Her True Colours

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am

Bright hues are in this season and nobody does bold better than Australian designer Kirrily Johnston, whose creations are winning fans around the world.

KIRRILY JOHNSTON LIKES colours. Not just any colours - she likes luminous tones such as lime green, mango and cobalt blue, and she's not afraid to incorporate these electric shades into her successful line of casual wear.

'I'm not a bright one for prints,' she says, lounging back on a modernist chair in D-Mop's Causeway Bay flagship store where her 2008 spring/summer collection has turned the display windows into a riot of colour.

'Colour is our signature and because I go for hues that are very bright I make sure my colours are a little off-beat.'

Long before the Gallianos and Gaultiers at the big corporate labels decided that this year would see the rebirth of colour, Johnston had won a big following among fashion-conscious Australians, including many celebrities. Australian actress Toni Collette wore Kirrily when she was a judge at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Actors Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Rachel Taylor are also Kirrily girls and she is beloved by top models as well including Gemma Ward, Megan Gale and Irina Lazareanu.

Johnston credits Sydney with her passion for colour, specifically the surfer's paradise known as Bondi Beach.

'I moved from Melbourne seven years ago,' she says. 'Sydney is much less sombre. And the beach with all its bright tones has been a big inspiration.'

Big enough to propel Johnston into the premier leagues. After opening her first outlet eight years ago she now has flagship stores in Melbourne and Sydney, and her collections are stocked in 80 locations worldwide. Johnston looks to nature as her primary source of inspiration and is especially fond of big trees with voluminous branches. 'I'm a big fan of volume,' she says. 'Colour and texture are my favourite things.'

Johnston's success seems a natural consequence of her belief that bright colours can be elegant - contrary to New York wisdom - so long as they're tailored correctly. She's also very hands on.

'If you came to my studio you'll see that me and most of my staff run around half naked most of the day because we are always trying things on,' she says. 'We're adjusting the fit, throwing things off and picking up something else.'

The other strength of Johnston's line is that the cut is understated, even if the colours are not. The result is a sophistication that belies names such as hard candy and licorice allsorts that she attaches to her designs.

'The hard candy dress is quite sexy for me,' she says. 'If I'm going to make a dress short I like to cover up on top. For me, sexy is about attention seeking and colour does that. So I like to blend a conservative silhouette with bright colours. Beautiful tailoring changes colour and makes it elegant.'

Johnston is also inspired by artists, movies and travel. Her palette has drawn references from Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Australian artist Mirka Mora and British street artist Banksy.

'I can't look at Banksy's work too close to my bedtime,' she says. 'If I do I can't sleep because the images stimulate me so much. If I could have anybody to one of my dinner parties, he'd be top of my list.'

Colourful and anarchistic, Banksy's work suits Johnston's style because she is also trying to keep the establishment at a distance. She has been asked to create a diffusion brand but, thus far, has refused because she fears the quality of her product would be compromised by going into the mass market.

'I like to do things properly,' she says. 'It's so lazy not to do things well. My boyfriend wants me to do menswear and I have the same reaction. I'm not ready to do it because I haven't worked out a way to do it exceptionally well.'

Johnston cites Dangerous Liaisons (1988) starring Glenn Close and Paris, Texas (1984) with Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski as her favourite movies, while Closer (2004) with Natalie Portman is her favourite contemporary film. All three are notable for their bold tones and the way they use colour to define a mood.

'I love Natalie Portman,' says Johnston. Would Portman look good in one of Johnston's colours? 'A lot of people are scared to wear lime green or cobalt blue but these colours go well with so many skin tones, people are amazed what these tones can do for them.'

Johnston was in Hong Kong for the first time, although she travels a lot. When she's on the road she likes to pack a pair of flats, a floor-length dress, an accessory - such as a necklace by Sylvie Markovina - a pair of sunglasses with a retro look - Dita are her current favourite - and an informal jacket. 'With those four items you can dress up or down and always be comfortable,' she says. 'And a maxi dress is great when you don't want to do heels and when you don't want your legs out.'

And when she's home she's back in her element, nature's bountiful colours all around on Bondi and, when she closes the door, the sunshine is still there. 'I have a lot of orange in my house, it's my favourite colour.'

That's Kirrily Johnston - Australia's answer to black.