Fashion, creativity and rebirth

Embroidered tuille corset and skirt.

Victoria Triantafyllou is a designer who has worked in the fashion industry for over 30 years. Born to first-generation Greek migrants with little education, she was part of the thriving alternative fashion scene in the 1980s.


She became one of Melbourne’s original indie designers, with works held in the National Gallery of Victoria. The established designer then walked away from wholesale and retail outlets to work as an individual in her own creative practice.


Born into Greek Melbourne


Victoria Triantafyllou’s parents met and married in Melbourne in 1963. They both came from central Greece, her father from a tobacco farming and fishing area, her mother from the mountains. With limited education, they left a country ravaged by war and came to join relatives in Melbourne.


Like many others in the Greek community, they gathered in Fitzroy and Richmond. During the week, they worked in factories, her father at General Motors Holden. Their social life rested on taking a plate of food to a friend or relative’s house, where they would sing and dance together.


The first generation Australian grew up in the midst of this Greek community. She learnt to embroider by watching the Greek women sit together during many afternoons knitting, working on needlepoint or crochet. Her mum had great talent in handcrafts. Triantafyllou gained her craft from the skills taught to her by these women. Around age 10 she began to use a sewing machine to make clothes for her dolls.


A suburban social life


The family moved from Richmond to Chadstone and it was a culture shock. Triantafyllou found new connections in the local community, borrowed a sewing machine and kept going.


By age 17, she was making clothes for herself and others, including some memorable green vinyl hipster pants.


It was a vibrant time in Melbourne. The designer remembers how on weekends, all the creative young people would stream out of the suburbs and meet in St Kilda or the city. They would parade in the clothes they’d made themselves. It’s a time Triantafyllou thinks has been lost…


Triantafyllou’s parents hoped she would become a schoolteacher, which they considered a respectable profession and a good career path for women. Triantafyllou had different plans. With her perm and rats tail, she dreamt of a career in fashion. She reflects:


“You have to be strong enough to take your path. To make your path. This was my calling.”


Halcyon days at RMIT


Triantafyllou followed her passion and went to fashion school at RMIT. From the beginning, she knew she didn’t want to churn out mass-produced clothes.


At the end of her second year, she set up a stall at Queen Vic Market on a Sunday to sell her clothes. She made more commercial stuff, but with a twist.


She liked to use menswear fabric in women’s clothes. It was the height of the 80s and her clothes were a refreshing alternative to most of what was available. People were coming and buying.


Around that time she was invited to join the Fashion Design Council of Australia, an organisation that promoted young, independent fashion designers. The FDC organised annual fashion extravaganzas, at places including The Venue, St.Kilda. This drew her into a world of more highbrow fashion.


“People would come and see us. We were featured in Crowd Magazine, Stiletto Magazine” She remembers fondly how she used to find models on the street:


“I’d approach interesting looking women from diverse cultural backgrounds. Anyone who looked elegant.”


Building a business


After RMIT, in 1985 Triantafyllou rented a small studio in Little Collins Street. There were two small rooms and it cost her $65 per week in rent. She designed ‘made to order’ outfits and fulfilled wholesale orders nationally. She started to employ people, though Triantafylloualways did the pattern making and cutting, they would do the sewing. She continued to use menswear fabrics, which were part of her distinct look as well as durable. Designed to last.


“It was a reaction against mainstream fashion and there was a market for it. And it worked. People loved it. There were cleaner lines, it was more classic with a modern edge. It was a lot more interesting than the bright coloured rayon, shiny parachute silk that was out there.”


Triantafyllou became one of Melbourne’s original indie designers, part of a thriving fashion scene at a time of creativity and freedom.


Growing a label


Triantafyllou wholesaled her collections nationally for almost a decade before opening her first boutique in Chapel St, South Yarra. Then subsequently Little Collins St, Melbourne and Malvern Rd, Prahran East.


It was a natural progression to open her retail outlet in 1993. Wholesaling her collections at that time was proving more difficult. She found that businesses would order and not pay, sometimes for substantial orders. She remembers a customer pulling out of a $20,000 order of clothes and the pressure she was under to find creative ways to move the stock on.


She held an open studio from a simple A-board on the street inviting people in.


She looks back, “I wanted to have more control, creative as well as financial, but there was a lot of risk involved. I created a beautiful space, merchandised my creations and displayed beautiful windows. It was interesting selling limited edition pieces. At the time Chapel Street was a major destination and melting pot for independent, unique fashion. It was groovy – the place to go. But over time it went too mainstream and the rents went through the roof.”


There was trouble in the CBD too. Drug culture that kept people away now surrounded her boutique in Little Collins Street.


Reaching her limit


Next Triantafyllou started to get involved in bigger festivals, Melbourne Fashion Week, Spring Fashion Festival, which translated to a lot of high end sales. She also opened another store in Hawksburn Village. She had started to spread herself too thinly.


“I had two young kids. Juggling it all made it a crazy time. I was working within the season as well as a season ahead, creating fashion shows, finding publicity and sponsors. Over time, creativity became less of the picture. There was more paperwork and logistics.


By the time my children were aged 8 and 5, it was getting harder and harder. We were competing with fast fashion coming out of China. I couldn’t see my next move. I was burnt out.”


Triantafyllou walked away from it all. She spent the next few years being a stay at home mum. At first she rejected any design work, though she dabbled in helping people buy clothes, putting together seasonal wardrobes. A friend asked her to make a wedding dress for her daughter. From that process she re-claimed her passion.


After a break of seven years, Triantafyllou now only works for private commissions as a made to measure designer.


She found that she could be really creative as well as able to concentrate on the craft, tailoring, fit and workmanship, making things that you couldn’t buy anywhere else. She made clothes for women going to the races and other beautiful outfits for special occasions . Every piece is outstanding and exceptional. It became a word of mouth business.


NGV acquisitions


Triantafyllou was approached by the Fashion and Textile curators at the NGV to document those key days of the Fashion Design Council. She had preserved everything in great condition.


The NGV holds six of her outfits in their permanent collection of fashion and textiles of which one was on display during the 200 years of Australian Fashion exhibition, representing the 1980s.


Fashion Unites


Triantafyllou has created a bespoke new work for the 2021 Fashion Unites catwalk film. She explains:


“The dress submitted for Fashion Unites draws inspiration directly from my Greek cultural heritage. The intricately beaded, Greek goddess Athena adorns the front of the dress with the words of the famous manifesto championed by the cultural icon Melina Mercouri, Bring Them Back.”


This is a reference to bringing the Parthenon sculptures back to Greece.


She created an additional dress during the lockdown, using scraps of materials that she had gathered. This harks back to the earlier era when she learned to sew alongside the Greek women who had survived the war, and who made do with what they had. Fittingly, the dress was shown in a glass capsule at Queen Victoria Market as part of an effort to invite Melburnians back to the city.


She reflects that the time spent during lockdown away from the busy-ness of pre-pandemic life reminded her of an earlier simple time in her youth.


All of Triantafyllou’s work is sustainable and durable, it’s the antidote to fast fashion. She’s still pursuing the same values she held when she began as a student almost forty years ago.



Watch the Fashion Unites film featuring Triantafyllou’s work here.


Sara Tiefenbrun writing for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

Flourishing forty years after a brave escape

Model on catwalk wears MNDATORY 2020

Brian Huynh is the quintessential Melbourne designer for high-end male fashion. Forty years ago his parents got in a boat to leave Vietnam, fleeing the civil war that was also an international battleground. They survived a terrifying ordeal to rebuild their lives in Australia. Their son’s success is one of those stories that demonstrates all that’s great about Australia.


Braving the rough seas to start a new life


In 1981 a young Vietnamese couple Nghia Thang and Kim Thoa decided to flee Vietnam’s communist government and the civil war. They secretly boarded a small fishing boat from Tra Vinh, a small town south west of Saigon. Then began a terrifying 8 day journey, through huge storms. The crew lost the compass in storms and most of their water. On the 5th day they were attacked by pirates who stole everything of value, but thankfully no one was harmed.


On the 8th day they reached a small island in Malaysia where the authorities took them to a refugee camp. Life on the island was very harsh and lacked basic necessities. But after three months there the couple were lucky enough to be accepted by Australia. They moved to Melbourne and began a new life.


Huynh’s parents were among the 43,000 accepted into Australia that year. It was a seismic shift in policy for the country which had been majority white for many years.


In the early years, when Huynh was a toddler, his parents started a clothing business in Melbourne’s Pran Central. Huynh’s father’s first job was working on an assembly line at Holden. After that, both parents established professions, his mother in finance at Telstra and his father in IT.


Fashion was part of the broader family picture with all Huynh’s Aunties and Uncles working as seamstresses.


Drawn to fashion


As a teenager, Huynh found fashion attractive. He loved the creativity and how the way a person dresses forms a big part of someone’s identity and how others perceive them.


“I was a consumer of fashion. I never considered fashion as a career because, like in most families from immigrant backgrounds, there was always a big emphasis on doing well in school, getting a prestigious career. They encouraged us to become a doctor or lawyer.”


Besides an emphasis on job security, there was an appreciation in Huynh’s family for striving for high quality. He explains,


“Mum came here with nothing. If they were to consume things, those things had to last. She knew how to look at a garment and work out how it was put together and whether it’s been done well..”


Following family expectations, Huynh went to study optometry in Melbourne. During his studies, he realised that the degree wasn’t right for him and he dropped out. It was a hard decision, but his partner encouraged him to go for it.


“Initially, my decision wasn’t received very well. My parents wanted me to have a stable income.”


Following a new path


In 2007, Huynh took a year off and travelled. He started his fashion degree in 2009, switching to part-time while working for a men’s tailors building up his skills.


He was 22 when he first touched a sewing machine.


Working at a tailor gave him an experience in the bespoke made to measure sector. He learned to understand patterns and how they correlate to the body. The repetition builds up craftsmanship.


“I graduated in 2014 and by 2016 the feedback I was getting about my graduate collection gave me the confidence to start my own label, MNDATORY”


Taking the entrepreneurial leap


Operating on gut instinct rather than market research, Huynh launched his own vision.


“Looking back, maybe it was fearlessness or naivety, I just jumped in. I felt there was a gap in the Australian menswear market. A lot of the labels I admired hadn’t survived. There weren’t many brands offering the things I was looking for: high quality, uniquely Melbourne, distinctive clothing. That aesthetic or subculture had died out.”


The clothes are pitched at high earning young professionals who care about fashion and creativity. The start was a slow burn. But bit by bit the label is growing organically.


A culture change


“There’s a growing awareness of longevity in fashion. People are becoming more conscious of where their fashion is coming from. They are starting to ask themselves, why is this shirt only $6? It’s better in the long run to buy something that will last. So that even when they’re done with it it can be handed down to someone else.”


Pandemic proof


A year of restrictions has been tough for MNDATORY. Online sales are less likely for a high-end brand where people want to have the in-store experience.


As things have reopened in Melbourne there’s been an uptake in made to measure for weddings again.


Customers have said how much they appreciate the human aspect of physical interactions. Plus Huynh notes, most of us have put on a few kilos, so measurements have changed.


The pandemic brought limitations, and it was more challenging to find something to look forward to, but fashion is an expressive outlet that people are embracing again.

The designer is still deciding what he’ll put forward for inclusion in the Fashion Unites (virtual exhibition?) but it’ll likely be something bold that captures the resilient spirit of Melbourne.


Reflecting on his roots


Today Huynh’s younger sister works in the business having studied commerce at Monash.


While Huynh’s style is contemporary and Melbourne born and bred, his worth ethic stems from his migrant background.


“I definitely have strong examples to follow. I watched mum and dad build something out of nothing, from sheer hard work and determination.” And Huynh brings that determination to his chosen profession.



Watch the Fashion Unites 2021 film featuring Huynh’s work here.

Sara Tiefenbrun writing for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

Creations of a fascinated mind

Alexi Freeman

Alexi Freeman is a charismatic and talented creative with a philosophical mind. The Hobart-born designer has been thinking about the environmental impacts of fashion for decades. He’s doing a Masters in Biodesign to develop more sustainable design materials.


His ideas emerge from a deep fascination with nature and how humans can harmonise with the natural world. An original thinker, Freeman’s body of work emerged from an unusual background. His parents make an unlikely combination, a Russian Jew from the Bronx and the daughter of a soldier brainwashed by the Nazis. But Freeman doesn’t shy away from complexity.


Early stirrings in Hobart


Growing up as a post-punk teenager in Hobart, Freeman began designing clothes. He started because he was tall and lanky and struggled to find clothes he felt comfortable in. Later he would find fashion embodied his love of art, design and cultural identity.


“My teachers knew about my fascination with making art wearable but no one ever discussed it as a potential career path. Back then, it hadn’t even dawned on me that fashion design was a thing I could pursue as a profession, so I enrolled in art school.”


Once he started designing clothes, friends asked him to design and make their clothes too. This led to the launch of his eponymous label at the end of the 20th century.


A fascination with materials


At art school, another student encouraged Freeman to research Haute Couture and suggested that he may want to start a ‘house’. As the years rolled by, Freeman felt increasingly drawn to that field.


He explains, “Fashion shares creative synergies with art, but  I became obsessed with design due to the way we live with it. We’re not removed from it the way we are with most art.


From tribal cultures to contemporary society, human life is linked to textiles. From the cellulose embedded in the rubber tyres of vehicles to the bristles of the toothbrushes we use to brush our teeth. From people sleeping rough to the most ostentatious displays of wealth. All humans use textiles to protect themselves and engage with the elements.


As a teenager, my favourite ‘blue’ jumper had been washed so many times it was no longer blue. Our clothes grow with us, beautifully embodying the passage of time.”


Daring to be different


From an early age, Freeman embraced his difference. His parents shared an incredible love story from opposite sides of the tracks. His father Jules has Russian/Ukranian Jewish heritage and grew up in the Bronx.


Jules moved to West Berlin to practice as a chiropractor (then seen as an Avant-Garde profession). He fell in love with Freeman’s mum, Ute, the daughter of a former Nazi soldier.


Freeman’s maternal grandfather had been brainwashed and forced into conscription by the Nazis. He was captured by the Russians and sent to prison camp in Siberia. He survived and returned to Berlin. When his daughter went on to chose a Russian Jewish partner, it created a deep fissure in their relationship.


The young couple migrated to Tasmania to make a fresh start. Freeman grew up with three much older siblings. His mother converted to liberal Judaism before he was born. Freeman’s older brothers were circumcised and had bar mitzvahs. But both brothers then left Judaism and became born-again Christians.


After that, young Alexi was allowed to carve out his own path free from religious obligations. It gave Freeman the freedom to become innovative, unorthodox and uninhibited.


He reflects, “Being born in the land we now call Australia it intuitively made sense to follow a more secular path. Even so, I retain a deep love of the Hebrew language and Jewish customs. And the way they integrate ancient culinary practices with their spiritual festivals.”


Freeman is a broad-minded thinker, artist, and designer. He comfortably sits outside formal boundaries.


Freeman divulges he’s never been overtly masculine or feminine, but quips he’s “gay on the streets, straight beneath the sheets.”


A designer in isolation


During this interview, Freeman was in the midst of lockdown in Melbourne. To an extent, he felt isolation suited him. He cherishes a lot of time alone to create, process and garden, before he builds energy to share with other people. Still, the lockdown did take its toll.


The Australian Design Centre asked Freeman to share a glimpse into his lockdown diary. In it, he talks openly about finding the early stages of the pandemic ‘legitimately terrifying’. He admits to minimising contact with others beyond lockdown protocols.


Less is more


For the last 20 years Freeman has poured his immense talent into bespoke fashion.


“When I started my label around 2000 a lot of fashion industry manufacturing was already leaving Australia. My peers were heading to China, Indonesia and Thailand. They went anywhere that you could access lower wages to produce cheaper products. But I never wanted that kind of high-volume outcome for my creative outputs so I went the other way. I began focussing on bespoke. The less I produce the better.


“I’d much rather spend a week, or even months, designing and producing one heirloom piece, than mass producing garments designed to be obsolete within a season. I’m interested in the artisanal end of the fashion spectrum. Things that simply can’t be mass-produced or engineered and with the capability for the piece to grow with you, over time.”


This fascination in Slow Fashion led the designer to a Research by Practice Masters at RMIT. He’s exploring how to improve the ecological qualities of textiles.


Some outcomes have been presented at NGV Melbourne Design Week, MPavilion and the Mona Foma Festival in Tasmania. Another presentation is due to be launched in June at RMIT Gallery, in a group show called Future U.


“I’m endeavouring to make the most ecologically relevant design materials possible. I’m looking into slow methods of food production, such as fermentation, as possible methods of producing eco-relevant fashion materials.”


Reflecting on his work to date, the forward-looking designer is pleased with his choices:


“In my own tiny niche in this universe I feel I’ve made a small but positive impact. I sleep well at night, knowing that I’ve invested my energy into people and causes that I truly believe in. I feel blessed to have a lot of wealth in my life, not necessarily the type of wealth we get taxed on, but I feel rich in experiences that can’t easily be counted.”



Watch the Fashion Unites 2021 film featuring Freeman’s work here.

Images: primary image Alexi Freeman as a teenager, with ‘peyot’, from top to bottom Alexi Freeman, SS12/13 green jumpsuit, orange dress, Freeman as a teenager, a top he made from rags. Bottom three images show Freeman at Design Tasmania for Mona Foma.


Sara Tiefenbrun, for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

The pursuit of mastery

Chris Ran Lin designs

Chris Ran Lin is a Chinese Australian designer steeped in both cultures and pushing the boundaries of male fashion.


What a difference a year makes…


On the 12th of March 2020, Chris Ran Lin was showcasing his 2020 collection at The Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival is an annual celebration of fashion, arts and ideas. A few days later the city’s first pandemic lockdown would begin.


Ran Lin was due to fly on the 20th to China. He was looking forward to starting work on a collection there with his newly established Studio. The trip was put on hold. One year later, the designer has still not been able to travel.


Ran Lin arrived in Australia in 2004. He came with his family, his parents and two younger siblings. They moved to be near family here. By the time Chris arrived, his love of fashion design had already solidified.


The pursuit of mastery


Ran Lin grew up in the perfect environment for a designer. His mother owned a fabric shop where she also worked as a dressmaker. His grandmother was a handcraft artist who knitted and embroidered dresses as a hobby.


In the shop, in Guangdong, Ran Lin became his mother’s little assistant, watching how clothes were put together. In time, he started to have his own ideas for changing and improving the designs. Luckily for him, his mother was open to hearing them.


“I didn’t have any concept at the time about fashion design. I started to think about changing design elements, making suggestions like – you could change the neckline.” He was around 12 or 13 years old at the time. His parents supported his interest and he began studying fashion design in China, before the family moved.


On arrival in Melbourne, Ran Lin had first to learn English and after that he enrolled in TAFE then RMIT to study fashion design. He stood out for the originality of his designs and the craftsmanship which he had developed over many years.


After graduating in 2011, he did a Masters Degree. Later he became a tutor in tailoring, a tribute to the many thousands of hours he spent developing his craft. He encourages his students to absorb the methods


Challenging the status quo


Ran Lin works by hand, stitching imaginative garments that lead fashion trends rather than following them. He’s drawn to experiment with styles and methods.


His designs are truly inventive, “Some elements can come from mistakes. That’s the beauty of doing it myself. It’s more about exploring the design and technique. The final product is all about the process. It ends up with some incredible results you never expect. That’s how I can keep my designs so original and organic. I see what comes up.”


He aims his designs at a group of male customers who are looking for something different. It strikes a balance between modern menswear and traditional craftsmanship. His designs include high-quality fibres and fabrics throughout.


In 2020 the colours were lush, his new 2021 line “zero” looks set to be in more sober colours with softness on hard structures.


Defying categorisation


It’s impossible for the designer to identify the influences on his work because he is both Chinese and Australian and so steeped in the experience of both cultures.


As Ran Lin says, “My work defies categorisation. It has some Asian flavour, but it’s not obvious. It might be there organically.”


He’s grateful for the level of attention his work has received. He thinks it would be much harder to get noticed in China. At the same time, the market potential is huge.


“When I started my label, it wasn’t very commercial. I was lucky that Creative Victoria presented it to the fashion world. They support small labels to get more exposure. Since then I’ve changed the business model to make it more commercial.


But still, it’s been a hard year for luxury fashion. A year like no other. And Ran Lin is waiting and hoping that things will pick up soon.


Ran Lin remains hands-on.


“I still basically make everything myself, at least for the prototype. It’s important that the designer knows every detail of their own designs.


Sometimes, if I don’t have the machinery to do what I want, I ask the factory if they can make a tool to do it.


There are also a lot of new factory techniques becoming available now which are interesting to experiment with for new results.”


Everything is still so uncertain


Asked to reflect on how the Chinese have responded to COVID-19, Ran Lin explains,


“The Chinese look at the pandemic very seriously. Most Chinese are living in larger family groups. They really care about family. They know if they get sick they might get the rest of the family sick, so they are happy to comply with restrictions. They don’t even need to be told to.”


What now for Ran Lin?


“The first step is to survive. Everything is still so uncertain.” Like so many other Australian creatives, the challenge is to hold on until things pick up again.


He’s still working towards Shanghai Fashion Week in April without being able to travel in person.


He’s been hand making the garments here, as usual and sending them through customs to arrive in China. It’s a slow process, but worth it as the Chinese luxury market grows.


He’s still trying to break into the Chinese market, but the reward could be very high if he succeeds. Ran Lin is a designer to watch.


Watch the Fashion Unites 2021 film featuring Ran Lin’s work here.


Sara Tiefenbrun, writing for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

More than museum pieces

Cappellazzo Couture

Sonia Cappellazzo lived the familiar first-generation migrant story. Her parents, who came from Italy, worked tirelessly as a seamstress and a cabinetmaker. She grew up amidst their creative endeavours.


More than half a century later, she’s a celebrated couture designer. She’s the favourite choice for celebrities on the red carpet.


After almost 25 years in business, she sees peers retiring. She fears their skills are being lost. Now she’s calling on the government to invest more in couture so it can be more than a museum piece.


A post-war love story


Both Cappellazzo’s parents had survived war time ordeals before arriving in Australia. Her father, Romeo Cappellazzo (now aged 92) came in the 1950s. He was fleeing a country without jobs and drawn to a city that was due to host the Olympics.


His journey took more than 40 days, he was seasick and began to lose weight. On arrival at 6 foot 4 inches and weighing only 43 kilos he was close to death. An Italian friend, also called Romeo, continued to feed him when the doctors had given up. That saved his life. Romeo Cappellazzo went on to Bonegilla Migrant Camp, before moving to Carlton.


After 8 years, Sonia’s father was ready to return to Italy where job prospects had picked up.


One night before he left, he went to dinner at the home of the Toffolon family in Werribee. They supplied fresh fruit and vegetables to hospitals. On Sunday’s they’d cook up the leftovers for single people to come together and share. It was at a Sunday dinner that Cappellazzo’s parents met.


Cappellazzo’s mother, Maria Valente had arrived with her mother to live with a sister who was already in Melbourne. Valente had typhoid during the Second World War. As a result, she was not expected to be able to have children. Despite that, the two married a few months after meeting and went on to have children in their 30s. Sonia was born when her mother was 36 years old, and her parents were delighted.


The family table


The family were active in the Veneto Club in Bulleen. The children grew up surrounded by hardworking Italian families.


Her mother and auntie were both seamstresses and worked together. The table was covered in clothes that they were working on.


Cappellazzo grew up around this family table, she remembers;


“That table was the centre of our universe… As a child it seemed huge but I later realised it was a small table.”


One of the designer’s earliest memories was watching the pedal going up and down on the sewing machine.


Cappellazzo’s father was a trained cabinetmaker. He found work making luxury tables and wardrobes for a Jewish family in Carlton.


The offcuts of both parents’ work became her playground: “I was always creative I’d make hair for a puppet from the wood shavings from my father’s work. Or making clothes for my small doll with the off cuts from my mother’s designs.”


Her parents were industrious. If they weren’t working, they were growing their own fruit and vegetables. Their family was their world.


A lifelong passion for design


She studied at Melbourne College of Textiles, which later merged with RMIT. Afterwards, Cappellazzo chose to attend a private fashion college in Italy. She turned down offers at prestigious art schools in London or Milan. She always knew that couture was her focus.


“I’ve always really appreciated beautiful fabrics and their quality. My philosophy has always been, when you buy less and buy better, you’ll have it forever.”


As a tall woman (6 foot 2 inches) Cappellazzo understands that everybody is different. She wants everyone to feel beautiful.


“That’s my major motivation. To understand the body, to know how things will fall. A good designer shouldn’t discriminate. The reason, I think, that people still come to me is that I truly love women. I want all types of women to feel beautiful.”


Her designs hark back to the classic style of stars like Audrey Hepburn, Princess Grace Kelly and Sofia Lauren in the 1950s. She brings a modern twist that keeps high profile clients coming back year after year.


There no sign of the designer tiring… She says happily, “I still love it. Isn’t it amazing?”


Reflecting on the pandemic, Cappellazzo sees things a little differently now;


“I’ve always respected my family, but the pandemic made me more aware. We have to think about what we do and the impact we have. The older I become, the more I realise you have to own your history, good or bad. There might have been a time when I wanted to assimilate, but now I feel proud for my parents, proud of my history.”


Support Australian Made


“The seamstresses and artisans that I’ve worked with for 25 years are coming to the end of their careers. We are crying about not having new people to replace them. It’s heartbreaking to lose those skills.”


“My designs are in collections in Melbourne and Sydney. But we don’t want our work to be only for the archives. We mustn’t give in to disposable culture”.


The ‘Made in Italy’ was for a long time a symbol of reliable high-quality design. But a decade ago in Italy there was a growing awareness that the brand had become diluted.


Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior championed a revival of the Made in Italy brand. She continues to vocal about the need for investment in Fashion, to ensure knowledge isn’t lost.


“As in Italy, we need investment in design, garment technology, pattern making, fitting. We need to instil the value of these things in up-and-coming designers. As a country we need to foster these skills.”


Watch the Fashion Unites 2021 film featuring Sonia Cappellazzo’s work here.


Sara Tiefenbrun for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

Finding fashion at fifty

Umi Rasmi

For Umi Rasmi, fashion is an absolute pleasure. It’s where she can express herself and find joy. And it’s the most recent chapter in a life that has been full of devotion to others.


At fifty-two years old, Rasmi has two adult children. When her children graduated and decided to stay living in Victoria, she moved to join them. This marked a change from three decades of giving. Rasmi is a mother, English teacher and supporter of women experiencing domestic violence. It was only after the move that Rasmi made a chance decision to join a course in fashion design.


At her graduate show, the visionary curator Virginia Dowzer picked out Rasmi’s work. Rasmi spent most of her adult life in Darwin. In her work she creates honeycomb shapes inspired by casuarina pods. The curator inspired the fledgling designer to make this her signature style.


The threads of Rasmi’s experiences weave together to create her worldview. Her story is one of finding talent, joy and recognition when you least expect it.


Life in Indonesia


Rasmi grew up in a village in Indonesia. Her father was the most progressive man in the village. He was the school principal, but in his spare time, he liked to sew garments.


Rasmi’s father broke new ground when he tailored trousers for his wife, so she could be more comfortable. This innovation was big news in the village at the time. When his wife became a great badminton player, he introduced her to wearing shorts.


She reflects on her father’s behaviour, “He followed his own judgment. He helped his wife in the kitchen, even though the common belief at the time was that men didn’t belong there.”


Rasmi met her future husband when she was doing traditional Javanese dance, aged 15. Her suitor was an Aussie man. He spoke Indonesian and they struck up a friendship that lasted 6 years across the distance. Aged 21, Rasmi agreed to marry him and moved to Darwin.


Hitting rock bottom


The young couple had two children after they married. They moved from Darwin to Canberra, from Canberra to the Cocos Island, from there to Sydney and then back to Darwin.


Life was not as expected. After a few years, the marriage ended and it turned her life upside down. She found herself a single parent at the age of 27.


This was the lowest point for Rasmi. She had no friends, didn’t have a driver’s licence. She didn’t speak any English and didn’t know about Centrelink benefits.


“I knew no matter what, I would do anything to protect the children. But when I searched for a job that didn’t need English skills, I saw an advert offering to teach English for migrants for free. I did an interview, and I was eligible to join the course.”


She grasped the opportunity with both hands. “Within a year I had completed advanced English as a second language.”


Establishing a career


With her newfound language skills, Rasmi worked as an Indonesian interpreter for the Northern Territory Interpreter and Translator Service.


Later, her former-in-laws stepped up to support her to become a Bachelor of Economics. This furthered the accounting studies that she had begun in Indonesia. And she continued her postgraduate study to teach English as a second language.


She became passionate about helping migrants with English and understanding Australian culture. She knew the skills she had faced and so wanted to help others. She spent many years working with the Adult Migrant English Program.


Next, Rasmi took part as a committee member in Indonesian and Islamic community organisations in the Northern Territory and became involved with the Police, the Family Court and as a Non-English speaking advisor for the Top End Women Legal Service. This led her to work with victims of domestic violence. She became an advisory member for the domestic and Aboriginal family violence advisory council for the Chief Minister of the NT.


Finding fashion


In April 2016, Rasmi moved to Melbourne to be closer to her adult children who had completed their studies. Rasmi had remarried a decade earlier and her now husband and the children asked, “Why don’t you do something that you want to do, rather than finding a job?”.


Rasmi explains, “I was looking for sewing courses but only found options for Fashion Design. I was scared to do it, but I decided to enrol in Kangan Institute for one semester to learn sewing.”


She already had basic skills learned from her father.


“On the course, I learned how to draw, how to play with colours. I found out I like drawing! In the first semester I had to make a skirt. I did it quickly. The teacher said make the matching top, so I did. The set was selected for the fashion show. I was so amazed! I was 48 at the time. The other students were in their twenties and some of them called me mum.”


Weaving Harmony


After a long journey to get there, Rasmi completed her Advanced Diploma in Fashion Design and Merchandising at Kangan Institute in 2018.


Her final school project “Almost Naked” collection was showcased at Kangan Institute’s Empower Fashion Show, with one of her works included in Melbourne Fashion Week and Hong Kong Business Design Week.


One key piece is Jellyfish. She calls the series ‘almost naked’ because the material is transparent. It’s a metaphor for seeing through her life story.


And there’s her inner story, represented by the dress inside. The stitches move around the stress like a cyclone as a symbol of her turbulent life. She used a shower curtain, laser-cut into strips and sealed with heat.


Her latest piece is Weaving Harmony. She uses latticework to make a honeycomb shape. The design is inspired by casuarina pods as a symbol of weaving together different experiences. It’s a metaphor for Australian life, symbolising the strength of divergent paths.


She reflects, “I always like to explore things. I wanted to do something that was unusual or unique. I guess I’m like my father. What do I have to lose?”


Rasmi’s Islamic faith influences her designs which are conservative in style. These modest and elegant garments reflect the often-overlooked brilliance of women. Rasmi hopes to empower other women the way she has been empowered by fashion.



Bold ambitions


During the pandemic, Rasmi began making masks. She sold them in Melbourne, Darwin, NSW, and NT and New Zealand. She uses scrap material. From the profits to make masks for Indonesia where she has been able to donate $2,500 worth of masks.


Before the virus, Rasmi visited her parents in Indonesia twice a year. Now things look uncertain. Rasmi has a health condition that will prevent her from having the vaccine. So travel is out of the picture for the time being. Fashion is a place where she can process and create.


And there’s more to come. The newly established designer has a dream. She wants to create a foundation that brings all her talents together. Her ambition? To teach sewing to migrants, refugees and vulnerable people so they can become independent, too. For Rasmi it seems, everything is possible.


Rasmi says, her favourite quote comes from Kaci Diane, “I love the person I’ve become because I fought to become her.”


Watch the Fashion Unites film featuring Rasmi’s work here.




Note: Umi Rasmi is also known as Umi Sudibyo.

Written by Sara Tiefenbrun for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021