Alla Moda started in Brisbane with a vision of bespoke garments for women, made from the best fabrics in the world. Thirty years later, this vision is an institution with clients who pop in from all over Australia to view the latest from Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Erdam and more. The Alla Moda FaceBook includes 'likes' from Chanel, Dior and Yves St Laurent. Not only are couture fabrics from Europe available here, one season ahead, but Alla Moda offers a 'making' service. Clients choose fabrics for a garment that won't be replicated at their next function or, indeed, anywhere in the world! TUL spent time with visionaries Kerri Lee and Jan Tuma who work six days a week in what remains a labour of love.
TUL: How did you come to be in the fashion industry?
KL: I was teaching in the country and quit on a whim. I thought, 'What's my passion? What can I do?' I've sewn all my life, so I decided to open a fabric shop in Ascot. It was 35 years ago and I was 24 at the time.
TUL: So what was that business called and how did you meet Jan?
KL: My first business was Ragtime Fabrics. Jan was living in the area and dressmaking so I referred clients to her. When my lease expired we joined forces and moved to the city. It was the place to be for a bigger operation.
TUL: What draws you to fashion Jan?
JT: As a young woman I went travelling to England. When I came back to Brisbane I opened a business at Clayfield called Jan Crawford Made to Measure. My mother and grandmother were both brilliant dressmakers. We lived in the country, central western Queensland, and these were the halcyon days of the grazing industry. People wore ball gowns and long gloves and dressed up.
TUL: So you learnt to sew as a child?
JT: I lived with it! My grandmother learnt tailoring when she went to England. When I was five or six years old my mother had a client whose daughter was boarding at St Margaret's and they brought a lovely French silk for her formal dress. I loved it so much that I cut a piece off the fabric and made a doll's dress from it. Of course I got the strap for it!
TUL: It was an early love affair if you were stealing fabric at five! What about you Kerry?
KL: My mother sewed for herself, the family and relatives, but I didn't have Jan's skill level. I was obsessed though.
TUL: It was a time when couture garments were not going to be air freighted to Brisbane from London, New York or Paris. What stimulated you to make things yourself?
KL: It was the Vogue patterns. I was fascinated with the garment construction. I'd buy a pattern just to study it — like architecture. Most of the patterns I'd buy wouldn't be used — I was just reading them to see how the garment was formed on the inside.
TUL: So you began Alla Moda at Rowes Arcade in the city in 1984 in a hub of Brisbane fashion retailers for 15 years, until 1999.
KL: Interstate visitors stayed in the city, and country people, so it was more central. It was a wonderful location. We had John Collins Menswear, and Biffi's shoes, and we all complimented each other. Hairdresser Benny Tognini was upstairs.
TUL: Brisbane was a different place in the 1980's. Now that it has grown and changed, those names have been a significant part of shaping the tastes and habits of Brisbane. Alla Moda is also integral to that. Are you still conscious of staying close to other fashion retailers? Is that part of moving to the Wintergarten (1999-2006) and then to Emporium in Fortitude Valley since 2006?
JT: The industry and our clientele are ever-changing.
KL: People are still discovering us. With the closure of the fabric stores worldwide, people increasingly seek you out. Technology means that they can go online and find us. And we have long-term clients. We have done a lot of bridal fashion. Now we have the children, formals, grandmothers, mothers, daughters. Those are relationships we've built up and they remain repeat customers.
TUL: There is a national basis to your business. Is it the quality of your fabrics that make ALLA MODA unique?
KL: We have a lot of clients from interstate. Melbourne has a few fabric shops but I don't believe anybody focuses on couture fabrics quite like we do, nor offers the cross section of textiles. A lot of retailers buy job lots and take the good with the bad. We've never done that - our focus is quality.
JT: We have phone calls, practically every day, from Sydney. They might have a client going who's going to the races and she wears pale blue and she wants a tailored jacket or something. We send samples down.
KL: Then Black Caviar raced in Ascot last year so we had to source fabric to match the colours of the jockey's outfit.
JT: We had another client last year who was spending time in Europe and needed a wardrobe to match the world's best.
TUL: Clearly customisation works for smaller cities like Brisbane, but your clients are also international citizens. It sounds positively Cinderella-like — is there part Cinderella in all of us?
JT: I believe so!
TUL: So what keeps you interested? What compels you into the next 30 years?
KL: It is ideas. Fashion has always evolved. What will be next?
JT: Also being able to answer all the questions. We're very interested in the requests people have - nothing's too daunting. We always offer some sort of solution.
TUL: What industry changes have you witnessed in the fashion industry in Australia?
KL: Instant fashion, disposable fashion.
JT: It hasn't affected us though.
KL: It's a positive. People want to be individual or are looking for something with longevity. The beauty of having something custom-made to fit and using quality fabric means that it will look more flattering.
JT: Also, we are a season ahead. The fabric comes before the garment! Some of the fabrics we have aren't being used by the couturiers until the next season. We already have winter 2014 and summer 2015.
KL: Fabric is half the fashion. Without the fabric there is no fashion.
Events to celebrate their 30th anniversary include a retrospective exhibition of garments, conversations with Jan and Kerri, talks by international suppliers, Art/Design installations and a Fashion design competition. For details follow Alla Moda on Facebook.
TUL Note: Louise Martin-Chew is a freelance writer (and director of art consultancy mc/k art). She prefers Prince Charming's tuxedo to Cinderella's powder blue frock, but would love it to be made with black silk and Givenchy lace from ALLA MODA'S latest collection, due to land in April.