During the making of this issue we’ve talked to a lot of people about what romance means to them and, unsurprisingly, most have told us it has nothing to do with romantic love. Not to deny the artistic power of masterworks like You’ve Got Mail and Love Actually, but the best love stories often have nothing to do with finding your soulmate. This sentiment couldn’t hold truer for a label that was founded on romantic ideals and has grown to represent so much more.
“I think romance is more a fantasy than anything else,” says Romance Was Born’s Luke Sales. “Because that’s what it was when we started: it was all about fantasising — I had a fictitious boyfriend who we’d always joke about, we were a bit boy-crazy or whatever, but that doesn’t really translate to us anymore in the context of our work. It’s more about… not passion…” he trails off, searching for the word. “Beauty,” offers his co-designer, Anna Plunkett. “It resonates like a higher romantic vision.”
There was as much beauty as ‘you beauty’ to Romance’s latest project, Cooee Couture, an epic celebration of all things Australian they collaborated on with Aussie icon Linda Jackson. Rainbow patchwork dresses topped with marbled gumleaf necklaces, watercolour hand-painted silks finished with sequins, and multicoloured, feathered dreadlocks were just a few of the details packed into the collection’s debut — the trio even managed to pull off a subtle Ned Kelly look. The show took place inside the Art Gallery of NSW’s 19th century Australian art rooms as part of this year’s MBFWA. Featuring a live flautist, native flowers and a gang of multicultural Australian models, the show was an emotional celebration of our culture and moved many in the crowd to tears.
A few months later in Romance’s Kings Cross studio Luke pours himself a cup of tea (probably Bushells) and Anna’s dog, Monaro, jumps onto her lap as we sit down to talk Cooee Couture. “I think with this collection especially we made a conscious effort to make it beautiful, and I think whenever that is the starting point it can always make something a bit emotional if you achieve that goal,” explains Luke. “It was the first proper collaboration in the true sense of the word,” he adds, the pair working with Linda on everything from the hand-printed dresses to the painted Cooee Couture logo.
Both Luke and Anna mention the strange synchronicities between themselves and Linda they discovered during this process: she had a studio on the same street in the 80s; she showed them a picture from a children’s book she’d worked on that looked exactly the same as one of the dresses they’d just created. With so many shared investments in Australian culture and design there’s an eerie sense of predestination to their collaboration.
“Oh my God, she stayed with me at my house and it was like a slumber party,” says Anna of Linda, laughing. “She’d stay back here late and we’d all have dinner together and she’d tell us stories. It was really beautiful; it felt like she was giving us her stories and we were giving her ours.” Linda, who has been designing and making art that lifts ideas from the landscape since the 70s, has even given Luke and Anna what she calls “opal fever”. “We spent all afternoon looking at opals and then that night I sent Linda a message saying that I had been looking at opals all afternoon and when I closed my eyes all I could see was opals, and she was like, ‘You’ve got opal fever. The only known cure is more opals,’” says Luke, chuckling.
Opals were the theme of one of the iconic collections Linda co-produced with fellow design legend Jenny Kee in the 70s and 80s. Much like a Romance show the collections would be launched at events that built an entire world around the garments. “When Jenny and I did those shows in the past we’d work for the whole year on this one fabulous event that was like a theatrical production,” recalls Linda. “The Opera House was just finished and for the first show that we did, in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, the first dress was the Opera House dress.”
“I think it goes back to reading National Geographic when I was little, and also the ballroom dancing,” says Linda of her interest in indigenous cultures and design (both her parents were dancers). This combination of factors perfectly sums up the Cooee Couture vibe: somewhere between a nature study and Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. “I’m interested in going to the source, you know? Loving opal, so then I had to go to Lightning Ridge and the other opal fields, because I wanted to get to the source and get to meet the people,” she explains. “It’s the personal thing as well that I think I like, and that’s why I loved working with Romance. And why not be celebratory and celebrate life and colour and things like that?”
Celebrating the landscape is something that has run though Romance’s work for years, the duo having inadvertently made a native bird dress for their first-ever competition. “When we were there I looked at our dress in the context of things and it was hanging up amongst all these other ones… I just thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s so funny — we’re from Australia and we’ve got this Australian bird dress.’ It wasn’t until we returned from Italy that we spoke about our mutual love for Australia and the landscape,” says Luke. On growing up he recalls, “Wherever I was I always had this sense that there’s this magic to the environment, and it’s not just a childhood thing — everyone knows that Australia has a particularly unique and amazing environment, and that’s always been an unconscious thing with Anna and I.” This respect for the land is something that is reflected throughout the collection, from the decision to steer away from overt Indigenous references to the selection of models. “The whole way through it we were very conscious of being respectful and not treading on anyone’s toes or trying to make any political statement,” explains Luke. “In the casting of the models we wanted to make sure we represented a lot of different cultures — not just Australian, not just Indigenous, but, ‘What is Australia?’”
All this comes at a time when cultural cringe is fading and people are getting increasingly into Australiana. “I think Australia always felt isolated— we couldn’t get certain Nikes, and Madonna didn’t come to Australia — but I think now because of the internet we know so much about other countries,” says Luke. “My friends were talking about it the other night: we know how good we have it now and it doesn’t feel so weird anymore; it doesn’t feel like we’re embarrassed.” Linda’s stance on this shift in opinions is perfect: “Well, why not?”
This being the Romance issue the conversation turns to love. “I’m in Bendigo sometimes and I’m spending more time with my mother and that’s about love for your parents, and my mother has a wonderful new friend in her life and it’s a bit of a romance,” Linda says. “Mum was a ballroom dancer and [her new friend] Gilly has lots of musician friends, and my mother goes dancing — she’s 90 — and the happiness and the joy that she gives out is really amazing to be around.” Linda pulls out her phone and scrolls through some photos of her mum, who smiles back from the screen in some seriously fab multi-layered outfits.
“The first thing that came to my mind is my dog, Marni,” says Anna, and Luke agrees: “I would say the biggest source of love in our lives is Anna’s dog — in our work lives,” he says, laughing. Becoming more serious, he continues: “I would say my biggest source of love is creativity. I mean, it’s the reason why I’m here now doing this interview. I could go get a normal job and be stress-free in so many more ways, but I feel like I wouldn’t really feel creatively fulfilled, and that’s what I want to feel the most out of anything. Above feeling in love or rich or comfortable, it’s the thing that’s my reason for being.”
We decide to finish there, Luke apologising for his hair — “I’m getting it cut today” — as the trio prepare for their next adventure: chasing that opal fever to the source, at the Lightning Ridge Opal Festival.