MAAS Magazine

In conversation with Luke Sales

Romance Was Born designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales are among the first ambassadors for the MAAS Centre for Fashion. Sales talks to MAAS Magazine Editor Jo Lyons about their inspirations, the fashion industry and their future.

Romance Was Born designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales
Romance Was Born designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales. Photo by C Dennington.

MAAS recently acquired an important group of Romance Was Born outfits through the Centre for Fashion 2015 annual appeal. The Museum holds a significant collection of Australian fashion from the early 1800s to the present day. Other fashion designers featured in the MAAS Collection include Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Collette Dinnigan, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson. What is it like to be part of this collection?
Well, they are all really amazing designers throughout history to today, so to know we will now be alongside them is incredible. But I think the best part is that we have been chosen to represent the industry now — and that is a huge honour.

Along with your garments MAAS has acquired documentation and stage sets relating to these pieces. Why is it important to include these as well?
What we do isn’t just about the clothes — we also put an enormous amount of effort into the way we showcase the collection and the collaborators we bring in. It’s nice to have that acknowledged and recorded, as collaboration is a huge part of our practice.

The first Romance Was Born garment that MAAS acquired was your Iced Vovo dress in 2009. Can you tell us the story behind its design and production?
That collection was inspired by the idea of old ladies having a tea party under the sea. It was kind of a tribute collection to our nannas, our memories of visiting them and what they mean to us now. Anna had a strong recollection of Iced Vovos; we made a few test runs of the Vovo dress to get the size right and our friend Nella volunteered to make the pompoms. It was a really fun time in our career; we felt totally free and had absolutely no commercial restrictions…and never in a million years would we have thought our Vovo dress would end up in the MAAS collection. It was really just a joke, but a lot of our good ideas start off as a joke — like our brand name, for example.

Do you have a favourite piece in your own archives and why is it significant?
From the same collection, Doilies and Pearls, Oysters and Shells, there is an octopus bonnet; again it was a silly doodle I had drawn one day when I was bored and I thought it was cute, so we got our friend Erin to crochet one. It was a joke but like the construction of the Iced Vovo dress, we took it very seriously.

Erin stopped in all the time to test the size, check if the tentacles were too long and whether the suckers were the correct size, and so on.

We also deliberately tracked down the same polyester ribbon thread that nannas use to cover coat hangers, which is another little reference from the time. It has a special bag it rests in so it doesn’t stretch out of shape (under instruction from MAAS curator Glynis Jones); again, it comes from a time when we were just having so much fun, and nothing felt too outrageous — in fact it was the opposite . . . and a stupid idea was a good idea.

That collection was so well received by media and buyers — I think of the crazy ideas and it makes us feel really happy that people got it.

Red Waratah Jillaroo, Cooee Couture collection, Spring/Summer 2015
Red Waratah Jillaroo, Cooee Couture collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Photo by Lucas Dawson.

This year Romance Was Born joined the first ambassadors for the MAAS Centre for Fashion. What have been the highlights so far?
As fashion ambassadors we had a fabulous night joining Australian fashion icons and friends Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson for an ‘in conversation’ event at the Powerhouse as a part of Sydney Design 2015 and the Centre for Fashion.

You work collaboratively with many different creatives on aspects of the design, production and presentation of your collections. Why is this process of working so important to your label? Is there one collaboration that stands out for any reason?
This is something we have done from the start of our business; I don’t know why but it has always felt natural, and we work well to a brief . . . otherwise the ideas are endless.

Linda Jackson was our most recent collaboration and it feels like the most genuine collaboration we have done — she was very hands-on with the printing and the painting of the fabric. She stayed up late sewing with us and she was so emotional at the show that we knew she was as excited as us. It was so lovely to get to know her better and now to call her a dear friend.

Can you tell us about why you were drawn to the work of Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee and what it’s been like to work with them?
I think Anna and I try to evoke this spirit of fashion that you don’t see much anymore in fashion these days. In an Australian context this is something Linda’s and Jenny’s work always captured for us. And other more obvious reasons are that the freedom and expression in their work was something we ourselves have always been so drawn to.

They made such a huge impact on our cultural landscape and that is something we have always strived for too.

The fashion industry is one of the world’s most competitive and demanding businesses. How do you manage the creative and commercial sides of your label?
It’s been a huge learning curve for us and something I think we are really only just starting to get our heads around; it is something we used to resist and pretend we didn’t need to be part of, but when we see people wearing our clothes on the streets, that’s the end goal — the design realised. So for this to happen you need to think commercially . . . sometimes.

Rainbow Reflections of Oz, Cooee Couture collection
Rainbow Reflections of Oz, Cooee Couture collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Photo by Lucas Dawson.

It really has just always been what feels right at the time. Each show we have done has to serve a purpose or communicate a message to the media about our business and where we are at, as much as it is about revealing the story behind the inspiration.

Your collection shows are held in carefully crafted environments where the space, staging and music set the scene, immersing the audience in an alternative world where you tell a story through your collections. Why do you prefer this theatrical presentation over the straight runway show?
We have always said if you want to see pedestrian fashion you can sit at the bus stop and see this. It is so much hard work and organisation, not to mention unbelievable amounts of money (it’s actually ridiculous). It should be a moment of magic and beauty and inspiration; that’s what fashion is to us.

In what ways has your brand evolved since you established Romance Was Born in 2005?
We have really only been making proper commercial collections for around six years so that has been a very big shift. But the essence of what we are on about hasn’t really changed that much at all . . . except we have matured as people and we hope the label has a little as well.

What has been the most exciting project you’ve worked on to date?
That is way too hard to say . . . We are so lucky and we get to work on so many exciting things and even outside the collections themselves there are many exciting projects.

But from memory the first project Anna and I worked on together was making some costumes for Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which we hoped she would wear to their Sydney concert we had tickets to.

She stormed onto the stage in a giant red tulle ball thing we had made with giant eyes all over it. It was such an exciting night and that energy pushed us into working together on future things and eventually starting our business.

What’s next for Romance Was Born?
We are focusing on our slow but steady expansion into the overseas market and celebrating 10 years of business next year.

This article first appeared in MAAS Magazine, December 2015. Access a digital version of the magazine. To receive a printed copy, become a MAAS member.