More than merely stretches of fabric, our clothes are threaded with memories and meaning. Here, six Australian women share the stories behind their most significant sartorial possessions.
“When you perform with Harry Styles, you’ve got to step it up in the fashion stakes,” deadpans Izzi Manfredi. The frontwoman of indie-rock band The Preatures bought this three-piece Christian Dior look – leather playsuit, crisp shirt and stiletto cowboy boots – to support the megastar on his 2018 Australian tour. “I had a lot of outfits but wanted something really special,” she recalls. “And it was: I felt sexy, safe and supported. When I got on stage I could roll around and throw my legs over my head if I needed to.” Following the shows with Styles – who Manfredi describes as “an absolute gentleman” and “consummate performer” – the playsuit braved 45 gigs on a regional tour, during which it was splashed with water, wine and beer. Stepping back into the ensemble brings those memories flooding back, especially given 2020’s pause on live music. “It’s nostalgic,” says Manfredi, reclining in the stalls of Sydney’s Seymour Centre. “The stage is my lifeblood, and wearing this makes me realise how much I’m yearning to get back up there.”
Brooke Lockett is enveloped in reams of cascading ruffles, like Carrie Bradshaw sprawled on her bed in that famous Versace “mille feuille” creation. Lockett’s gown, a dramatic design by Toni Maticevski, takes her back to the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where she stood on many opening nights throughout her career with The Australian Ballet. “As a dancer, there was so much pressure and excitement on opening night, but it was thrilling to come off stage and slip into something romantic and beautiful for the party afterwards,” she says. “I was so lucky to be dressed by Toni, and when I put on this gown I feel powerful. There’s a certain strength and structure in his designs, but also a soft femininity.” The dancer, who retired from professional ballet in 2017, is now putting away not just her tutus but truly spectacular pieces of fashion for her 18-month-old daughter, Violet. “In 2020 we stripped back to what was really important,” she says. “But now I think we all need a little glamour in our lives.”
Twenty years ago, Aminata Conteh-Biger arrived in Australia as a refugee. In her suitcase: this traditional Guinean dress, a free-flowing navy number with intricate white trims. “My mum gave it to me before I left Africa – it was very expensive, but she didn’t want me to forget where I came from,” explains Conteh-Biger, who grew up during the Sierra Leone Civil War and experienced unthinkable horrors. In 1999, aged 18, she was ripped from her father’s arms, kidnapped by rebel forces and used as a sex slave and human shield before fleeing to Guinea and, ultimately, Sydney.
This dress represents her strength and pride. “There’s so much love, tradition and culture in the piece. I don’t wear it often, but when I do it’s very special,” says Conteh-Biger, founder and CEO of the Aminata Maternal Foundation and author of a memoir, Rising Heart. “I feel really graceful; even the way I move and dance in it is different. It makes you carry yourself like a warrior.”
The human rights advocate says that while her dad never recovered from losing her – “He was extremely protective and loving, and after I was taken he could never celebrate life again” – he did inspire her bent for style and sophistication, and since moving to Australia, Conteh-Biger has worked as a model and in fashion retail. And how will her mother feel about seeing this sentimental garment in glossy print? “She’s going to melt – my mum is such a proud woman. She’ll probably sleep with the magazine.”
The clothes we wear on holiday are often imbued with lifelong memories. For Emma Mulholland, this linen minidress is stitched with stories from a road trip in California: driving through cactus-lined Palm Springs, across the dry desert and up to Salvation Mountain. “It was 50 degrees most days – this was so simple and easy to throw on,” she recalls. But the dress – worn here with pants in the matching Happy Hawaii print – also tells a more personal tale. “These were the pieces that launched my brand Holiday the Label,” explains
Mulholland, who previously headed up an eponymous fashion line. “I used to go shopping overseas and bring back all these clothes and then realise they were completely unwearable in Australia – I founded Holiday to bridge that gap.” Notable, too, is the fact that Mulholland’s favoured frock isn’t tied to a special occasion, but rather something she wears over and over again. “Before this, I never wore dresses. But it’s happy and bright,” she says – and a reminder that with the right sartorial choices, every day can feel like a holiday.
Jenny Kee can clearly remember what she was wearing the day she met Karl Lagerfeld. The year was 1982, and she was seated in a cafe in Milan beside La Scala opera house. “I had on my red glasses, a red lip, crochet hat and a collage of knits and silks in my own Black Opal print,” she says. “I was actually wearing the exact pants I’m in today.” The print made an impression on Lagerfeld, who went on to incorporate it into his first ready-to- wear collection for Chanel later that year. “It was exciting – he used the print in myriad ways on 65 garments, from the lining of a suit to eveningwear,” explains Kee. “It was exciting that he was featuring not just an Australian designer, but an Australian gemstone.” Spinning around on set today, the fashion icon feels joy and satisfaction that Black Opal has stood the test of time. “I’ve worn this print for nearly 40 years and it still feels fresh; it’s like my uniform,” she says. “But it’s more than that. There’s my skin and there’s my Opal print. It’s a part of my DNA.”
Deborah Symond O’Neil
As Deborah Symond O’Neil takes her place in front of the camera in this diaphanous Roksanda gown, she is transported to Queensland’s Hamilton Island, watching the sun set over the sea. “I wore the dress to my wedding rehearsal dinner at Qualia resort in 2018,” she says. “I’m obsessed with flowers so the theme was In Full Bloom. Walking into the party was incredible, seeing all my favourite people flowing in a sea of colour.” The founder of Mode Sportif – which has evolved from an athleisure e-tailer to luxury fashion destination in the past seven years – recalls floating on the dance floor and taking a quiet moment with her now-husband, Ned, who fittingly wore a floral shirt for the occasion. Today, the gown takes pride of place in her wardrobe. “I haven’t worn it since but I’ll keep it forever,” she says. “I’m all about getting longevity from my fashion staples, but this is such a special piece I want its memory to be saved forever in that night.”