The dawn of a new race age: pushing the fashion envelope

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When online high fashion male and female destinations, Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, held a cocktail party in Melbourne last week to herald spring, Melbourne social types came dressed in fine style.

Nadia Bartel – wife of Jimmy and mega-blogger in her own right – wore a Rebecca Vallance cornflower blue dress with a frilly hem, Dasha Gold (The Trendspotter) donned a silver metallic jacket by Life with Bird over her white outfit, and Emily Edwards (designer of label Huntr) proved that one can be feminine in pants, combining eyelet lace white bottoms with a frilly floral shirt by C/MEO Collective. At the party, The Porters had created their own Spring Racing edit, receiving oohs for the Aquazzura shoes featuring massive pink pompoms for Oaks Day, and ahhs for the Stakes Day offerings (vibrant yellow print dress for the ladies, cream suit with red tie and black pocket square for the men). The typical race-day pastel lace frock-and-crown combo of years gone by? It was nowhere in sight. Is Melbourne finally ready for a more fashion forward, edgier approach to spring racing fashion?

The answer, it seems, is yes. In the past, there have been many edgy fashion moments making cameras pop at both Caulfield and Flemington.

There was supermodel Coco Rocha wearing an intricate gold lace jacket and matching hat to Oaks Day in 2013, after she had seen the outfit entered in the Myer Fashions on the Field by designer Anthony Capon. That same year, burlesque star Dita Von Teese had orchids cascading down her Aurelio Costarella jacket and Philip Treacy hat as a guest in the Myer marquee. And in 2011, model Megan Gale got the fashion folk debating whether pants were acceptable race wear when she made a head-turning entrance at the David Jones marquee in a hot pink Lisa Ho pantsuit and matching hat. But, despite those stellar examples, race-days are often awash in a sea of racegoers wanting to fit in, rather than stand out, wearing the same types of dresses, from the same designers, accessorised in the same way.

Designer Alex Perry, who has dressed the best, hopes that a new racing age is dawning. “I have always thought that Melbourne girls had a real handle on edgy fashion, but sometimes they lose it a little bit on the racetrack – they can reference things from the ’40s and ’50s too heavily, and it looks like they are wearing a costume.”

He has tried to help girls out of “that racing uniform” by creating “things that are simple in beautiful shades, that just push the envelope a bit … we’ve got some great short cotton reptile dresses that are flirty with little slices of nude crinoline that show a bit of skin – but not really – and we’ve got super bright almost lime-yellow little trapeze dresses”. “There’s a lot of navy and black and white and flashes of colour – red and pine-lime splice colour. I have to cover up a lot of different girls – from conservative girls who don’t want to be bland to girls who want to make an entrance.”

And now it seems there are more who want to take a risk. Designer Bianca Spender realised she had predicted her spring range entirely incorrectly, in that she presumed the out-there pieces would be ones that were slower to sell.

“I’ve done the most colourful collection I’ve ever done, and I did one trench in lilac. I loved it but I thought it would sell the most in black and navy. But lilac has beaten those colours hands down. I also did a light pink georgette dress which I thought would be beaten by the same offered in navy, but I found that it’s the colours that are getting really embraced. There’s a lot of fun and experimentation being had at the moment.”

To what does she attribute that shift in buyers’ mood? “I think there’s a lot of frustrations and real pressures that people are going through in life, whether they’re economic, political or global pressures,” Spender says. “We’re seeing things happen that we’ve never seen before: with Brexit, with Trump. Really hard questions are being asked about what a successful society looks like. When people are in that state of mind, they’re open to challenging ideals, whether it’s in gender equality, sexuality … for women, it’s giving us a change in the way we dress. Fashion reflects the fact that people want more freedom.”

How will the races look this year?

“In the way Jean Shrimpton shocked the world with her mini and no stockings, I have a feeling we’re going to see that sort of thing at the races all over again. Right now is the time for it.”

And let’s be clear about one thing: breaking the fashion rules doesn’t mean breaking the dress code, which is only for certain sections of the racetrack, anyway. Kara Baker never set out to make clothes specifically for the races, but she’s a Melbourne designer who has discovered that lately women have been veering towards her designs – which she calls “modesty dressing”. “I’ve never been into body con or porno chic, that sprayed-on dress look.”

She feels that women can be fashion forward at the races, while still adhering to the dress code. “I’m really into a midi length, finishing about five inches above your ankle bone, so that it’s not a maxi dress but it does give you a slightly ’70s or ’40s look. It’s different to what we’ve been seeing. It’s feminine and elegant but it’s also covered up – it’s the opposite of the sea of stretch lace dresses we saw at the races last year.”

If racegoers start dressing with a keener eye, it will be none too soon for milliner Melissa Jackson, who thinks some women are stuck in a time warp. “In the Fashion on the Field enclosure, there are still people dressing in a 1950s style, when obviously we’re in 2017. A reference to history can be really successful, but I like it to have a modern twist; it still needs to look like our current year.”

She says that “what’s not great in this country is that people borrow so much from other people’s style, and that’s when it starts to blend and look the same”. “At a recent spring racing lunch, four different milliners were represented but you couldn’t tell one from another. I see myself as a designer with strong handwriting, so when people say, ‘Have you done crowns this season?’ I say no, because it’s not my style. Also, sometimes when stylists get involved, people lose their personality, rather than trusting their instincts. But I’m forever hopeful.”

And, this is the year where it seems that all designers are trying to make sure their offerings are unique. Thurley’s Helen O’Connor designs outfits that are much-coveted for the races, but she says that this year, she has tried to inject them with a twist, “using rivets and studs and chain to embellish my feminine laces, giving them a surprising and masculine edge”. 

And stylist Lana Wilkinson, who will be working with celebrities at both this year’s Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup Carnivals, says she expects “to see a lot of wide brim hats, turbans and headscarfs, with designers using shoulder pads, ruffles and nods to the ’80s”. “There will be a lot of prints and bold colour. I feel like fashion is having the most fun it’s had in almost a decade – it’s been quite safe with pastel hues and monochrome [at past race years], but now we’re clashing prints and adding metallic and lurex.”

None of it is coming a moment too soon for Melbourne’s resident adventurous dresser, Estelle Michaelides (of Micky in the Van label fame), who says that “in Australia we have a tendency to latch onto trends and exploit them so much that they become threadbare and lacklustre”.

“In the last few years [at the races], we’ve seen the fitted lace dress in various lengths, cut-outs and various shades of pastel adorned with a little jewelled tiara – which, I’d like to add, is an insult to millinery and milliners. If you ask whether Melbourne folk are ripe for a change, my answer is a fervent yes … I just hope this racing carnival doesn’t see an influx of Gucci bags – I’ll try to remain optimistic.”

The Eternal Headonist’s Annabel Allen, whose millinery business does its best trade around the carnival season, says that, “I love things that are more avant garde and playful and experimental, but whether people end up doing this is another matter”. “The trends we’ve seen coming through are very much turbans and wider brim hats, but crowns are still going strong.”  

Racewear’s best chance to implement change is if one of Melbourne’s mighty influencers takes a step in that direction. Bartel says she’s ready to do so, and although she adds that “you want to dress appropriately, I think you also want to push the boundaries and do something different”.” At the races, you can go all out. I don’t wear a lot of colour or print, but for the races I plan to be wearing red and clashing prints. Red will be beyond massive.”

Will guys follow suit? “My husband, over the years, has become more adventurous with what he wears, and I think we’ll see some pastel blues and pinks coming through.”

Another influencer, Rebecca Harding, is in a prime position to alter the fashion approach, as this year’s Myer Fashions on the Field ambassador. “I’d like to see a bit more edginess with accessories and millinery. This year, Nerida Winter has done a lot of berets; new trends like that are exciting.”

Men, she says, should not feel left out: “With men, it doesn’t have to be a boring suit, and you can have brightly coloured ties. Last year I saw a guy in a top hat and tails, which was a nice nod to Ascot.”  

For radio and TV personality Ash Pollard, one Melbourne event might have had an influence on the upcoming racing season.

“Dior might be quite influential on people’s fashion decisions this year. The Dior exhibit [at NGV] and everything that offers would be a great start [for inspiration]. Personally, I think people show too much skin and are less inventive and less likely to step outside of the box these days, which disappoints me. I have fallen into that mould a little bit myself. This year, I really want to be different and also bring back some of that old Melbourne race fashion, with the gorgeous hats. Every year, I see Deborah Quinn, who takes it up a notch, and her hats from Stephen Jones. The stuff he makes is what all milliners should be striving towards, not these small headbands with jewels on them.”

Pollard also urges women to not go down the dress-hire route, if they can avoid it. “I can appreciate that people like to do [their look] on a budget, but they need to be conscious about outfits that have been worn a hundred times before. If you can revive an old outfit instead, it shows much more creativity. Race week is a week where it doesn’t matter what you do in terms of going overboard, it would be acceptable.”

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