JENNY BANNISTER, designer
We were looking at people like Boy George and the Sex Pistols or the Ramones in New York, and it was all about black. I was brought up never wearing black. My mother said that only shopgirls or people who go to funerals wear black. But in 1986, I came back from doing Australian Fortnight at Neiman Marcus making outfits in lambskin suede and metallic silk screen and Teresa Liano [who co-owned Chapel Street fashion store L’Unico] said, ‘We don’t want any of your arty stuff here – make black or starve!’ So I bought black cotton drill and filled up the back of my car with it and made everything in black. It was the nightclub era and Teresa was right – people wanted black shirts, black frock coats, black boleros. Boleros were huge; I built my swimming pool from boleros.
We used to sling off at people from Queensland because they had tropical flowers all over their clothes. And when you went to Noosa in black, people said, ‘You’re from Melbourne, aren’t you.’
KARA BAKER, designer
I remember when black was edgy. In the mid-’80s, everybody fashionable wore black, and they wore red lipstick. The edgiest people wore fabulous Japanese designer clothes – Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. All of the icons of style wore black.
ROBERT BUCKINGHAM, design consultant
In the 1980s and 1990s, fashion in Melbourne was as black as Nick Cave’s hair dye. During the peak “dark age” – 1985 until 1995 – virtually every architect, designer, artist, arts administrator and musician in Melbourne wore a uniform of forty shades of black. Why? Melbourne was one of the world’s ‘noir’ capitals – along with Milan, Tokyo, Antwerp and Berlin. And all that black was due to a number of factors, including the fact that black suited Melbourne’s perception of itself as an intellectual, cultural, internal, moody, laneway-focused matte-black design capital. Melbourne’s creative class – in a pre-internet age – socialised late into the night in smoke-filled bars, underground nightclubs and moody Italian cafes, and favoured black outfits to highlight their pale skin, post-punk credibility and intellectual intensity.
TERESA LIANO, designer/ consultant
Black was very cool in the ’80s, even though there was colour around – but they were autumnal colours, like brown and earthy colours. Melbourne has always had much more urban culture compared to Sydney. It’s about dressing up. And back in the ’80s, there was that whole power dressing thing as well – a black suit and stilettos. Melbourne’s always had a European style, too, compared to other cities in Australia, which are really hot. They don’t have the same weather that we have.
JONO FRANCISCO, promoter – High Bar
I started running clubs in the late ’80s and the ’90s which is where the black wearing era really took hold. Clubs like Checkpoint Charlie and Teresa Liano’s night called Good Times at Zuzu’s nightclub on a Thursday saw long queues of Melbourne clubbers and the whole line would be wearing all black. It was quite a sight.
In the underground grungy space of the Razor club, which was also wrapped in black fabric, it was dark and mysterious, like a secret society. Clubs back then were real networking grounds for people to make their way in Melbourne. You would network in these spaces; it was basically a job interview at the disco.
GWENDOLYNNE BURKIN, designer
It had a lot to do with supply. In the ’90s, there were such limited colour palettes to choose from. People would have to buy huge volumes of cloth per colour. Back then, it wasn’t unusual to have to order 300 metres if you wanted to do a specific colour. Now you sometimes can do 10 metres. Due to this, companies can afford to offer more options. And so much of our local industry has been taken over by international companies who can do massive scale and colour offers.
By the late ’80s, everyone wanted to wear colour. I noticed that we came out of black when we started making evening wear. Black might have been the base, but I was putting colour on velvet – brown or burgundy. Still, when designer Kara Baker put out her [Polynesian prints] look in the mid-’80s, that was outrageous. Nobody wanted to know about patterns and colour. Christopher Graf was one of the first guys in Chapel Street who brought in a lot of colour – he had a lot of red and pink and yellow.
KARA BAKER, designer
I started wearing navy in the late ’80s and then there was grunge. By the late ’90s, I was wearing lots of print and pattern and colour which really stood out. Black was in right up until the new millennium.
ESTELLE MICHAELIDES, designer, Micky in the Van
Here’s my theory on the black tribe of Melbourne: we were so far removed from the rest of the world, we created our Melbourne-themed style. It was unconscious, but it was indicative of our eclectic creative culture. It was moody, architectural and black.
RACHEL WELLS, journalist
We were definitely known in Melbourne for wearing black. Even the buyers at Myer, David Jones and Zara in the early days ordered more black for their Melbourne stores compared to other outlets.
KARA BAKER, designer
When black was fashionable in the ’80s, it was referencing a subculture, but everything’s fractured and splintered now. Head-to-toe black is not seen so often anymore, and I think it looks really old-fashioned now. In the daytime, if you’re older, it’s a disaster for your complexion – you look drained and old. And I think wearing all black now is very passe. That’s not to say that a fab black party dress isn’t something else entirely. But to be edgy now, you’d have mad socks with high heels or out-there clashing colours or print. The statement now is interesting ways to wear colour, but still with more individuality than Sydney. Sydney has that standard issue hot babe look. The women here who are edgy aren’t trying to be a boho hippie princess. They’re interested in looking challenging.
EMMA ABRAHAMS, jewellery designer, Heart of Bone
Where has black gone? I think we’re responding to an Instagram culture and any images that are brightly coloured get more likes. People are influenced more by their feeds than by magazines. If you post a bright pink dress versus a black one, the pink will be the most eye-popping image. So it all becomes this homogenised mess of Instagram colour. Even people who used to wear black all the time are mixing it up because it doesn’t shoot well. I wear black most days because I like it and it suits me, and that doesn’t change with trends.
What happened to black? Social media happened. We were thrust into a world where our purchasing habits were being influenced by self-branded influencers. And they were being paid by soulless, fast fashion houses to sell not only clothing made from cheap fabric and in predictable styles but also a lifestyle. And we fell for it. Now we all travel on a repetitive and shallow conveyer belt where Melbourne black doesn’t have a place.
CHRISTINE BARRO, owner, Christine
We’re becoming lost in what is a Melburnian. Do we have a Melburnian look here, anymore?
ANDY DINAN, gallerist, Mars Gallery
I think we are still very much known for our Melbourne black. Last winter, I went up to Sydney for a gallery opening in my obligatory black evening dress with black boots and black opaques, and I was the only one in the room in black. At a gallery opening in Melbourne, you would never see colour like in Sydney – or the amount of flesh. But black is also a gallery thing. Last week, in Hong Kong for the art fair, I went to an artsy party on the rooftop of the H building. Every major gallerist was there and it was a vast sea of black fashion. You needed a torch.
Has Melbourne got its own style? I think we do and we’re getting more and more brave. Instead of reaching for the black dress, we’re mixing it up so much more. I have a huge client base in Melbourne and they respond to individuality. That’s change for the best.
Everyone is discovering their own uniqueness. It used to be that everyone wore what was in fashion, but people are doing their own thing at the moment. In the CBD, there’s a real European influence. It’s really high fashion: everyone’s got the right shoes on, the right cardi. And people are into tailoring again.
Today it’s not about black anymore. Young people are into strange combos – combinations that would not have been acceptable 25 years ago, with clashes of colour and sportiness. There are sneakers with everything, even an evening dress. You wouldn’t have thought of that in the ’80s. I don’t know if I can sense a fashion identity in Melbourne as strongly as it once was. Black is still associated with punk and rock and roll, and it probably will make a comeback. But I wouldn’t say it’s the most important colour anymore.
Melbourne is a more exciting and cosmopolitan city than the one I grew up in. It is now less homogenous, less introverted, less conservative and less tribal. Added to this, the increased international connectedness brought by the internet and online shopping means that Melbourne’s fashion character is less definable. Weather is still a major factor. Melbourne still gets cold so will always need an extra layer to feel comfortable.
ALEXIA PETSINIS, creative consultant/ Writer
There’s this really cliche Instagram caption – “all black everything” – which people often use to accompany a shot of themselves in a head-to-toe black outfit. That annoys me. It’s like yes, I can see you’re wearing all black, but at least think of an original caption that elaborates on your favourite colour choice. It’s not just in Melbourne, but I do notice it popping up on a lot of Melbourne profiles, probably because black is on such high rotation for people throughout the year here.
The pendulum always swings. Fashion doesn’t stay the same forever.
JAMES YOUNG, owner of Cherry Bar
Melbourne is black and black is Melbourne. Anyone who thinks Melbourne has lost its connection to black is not a true Melburnian. From my perspective, inside and outside of rock and roll, black is the fashion soul of Melbourne. You saw it at the Underground in King Street in the ’80s – and there was a little bit of flirtation with pastel too, but even then, that was an anomaly. Black made you feel slim, feel cool, look intelligent and be an entity unto yourself. There have been some flirtations with change; there was a whole period when denim was out of fashion and no one was going to wear Levi’s jeans ever again. Everyone was wearing cargo pants, myself included, and it was a horrible period that made no sense. But Melbourne’s backbone is the black we know and love.