Not all chatter, chiffon and champagne

Bridal couture is mostly where it’s at, but who fashions the bridesmaids? Melbourne designer Antoniette Fusillo discusses designing beautiful dresses for the non-bride.

The trees of RMIT Brunswick’s campus enclose the buildings in what appear a green refuge for the fashion folk. Walking through the entrance, I search for Antoniette, whom I can recognise only from her Facebook profile.

I spot a woman sitting on one of the couches facing the window. “Antoniette?” I ask timidly, for fear of being wrong.

She turns around, acknowledging me. I notice she has a chic shoulder length sweeping hair style in caramel and honey tones. Coffee in hand, it’s obvious she’s a woman running on caffeine to combat a lack of sleep. A black pencil skirt with a black shirt tucked in, under a black jumper. The drab day Melbourne has provided us is as grey as the couch she is sitting on. She tells me that she is waiting on a call as she rests her phone beside her.

A warmth radiated from her subtly black kohl rimmed eyes, as genuine as her hand shake. The weather produced a moody contrast to Antoniette’s ever smiling demeanour. But much like rain on a wedding, which is believed to be good luck, dark skies on the day of our interview added to the intimateness of conversation.

A self-titled “juggling act”, Antoniette is currently studying her Masters of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT Brunswick, lectures seasonally at RMIT and coordinates the design department at the formerly titled Melbourne School of Fashion (now known as Fashion Masters).

Antoniette is far from a stern, unrelenting fashion designer who throws tantrums at their staff. Hold the phone, Naomi. She let me interview her during what seemed like her only break in a full day of tutoring. A day which was to see a guest who would be arriving to co-judge her students’ work, and hence the un-silent phone by her side.

Antoniette descends from a family of creatives. Much like the origins of Italian powerhouses Versace and Prada, her father was a tailor who learnt his trade at a young age in Italy. Her mother became a seamstress and pattern maker in her teenage years, while Antoniette’s sister is an artist living overseas. It’s obvious there’s something in the waters in Italy. Perhaps it’s infused into their wine.

Neither one of Antoniette’s parents however, wanted her to become a part of the fashion industry. Images of slaving away behind the scenes in factories, working long hours and employee exploitation discouraged them from handing her this inheritance.

“My parents still tell me to this day to change careers, be an accountant, be a lawyer,” she tells me. “It was innate, I remember sewing when I was young, making tops at seven.”

During her school years Antoniette was a high achiever in maths and science. Though she maintained her arts subjects, she was always very business orientated.

“Its not about pretty pictures,” she says. “With so much more competition in fashion, it’s becoming more important to have formal qualifications. I have friends in the industry that have loads and loads of experience, but no qualifications.”

Antoniette advises that if you want to be a small business or a start-up entrepreneur, you have to have a balance between creative talent and business knowledge. Coming from a woman who has never had to interview for a position, she is definitely an expert on the topic.

“You need to spend someone else’s money, make mistakes under someone else,” she says.

Antoniette’s own induction began when Mariana Hardwick, one of Australia’s leading designer of bridal couture and luxury fashion, attended a fashion show in the final year of Antoniette’s Honours degree. Mariana approached Antoniette, offering her a job as an assistant. Her first major position post-grad; it was the stuff of student dreams.

After three months working with Mariana she became a senior designer, and after six to eight months she became a creative director, staying in this role for eight years’ full time. Her work involved communicating with offshore processing, organising photo shoots, branding, trade fairs and doing ready-to-wear collections and bridal ranges.

“There were times where I’d be at work at 2 am getting calls from security saying ‘Mariana it’s time to go home’ and I just didn’t even have the energy to say ‘it’s not Mariana’,” she tells me.

Antoniette resigned and became freelance for Mariana, doing “crazy ad campaigns and highlight promotional pieces, the most fun”. She moved to Paris for seven months (“which didn’t feel like work”) where she did market research, sourced inspiration, did trade fairs and worked on collections.

“When you have time thats where these ideas come from,” she says of her stay in France. “When you work so hard for someone else you wouldn’t mind if it was building something for yourself.”

And that she did. Antoniette Fusillo launched in 2009. Moving studios in January this year, Antoniette put her label on hold after five years of establishing it. There are speculations of starting a partnership, but she says that she’s undecided on what point in her life she wants to do it.

Her eponymous label started as a wholesale range, with promotional look books for two seasons each year (Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer). It was a “niche, high end, evening wear product”, unlike anything offered by existing brands. This uniqueness was noticed by small boutiques who sold Antoniette’s designs. Her success, however, was not without small challenges.

“It was hard to break into the market with those price points at the time,” Antoniette says. “You’re competing with established brands that are producing offshore that can make a good turnover and sell for less. It was also a learning curve to find makers.”
After wholesaling for four years, she continued to service the boutiques that kept reordering. She then worked through private sales with a client list of VIPS who would order when they required.

“With wholesaling you’re behind the scenes, being creative, not knowing who’s buying it, being disconnected from the consumer. Private selling was more enjoyable. It wasn’t 60 tops to be finished by tomorrow, it was more bespoke, personal and exclusive,” she tells me.

Antoniette’s foray into bridesmaid design, however, was not a conscious decision. The “incidental” move emerged when Geelong store, Tinky, kept reordering bridesmaids dresses made to order.

“My label became know for that by word of mouth. There was a potential market,” she says.

Antoniette’s aesthetic when it comes to designing bridesmaids dresses is to create ones that aren’t defined as such. Traditionally, the bridal party wore garments that were identical to the bride and groom in an attempt to ward off evil spirits. In contemporary times, the only spirits you have to worry about are the ones you’re downing at the open bar.

“I don’t want them to be conventional,” she says. “It’s quality, long lasting, durable, and made for you to fit and flatter, so you’re more likely to wear it again.”

She had clients who would ring her, saying that the week after the wedding they wore their dress to their husband’s dinner party, or others who cut their full length gowns to wear at the races.

Antoniette comments that the most recent popular ‘craze’ with bridal parties is dressing all the bridesmaids in the same colour, with a different cut to suit individual body types.

“Can you imagine putting everyone in the same dress?” she says, smiling.

Antoniette describes bridal wear as “slow fashion,” though this does not prevent her from exploring the trends. Her inspiration is a “fusion” between fashion and non-fashion mediums across contemporary and historical spheres; films, icons, eras, artworks, jewellery, music and architecture.

“I research trends, not to prescribe, but to have a context and relevance,” she says.

Across Antoniette’s campaign are the words “completely Australian made”. She has produced offshore for other companies previously, but Antoniette’s core value is to be authentically involved in the entire process. Rather than waiting for a delivery and opening a box, she enjoys the control of keeping it local.

“Producing in Australia is very difficult, it’s like a secret society to find makers. Once you’ve got them you have to hold onto them,” she says.

With the rise of ‘fast fashion,’ local production faces a threat the size of a 12 inch stiletto.

“Companies like Cotton On will have over 2000 stores by 2016, while walking down a former strip of designer shops you’ll see leases and empty boutiques.”

The mass market soars, while independent designer labels are at a slow decline. Melbourne independent fashion retailer FAT closed two stores this year, swimming in a debt of over $4 million. Melbourne-based label Claude Maus is currently closing both in-store and online trade, while famed Australian fashion designer Josh Goot went into voluntary administration earlier this year.

“The lower market succeeds because it reaches the masses,” she says.

“People don’t necessarily appreciate a quality product. They see a t-shirt, if it shrinks, if it twists, if it distorts; I spent 10 dollars on it.”

In Italy, there is an overwhelming culture of investing in quality garments, and a great pleasure and intrinsic urge to do so.

“In Italy they will go without food to buy, it’s at the forefront of their lives. My 60 year-old aunty in Italy would comment on how nice my glasses were, but would tell me they were two seasons ago,” she laughs.

Two markets exist in Italy; the lower and high end. There appears to be no mid-range market. “You’ve got Zara and H&M, then Prada,” Antoniette nicely explains. I can imagine a highly glamorous Milanese woman walking her dog in her Zara culottes, H&M blouse and Prada handbag.

Whereas in Australia, a mid range market is prevalent with stores such as Country Road and Witchery. Witchery’s sales sales rose eight per cent to $849.6 million in 2014, a precursor to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) claim of retail trade increasing by 0.4 per cent in the month of January this year, growing to $23.88 billion.

While Australian’s are happy to tap, swipe or insert away, the “only time people really spend a large sum of money on a garment for one day is for a wedding”.
Antoniette has been a maid of honour twice or three times for close friends, so has first hand experience of both sides of the issue. In her own wedding, Antoniette covered the costs of having a bridal party.

“I had an entourage, but more so because I wanted to dress them,” she says fondly.

Her experience in working in bridal/bridesmaids wear wasn’t all chatter, chiffon and champagne, however.

Antoniette would have uncomfortable experiences where brides would have a specific budget and would get their bridesmaids to pay the excess. Factor in hair and makeup costs, flights to destinations for international weddings and wedding gifts: you might as well take out a loan.

“For me, if you’re gonna ask someone to be a part of it, then you should cover it and not put them out of pocket, that’s my background,” she says.

Off the record Antoniette tells me juicy stories of bridezillas. Sorry, no disclosing here. She does tells me that brides can easily become “egocentric,” “narcissistic” and “consumed in the day”. It becomes a “fantasy” and “once they get an idea in their mind” it’s very difficult to stray from it.

“It becomes bigger than Ben Hur,” she says of a bride’s perception of her wedding day.

“Build pain and suffering into your prices as miscellaneous costs,” Antoniette tells her students.

Though dramatic and scandalous stories are inherent in the bridal industry, Antoniette also had her share of “beautiful brides”.

“I was lucky as I had a certain level of client that knew attention to detail was important, that the bridesmaids were a reflection of them and there style, and they wanted their girls to look just as good as them,” she tells me.

And it seems Antoniette’s clients would also class themselves as fortunate. Clients would buy gifts in the form of flowers and perfume for Antoniette as a way of saying thanks for the laborious work that went into the conception, design and production of their gowns.

“I am a people person, but you have to be a certain person to be in bridal,” she tells me.

There is no doubt Antoniette’s character is attributed to her great success. She gives me a kiss on the cheek and a hug as we leave; a very Italian gesture.

Just as one would do at an Italian wedding, let’s put our glasses together in toast to Antoniette. Salute, this one’s on the house.

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