Cassie Byrnes, Textile Designer: In Conversation

On Saturday 11 November I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with the textile designer Cassie Byrnes as part of the Duldig Studio's Creative Women in Conversation series running in conjunction with the exhibition Slawa: Modernist Art and Design.

Cassie graduated from RMIT's textile design course in 2014 and since then has worked from her home in Melbourne producing designs for local and international clients. Cassie works across textiles, packaging, home wares and fashion. In 2016 she launched her fashion collection Variety Hour on line. The tops, skirts and shift dresses feature her signature bold prints which are inspired by the environment around her, the rich flora of Australia to the landscape of America which she visited on her honeymoon. 

Variety Hour. Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Variety Hour. Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Cassie was born and raised in Mackay, North Queensland. After studying interior design in Brisbane she discovered her passion for textiles and moved to Melbourne to study textile design. Cassie said she was drawn to designing for textiles when she became fascinated with how patterns literally made their way onto the textiles. In her very fresh way, Cassie stated that she was curious about the process, asking 'How did the pattern get there?' This is synonymous with the very active way Cassie works her designs. Nothing is passive; they do not just happen. Cassie spends many hours developing each design, starting with concept notes, selecting colours and hand-painting dozens of small sample cards.

Cassie describes her process as very 'old school'. She starts exploring and developing her designs using the old-fashioned brush, paint and paper. It is not until the final stage that Cassie works up her designs on the computer so that they can be printed digitally. The lengthy time it takes for her to develop a design means Cassie becomes emotionally attached to her work. She states that for about every 100 ideas she produces, about twenty may be of value and ten are taken through into a final product. 

Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Although her works start with well-developed concepts on paper, Cassie is emphatic that she is a designer and not an artist. She states that she is always thinking of the end product and the consumer. The majority of her clients are internationally-based and Cassie has found they discovered her via her website or through other postings on the internet. In a symbiotic way, while her work originates in hard copy, technology leads prospective clients to her door. Cassie has produced package designs for Haagen Dasz icecream, a book cover for Penguin Books and textiles for Linen House, the Philadelphia-based label Anthropologie and for the Australian fashion label Kuwaii.

Cassie describes herself as a 'big print' designer and when working on designs for garments she is very mindful of the placement of the pattern so that it looks good on the body. Considering the scale and bold use of colour in her designs, I wondered whether she found there was ever any tension between colour and the pattern. Cassie whimsically stated that they are 'friends' and that she always conceives of a pattern with specific colours and therefore does not create designs in different colourways.

See more of Cassie's designs at

Honeymoon collection, Variety Hour label. Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Honeymoon collection, Variety Hour label. Image courtesy Cassie Byrnes.

Fashion-able- a discussion with FDC practitioners on high risk dressing

3 March 2017, RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne

The notion of 'high risk dressing' underpinned Robyn Healy's panel discussion about the Fashion Design Council (FDC), a collective founded in Melbourne in 1983 to support and promote local, alternative fashion design.

In the early 1980s, the idea of 'high risk dressing' was used by the FDC to challenge the state of Australian fashion. Emerging local designers railed against the mainstream fashion industry which, they felt, had nothing innovative to offer.

Healy, who is Head of RMIT's School of Fashion, spoke to FDC-affiliated artist Rosslynd Piggott, FDC designer Victoria Triantafyllou, and Laura Gardner, editor and fashion writer about the FDC and its legacy. 

Piggott reflected on her involvement in the two early parades, Fashion '82 and Fashion '83, mounted by Julie Purvis and Jillian Burt in Melbourne under the banner of Party Architecture. Being more conceptual in nature, these parades provided the springboard for the formation of the FDC. Piggott's two works were directly influenced by art. The first, titled Kabuki, drew from Japanese theatre and the second, which featured skirts with exaggerated panniers, was inspired by the garments depicted in seventeenth century Spanish artist Velazquez's painting titled Las Meninas.

Following these parades, Robert Pearce, Kate Durham and Robert Buckingham, all of whom had been involved, banded together to form the FDC, and the 'newest force in fashion' was launched with a parade held at the Hardware Club in 1984. Both Piggott and Healy remarked on the grass roots origins of the FDC, which was born from an energy generated during the post-punk era.

Taking up this point, Triantafyllou described an environment in which she and other designers began by creating one-off pieces to wear out to clubs. Triantafyllou described the clubs and bars as places where people were seen and where businesses were started. If someone liked what you were wearing, then they engaged you to make something for them.  She described a fluid group of people working across disciplines. Although Triantafyllou was RMIT trained, she observed that quite a number of the FDC practitioners didn't have a technical background in fashion. No matter: everyone was driven by a passion to make clothes, have fun and be seen.

Triantafyllou and Piggott reflected on the vibrancy of the time where, as Triantafyllou described it, 'we all fed off each other'. Studio space in inner city Melbourne was relatively cheap and the studios became creative hubs. One of these was Stalbridge Chambers, a late-nineteenth century office building in the centre of Melbourne. The FDC's office was on the sixth floor and the building attracted an array of like-minded artists and designers, such as Desbina Collins, Martin Grant, Tamasine Dale and Jenny Watson. An interdisciplinary approach to fashion and art was embraced at a time when postmodern thinking was blurring the lines between the two.

Throughout the year, the FDC hosted events at bars and clubs and ran an annual fashion parade. These events were highly performative, and fused art, music, film and fashion. They expressed the ethos of the FDC designers who, although diverse in their styles, were unified in their search for new ways of creating and interpreting fashion.

The FDC archive, now held by the RMIT's Design Archives, houses significant film and print media relating to the FDC's parades, exhibitions and events. Healy highlighted the importance of these FDC publications, noting that the parade books include photos and biographies of the designers. Rather than taking the mainstream fashion path of working as an anonymous designer for a larger well-established label, these independent designers chose, from the beginning, to work under their own distinctive labels. They actively eschewed the mainstream fashion production and created their own works from a studio-based practice. 

Gardner picked up on this idea when she noted that the concept of a 'critical fashion practice' implied a 'pushing back' against something. In today's climate, she posited that the issues of environment and sustainability are foremost among those confronting current fashion practice.

After ten years of guiding and promoting independent Australian fashion design, the FDC folded in 1993. By then many of its designers had established self-sustaining businesses. Christopher Graf and Jenny Bannister ran retail stores in Melbourne's fashionable Chapel Street, Kara Baker still continues her studio-based label in Melbourne, and the 1988 Cointreau Young Designer of the Year, Martin Grant, relocated his business to Paris in 1992 where he remains today.

In closing the session, Healy reflected on the legacy of the FDC and its relevance to current fashion practice, stating that as a forum, it created an awareness of the issues in fashion.

The exhibition High Risk Dressing / Critical Fashion draws on the FDC archive to explore current fashion practice. The exhibition runs to 13 April 2017 and is located on Level 2 of the RMIT Design Hub, corner Victoria and Swanston Streets, Melbourne.


Exhibition installation: FDC parade screenings 

Exhibition installation: FDC parade screenings 

Exhibition installation: FDC archives

Exhibition installation: FDC archives

Lous Kahan: art, theatre fashion

The artist Louis Kahan is well-known in Australia for his portraits, winning the Archibald Prize in 1962 for his painting of the author Patrick White. Lesser known is Kahan's work in theatre and fashion, both prior to and after his arrival in Australia in 1947. The exhibition, Louis Kahan: art, theatre, fashion, at the Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn in Melbourne (27 August - 23 October 2016) reveals an artistic life which moved between Vienna and Paris between the wars and Australia and Britain in the post-WWII era.            

Born in Vienna in 1905 into a family of master tailors, Kahan's training as a tailor was to have an enduring influence throughout his life. Completing a master diploma of tailoring, Kahan entered his father's business, Kahan Tailors, whose clientele included leading actors, singers and musicians of the day. Amongst these were the actors Max Pallenberg and Konrad Weidt. Moving to the the central Neuer Markt, Wolf Kahan commissioned the modernist architect Adolf Loos to design the interiors for the business' two showrooms. This choice of architect placed the Kahans within a select group of buisnesses which championed Viennese modern design.

Determined to pursue a career as an artist, Kahan left for Paris in 1925 where he attended life classes at La Grande Chaumière, while making a living as a fashion designer and illustrator. Kahan immersed himself in the vibrant cultural life of the city and from 1925 to 1927 he was house designer for the couturier Paul Poiret. Kahan arrived at Maison Paul Poiret just as the designer was fitting out his three lavish barges for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes which opened in Paris in April 1925.

Later in the year Kahan was photographed with the staff of Maison Paul Poiret on Saint Catherine's Day, the 25th of November. Dressed in fancy dress, face blackened and wearing a large hat, Kahan sits between Poiret (standing to his right) and the new stage sensation, Jospehine Baker (seated cross-legged on the floor) who astounded audiences with her energetic Charleston dance in La Revue Nègre. Kahan's lively sketch of Baker, mid-performance, has been executed on the back of Maison Paul Poiret letterhead. Baker became one of the highest paid performers of her day and she was a client of Poiret during the time Kahan was house designer.

Through Poiret, who collaborated with many leading artists of the day, Kahan met Matisse, Derain, Dufy and Vlaminck, among others. It was while working at Maison Poiret that Kahan first ventured into theatre design, creating costumes for the historic Théâtre du Gymnase and the Folies Bergère cabaret. In 1926 he created costumes for the silent film La Châtelaine du Liban and for the stage play La Vagabonde, written and performed by the French novelist Colette in 1927, who appeared on stage alongside Poiret.

In 1930 Kahan moved back to Vienna to assist in the family business. Over the following six years he regularly returned to Paris to sketch the fashion collections for Viennese magazines. At the same time Kahan also ran a business, Tessylco, in partnership with the Italian Giuseppe Bianchi, which produced hand-woven silks. In 1936 Kahan returned to live in Paris. With the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938 and the Aryanisation of businesses, Kahan's father was forced to hand over Kahan Tailors to gentile members of his staff. Soon after Kahan's parents and sister fled Austria, settling in Perth, Australia.

When war broke out, Kahan, who was living in Paris, was deemed an enemy alien. An alternative to internment was to join the Foreign Legion. Having done so, Kahan spent the war in Algeria and Morocco. It was during this time that he made the shift to becoming a full-time artist. On his return to Paris in 1945 he became a staff artist for Le Figaro and covered the war trials of Marshal Pétain and ministers of the Vichy government. Separated from his family for almost ten years, Kahan decided to visit Australia, travelling first to America where he met up with his friend, film director and screenwriter, Billy Wilder, who had immigrated to Hollywood in 1933.  Gaining access to the lot of Paramount Pictures, Kahan sketched Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in costume on the set of Road to Rio, as well as Randolph Scott who was filming the Gunfighters and Ray Milland.

Although Kahan was encouraged to seek work in Hollywood as a designer, reunited with his family in Australia he decided to make Australia his home. Kahan quickly established himself as an artist of note and in 1950 was drawn to Melbourne where he designed the first of many theatrical productions in an industry influenced by the recent emigration of European artists. Kahan's first production, the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, was produced by the Viennese émigré Stefan Haag, who invited Kahan to design the sets and costumes. Staged by the National Theatre's opera company, the production met with critical acclaim. These accolades were repeated the following year for Kahan's designs for the Australian debut of The Consul. For this production, his innovative moving sets were described as a ‘new and brilliant feature’, which allowed scene changes to happen mid-performance in view of the audience.

Offers to design for the stage continued and in 1954 Kahan designed the sets and costumes for the Royal Command Performance of the Tales of Hoffmann. Little survives beyond the page of Kahan's prolific output for the stage. Six masks however that he crafted himself (from bandages and plaster of Paris) for the Tales of Hoffmann demonstrate the material and expressive qualities of Kahan's work, which was steeped in a deep knowledge and love for European theatre and opera traditions. His gouache and pencil costume designs not only express a sense of form and scale, but also reveal Kahan's technical expertise in cut and construction. Numerous designs include small-scale sketches of pattern pieces and instructions for the costume cutter and maker. Fullness and fit are all carefully articulated.

The last theatre production Kahan designed was L'Elisir d'Amore for the Australian Opera in 1975. At the age of seventy he concentrated on his painting, portrait work and printmaking. Always drawn to the figure, Kahan continued to depict tailors and dressmakers at work. In the last decade of his life however, the figure is replaced by the tailor's mannequin or pattern pieces. It was at this time that Kahan revisited his early life as a tailor and his years in Paris. His late works are populated with objects from his early life - tailor's shears, tape measure, patternmaker's L-square and a wristband pin cushion. Combined with the tools of the artist - a palette, paint brush and spatula- these objects symbolise the span of Kahan's life, from a young tailor in Vienna to fashion designer in Paris and fully-fledged artist in Australia.

Louis Kahan: art, theatre, fashion

Town Hall Gallery, Cnr Burwood and Glenferrie Rds, Hawthorn, Melbourne

27 August – 23 October 2016

Louis Kahan with mask - Despina (Nancy Rasmussen) disguised as a lawyer,  Cosi fan tutte , National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953. Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan with mask - Despina (Nancy Rasmussen) disguised as a lawyer, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953. Kahan Family Collection.

Kahan Tailor business card designed by Louis Kahan, Vienna, c.1935, 14.7 x 11.8 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Kahan Tailor business card designed by Louis Kahan, Vienna, c.1935, 14.7 x 11.8 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Wolf Kahan seated in Kahan Tailor's showroom designed by Adolf Loos in c.1930, Vienna, 1950. Kahan Family Collection.

Wolf Kahan seated in Kahan Tailor's showroom designed by Adolf Loos in c.1930, Vienna, 1950. Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, fashion design 'Boulevard' for Maison Paul Poiret, Paris, c.1926, mimeograph, 27.5 x 18 cm, RMIT Design Archives. 

Louis Kahan, fashion design 'Boulevard' for Maison Paul Poiret, Paris, c.1926, mimeograph, 27.5 x 18 cm, RMIT Design Archives. 

Louis Kahan,  Josephine Baker , Paris, 1926, pencil on paper, 23.4 x 15.4 cm, RMIT Design Archives.

Louis Kahan, Josephine Baker, Paris, 1926, pencil on paper, 23.4 x 15.4 cm, RMIT Design Archives.

Boris Lipnitzki, Paris,  St Catherine's Day at Maison Paul Poiret, 25 November 1925,  19 x 29 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Boris Lipnitzki, Paris, St Catherine's Day at Maison Paul Poiret, 25 November 1925, 19 x 29 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan,  Dorothy Lamour, Road to Rio,  1947, pencil on paper, 29 x 21.2 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Dorothy Lamour, Road to Rio, 1947, pencil on paper, 29 x 21.2 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Costume design for Don Alfonso,  Cosi fan tutte , National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953, gouache and pencil on paper, 33 x 21 cm, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Centre.

Louis Kahan, Costume design for Don Alfonso, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953, gouache and pencil on paper, 33 x 21 cm, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Centre.

Louis Kahan,  Still life over Paris,  1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 59 x 79 cm (framed), Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Still life over Paris, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 59 x 79 cm (framed), Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan,  Torso and samples II,  1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 87.5 x 67.5 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Torso and samples II, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 87.5 x 67.5 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Preston Zly and the material Renaissance

Melbourne designers of handmade shoes, Johanna Preston and Petr Zly founded their label Preston Zly in 1995. Their designs constantly push the boundaries of shoemaking, both in aesthetics and construction. In their recent collection, Detail to Whole (Autumn-Winter 2016), they challenged their shoemakers with the construction of the Babi Circle. In this, the leather upper is wrapped around an extended insole and hand-stitched to create a distinctive welt. Here the complicated stitching of the upper to the sole becomes a design feature.

Preston Zly,  Babi Circle,  Detail to Whole collection, A-W 2016

Preston Zly, Babi Circle, Detail to Whole collection, A-W 2016

When reading Ulinka Rublack's article "Matter in the material Renaissance" (Past and Present, no. 219, May 2013, 41-85) for the Textiles Reading Group at the University of Melbourne, I was struck by the similar material and design issues faced by shoemakers in the sixteenth century and those who hand make shoes today. The common challenges of designing a shoe that is fashionable and innovative, whilst remaining sympathetic to the material, is just as current as it was in Renaissance Europe when Hans Fugger, a wealthy German magnate, placed orders with his shoemaker in Antwerp.

Commenting on Fugger's request in 1568 for shoes made of soft leather, Johanna Preston observed, that, in asking for footwear to be made from what is essentially a fine glove making leather, Fugger was asking for an item which the shoemaker must have known would fall apart quickly with wear. Fugger's request creates a tension between design and construction, the aesthetic and the material. His desire for shoes that are not only made of the finest leather, but are weakened through the stamped and perforated decorative design he requests, destined them for early destruction. With this particular order, which included shoes of white leather, Fugger was not aiming for footwear that lasted. He was striving to achieve something which was both elegant and luxurious; an object that smacked of conspicuous consumption.

Shoe , c.1590-1600, Bayerisches National Museum

Shoe, c.1590-1600, Bayerisches National Museum

Fugger was aware that shoes with slashed designs weakened the leather and "looked bad" after a short period of wear. In this instance however, durability was not the aim. Rublack notes that, "Like other fashion items, perfect shoes of a particular kind constituted a visual act which showed off new technologies and transformed people's ideas about what was possible."

For the artisan, all materials present certain limitations and challenges. Leather comes in a range of qualities, and the knowledge and ability to work it into a fine pair of shoes which both fit and are innovative is the skill of the designer-shoemaker. The material and decorative aspects of Hans Fugger's stamped, pinked and perforated shoes and the textural lavishness of Preston Zly's interlaced leather uppers of Avignon Woven reveal that the Renaissance desire to create "things skilfully produced" (Rublack, 41) crosses centuries.

Preston Zly,  Avignon Woven,  Classic collection

Preston Zly, Avignon Woven, Classic collection

In the face of footwear mass-production, Preston Zly focus on small-scale, high-end handcrafted shoemaking. They produce a total of fifteen pairs (in two to four colours) per style, in sizes ranging from 37 to 42. Designing such limited runs pushes Johanna and Petr to be creative with the leather which is in supply each season. Stripping, re-colouring and distressing available leathers allow them to create a distinctive look, and when combined with elements such as hand-carved wooden heels, hammered tacks and welted stitching, harness what Rublack identifies as "the life and vibrancy of matter itself" (Rublack, 44).

Preston Zly,  Patten Shoe,  Axis collection, A-W 2014   

Preston Zly, Patten Shoe, Axis collection, A-W 2014