Thursday, May 3, 2007

Table manners: Gail Sorronda's pretty maids all in a row

I am sitting in the Ocean Room restaurant at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, waiting for the Gail Sorronda show to start. This is the 10th show of the day and some amazing kid with long blonde emo hair whose voice hasn't broken is on a podium singing his heart out.

Given that it is currently 9.30pm and there is still no sign of the show, it's just as well that they have started handing around platters of Thai fish cakes or else I might be obliged to commence nibbling on my neoprene Mac cover sleeve. It's only because designer Gail Reid is so good that people are sticking around for so long. I later learnt that the name of the singer is Tom Jordan and that he is just 13. At first I seriously thought he was a girl. He's pretty damned good.

The audience is seated at a series of tables down either side of a wide "runway" space that leads from the street flank of the restaurant to the Harbour exit out back. The models emerge one by one and step up onto a line of small, white, translucent pedestals/stools directly in front of the tables. The pedestals light up from within as the models stand on them - with a spotlight positioned directly over each pedestal. With the rest of the room in darkness, it's pretty hard to see the clothes in any enormous detail, but it is a cute concept nonetheless.

The entire collection is in Reid's signature magpie palette of black and white: a series of terribly pretty, and mostly terribly short, puff-skirted, puff-sleeved cocktail dresses and ensembles in silk taffeta and sheer silk georgette, several versions of which boast either crisp man-style white shirts with exaggerated collars, or little aprons and bibs with plisse edges. There's a definite Fifi the French maid look to a number of these outfits. There are also some longer, more sharply-tailored dresses and one solitary pair of high-waisted, full-legged black trousers topped with a white cotton smock blouse.

In what has emerged as a signature hair look for this Sydney season - taking its cues from recent European shows such as Lanvin - all the models have their hair pulled severely upwards into tight chignons at the top of the head. They're also wearing quirky little head adornments such as silver cat ears and headbands festooned with crystals.

A number of the models appear to be Asian/Eurasian and this is somewhat unusual for Sydney. In spite of the number of Asians who actually reside in this country, their numbers do not appear to be well represented on this city's runways. Twenty five-year-old Reid, originally from Brisbane, is both Eurasian and a professional model herself. Suffice it to say that tonight's presentation looks a little like an army of glamorous Gail Reid clones.

This is Reid's solo runway debut at AFW and it has been interesting to follow her rapid development. On a tip from retailer Belinda Seper, I recall first speaking to her backstage at the 2005 event after Reid appeared in one of the group "New Generation" parades following her Queensland finals win of the 2004 Mercedes-Benz Startup new talent competition. This time last year, Reid outshone every other designer in her group Ready-to-Wear show - with her brand name stretched across the back of the runway proscenium as if she owned the room.

In September I saw her at the London Fashion Week trade fair, with a book full of clippings and a rack full of clothes. Two months later I saw her at the Melbourne Cup, taking out a place in the pro-designer category of the Fashions on the Field competition.

One international retailer present tonight said the collection wasn't her cup of tea, but no matter - Reid already has 20 stockists in Australia, New Zealand, the US, UK, London, Greece, Denmark and Hong Kong. The Melbourne fashion chain, Cactus Jam, looks to be the next to join her burgeoning Australian stockists list.

"We've been following it for a few seasons and for us it's all about dropping a label into the store at the right time and this season would be the right time for us," said the owner of Cactus Jam, Fiona Petty. "I like the fact that it's clever, it's interesting and it's somebody who's actually designing clothes, as opposed to just translating what's happening everywhere else in the world."

After the show I walked to the back of the restaurant to congratulate Reid, and am directed to a small photoshoot that is taking place on the edge of the wharf.

Reid sits on a bollard, flanked by two models, with the sails of the Opera House lit dramatically in the distance behind the black-and-white tableau.

It's a full moon fashion moment all right.

We have a quick chat before I leave her to the photographers:

The collection was called Bird of Prey?
Gail Reid: I liked the idea of asking the question, who was the bird and who was the prey?

The models were the birds?
Well - were they? They could have been. It's all about the male and female gaze, and the spectator's versus the model's gaze.

Is it difficult juggling modelling and designing?
Well no because I do more designing than modelling.

I couldn't help thinking that all the models looked a lot like you.
Yes well it's kind of Mini Me. It's very introverted and very ...

It is very narcissistic! I'm happy to admit that. But you know what, it's my little empire and I can do whatever I want.

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