Putting the #Straya back into Australian fashion – from koala corsages to bush gear, antipodean style is having a moment

‘Straya’, Australians’ mocking term for their country, is a cliché with cachet as Australiana comes back into vogue. Think trendy takes on the Akubra hat, kangaroo T-shirts, mullet haircuts, and that new Melania Trump scarf

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 6:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 8:35pm

“Straya” is trending – one million hashtags and counting on Instagram alone. It’s the Australian slang term for Australia, best said in the broadest Aussie accent.

Normally used tongue-in-cheek to denote anything that’s clichéd Australian, the word is close to being an unofficial promotional term for Tourism Australia, used by locals and international visitors alike to flag images celebrating the Australian lifestyle and landscape.

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Coincidentally, the hashtag’s growing popularity dovetails with a rekindling of fashion enthusiasm for Australiana, not seen since the 1980s.

That was the decade when Sydney artist Ken Done’s Australiana merchandise was all the rage, Princess Diana was photographed in a koala-emblazoned jumper from Sydney designer Jenny Kee and Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John launched over 40 Koala Blue stores across the US, Japan, Canada, France and Australia, selling Australian fashion and memorabilia.

A quarter of a century after Koala Blue closed, Australiana was seen all over the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia catwalks this year. It included Dion Lee’s collaborations with “bush outfitters” RM Williams and Akubra, and mullet haircuts at Strateas, Carlucci, Akira and Ten Pieces shows. The latter brand also showed an Ugg-style “Sharpie boot”, a nod to the 1970s Australian Sharpies youth subculture.

For summer 2018, high street chain Dangerfield also released a collection featuring Australiana prints, including Great Barrier Reef angelfish, Major Mitchell cockatoos, and Iced VoVo biscuits – an Australian classic.

On January 26, British/Australian actress Naomi Watts sported a koala corsage at the American Australian Association’s inaugural Australia Day Arts Awards in New York – courtesy of InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown, who was also at the party to receive an AAA Excellence in the Arts Award.

Brown, who left Sydney for New York in 2001, made the corsages using a pair of clip-on koala toys that are sold in tourists shops at Australian airports. She didn’t have to look far for the koalas, telling the Post she stocks up on them whenever she is back home, to hand out to InStyle staff members as thank-you’s.

“I think it [my patriotism] was originally bred from a homesickness,” says Brown, whose Instagram feed is also full of images of Australiana.

“If I’d had time, I would have actually asked the Romance Was Born [Australian fashion house] guys to do it [make the corsages] because it was kind of in that spirit of kitsch Australiana and making it something fun. We left them on all night.”

Described by Brown as one of her “favourite shows ever”, Sydney brand Romance Was Born’s psychedelic 2016 “Cooee Couture” collection presentation at fashion week was an homage to Australian flora, fauna and folk heroes such as the bushranger Ned Kelly.

The collection was produced in collaboration with Australian artist Linda Jackson, who ran the 1970s-1980s Sydney fashion boutique Flamingo Park alongside fellow Australian Jenny Kee.

“It was like, here’s what makes us special,” says Brown, who was in town for the event that year. “It’s that joy and that colour and that spirit, that freedom. I loved it. And I would wear that any day of the week.”

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Australiana was also on the mind of New York publicist Malcolm Carfrae for his client Zimmermann on February 6 for Zimmermann’s pre-New York Fashion Week party to showcase its new SoHo boutique. For the event, Carfrae swapped the traditional red carpet photo wall for an installation of thousands of Australian native wildflowers as a backdrop for the likes of actresses Katie Holmes and Sienna Miller to pose against.

“To me that was the best of Australia and it was so on brand for them [Zimmermann],” says Carfrae, another Australian “made good” in the New York fashion media industry.

The former global head of communications for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren – and co-founder of the Australian Fashion Foundation, which facilitates international fashion internships for Australian fashion graduates – Carfrae established his own New York PR consultancy in 2016.

Although describing himself as “very passionate and patriotic”, Carfrae recoils at the term “Straya”, which at its worst celebrates vulgarity.

“I like people to know that we’re not just surfing, burger-eating bogans [rednecks], but we’re actually very sophisticated in our fields and industries and we’re the best of the best basically,” says Carfrae.

LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, is also evidently interested in helping elevate Australiana. Its private equity arm L Catterton Asia has been buying and scaling up a string of Australian brands in recent years, including RM Williams, Seafolly swimwear and sportswear brand 2XU.

During an Australian trade mission to Washington on February 23, his-and-hers pairs of RM Williams boots were gifted to Donald and Melania Trump by Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy Turnbull.

Melania also received a silk de chine scarf decorated with Australian native birds and flowering gum sprigs from Sydney company Utopia Goods.

Launched in 2012 by designers Bruce Slorach and Sophie Tatlow, as an offshoot of their 20-year-old Deuce Design studio, Utopia Goods was designed to tap a market gap for accessories, home furnishings and interior fabrics featuring prints inspired by Australian flora and fauna.

International clients include New York architecture firm 212box, which used Utopia Goods’ “Paradise” print, inspired by Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest, on furnishings in Christian Louboutin’s new-look Miami flagship boutique that opened last year.

“We [Australia] are over 200 years old now, we’re coming to terms with what sorts of things have happened in this country, both good and bad, and I think it’s timely,” says Tatlow of the Australiana redux in popular culture.

Tatlow’s business and life partner Slorach once spent five years as an art director with Mambo Graphics, which was notorious for its “larrikin” tone, a case in point being the bestselling “Farting Dog” print – a style of humour that has “definitely run its course”, according to Tatlow.

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“I think when you’re embarrassed by things or making jokes out of them, it’s very apologetic,” says Tatlow. “There’s a certain sense of style that is come back into it [now], it’s not all goofy. And I think it’s showing a maturity and we’re ready for it.”