architect called Renzo Piano, I thought a lot about scale and certain colours.
I’m constantly informed by the art that I see, but I don’t think it’s a deliberate or conscious decision. It’s much more organic. Architecture and design but also reading, conversation and people inform who I am and what I wear. Getting dressed is not separate from my thinking – the outside and the inside are totally connected.
Who are some of your favourite fashion designers?
Alexandra Blak, I’ve worn her jewellery pieces every day for the last three or so years, and they are always conversation starters. Her work feels like a kind of armour but also a weapon. She made me some newly commissioned pieces for the Chagall opening. Other stores I love are Et Al, Ess Laboratory on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, Alpha60, Shag and Dinosaur Designs.
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.