Little goblins: Why are Melbourne scene kids wearing designer rags?

On a recent trip home to Melbourne, I noticed all the hot young things wearing what I like to call “distressed designer rags”: clothes with unfinished or uneven hems, hanging threads and ribbons, intentional holes, and knotted fabric. Of course, older generations’ confusion over young people’s clothing choices, including deliberate rips, is nothing new. But this is not your average pair of distressed Levi’s. It is a distinct aesthetic that conjures bush doof festival fashions, a deranged toddler with a pair of scissors, Mad Max, and Kamala Harris’ stepdaughter Ella Emhoff, who has been dubbed the “First Daughter of Bushwick” for her commitment to the kooky fashions favoured in the Brooklyn locale.

Some of Australia’s “designer rags”, from left to right: Karla Laidlaw; Egg Lemon; Karla Laidlaw.

An Instagram story enquiring about the designers and cultural forces behind this trend elicited passionate responses from followers who declared the style a “trash chic renaissance”; “elf punk”; “Rainbow Serpent circa 2010”; “craft core cyber girl”; “general apocalypse vibes”; and “fashion tree wizard”. Australian labels Karlalaidlaw, Maroske Peech, Die Horny, Sschafer, Egg Lemon, Stella Vendetta and Ramp Tramp Tramp Stamp, as well as “everything at Error404 and Sucker” (stores in Fitzroy North and Brunswick, respectively) came up again and again. These designers’ accounts showcase everything from a knitted beanie reminiscent of the “pussy hats” popularised ahead of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., to a dress comprised entirely of what appear to be knickers, and an embroidered cap proclaiming “sapiosexual”.

Niamh Galea, the Sydney-based-but-spiritually-Melbourne designer behind Ramp Tramp Tramp Stamp and the aforementioned lingerie dress has many friends who dress like “little goblins”. “This aesthetic comes from working with deadstock fabrics or whatever you can find. In the past you’d envision a piece you’d want to make and go and find the fabric, whereas now maybe you’re working the other way,” she says. “Sometimes people will ask to choose their scraps for my g-string and lingerie pieces, and I have to explain that it’s meant to be intuitive and about using what is on hand.”

Sometimes the style is less explicitly in service of sustainability and more about rejecting a perfect, flawless fashion ideal.

“I experiment a lot with dye techniques and prefer fabrics to be distressed and in their raw state. It gives attitude to the pieces,” says Karla Laidlaw, a Melbourne-based designer who makes clothes under her namesake label, as well as a recent project called Hydra Opia. Galea and Laidlaw list labels such as POC Denim, Eckhaus Latta, and Claire Barrow among their inspirations. Others mapped this aesthetic back to a community of VCA and RMIT students that formed around a since-closed experimental fashion and art space called Centre for Style in the early to mid-2010s.

A skirt made from recycled lingerie by Ramp Tramp Tramp Stamp.Credit:Daphne Nguyen

“The rag aesthetic implies a repurposing of materials, which sits adjacent to what was happening at the VCA, where there’s a 20 th century history of the reuse of materials,” says Dr. Ricarda Bigolin, Associate Dean of Fashion and Textiles Design at RMIT University, and researcher and designer at D&K. “For example, “readymades”, where people repurpose found materials to make sculptures. There is an alignment across art and fashion with people working that way.”

While contemporary designers are making rags an intentional aesthetic, they have always been part of fashion.

“Before the start of fast fashion in the 1980s, any normal person had practices in place to reuse their clothes. Your dress gets ripped, you mend and repair it, then you turn it into a cushion,” says Dr. Bigolin.

Designers and consumers have become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of fashion and the fact that even designer items are often mass-produced. This has led to a greater interest in upcycling and small-run production, to minimise waste and as part of a general reimagining of the meaning of luxury.

“There’s a real sense that to have a designer’s hand on something – to see the craft in a piece – is more special than a Prada nylon bag.”

“There’s a real sense that to have a designer’s hand on something – to see the craft in a piece – is more special than a Prada nylon bag. In Australia even more so, because we have such a hard time accessing those high fashion brands compared to Europe or America,” explains Galea.

Australia’s geographical isolation and less established fashion system make it harder for fashion graduates and emerging designers to access the same support and opportunities as their peers in global centres. While these structural factors present challenges, they can also encourage entrepreneurialism. Due in part to conditions brought about by the pandemic, many young designers are starting their own small labels, rather than looking for opportunities to work overseas. Often, they use deadstock fabrics and upcycling techniques out of necessity due to price and availability.

“There’s a resourcefulness from Australian designers that results in quite different looking work,” says Dr. Bigolin. “I think that comes from being on the periphery of more glamorous fashion worlds in places like New York, London, or Paris.”

Melburnians tend to dress with an unusual degree of uniformity, which encourages voracious community support for local labels and popular pieces that capture the zeitgeist. Trendsetters are all uniquely the same in their Die Horny caps and Karlalaidlaw ruched minis. However, these DIY brands are also garnering attention in international markets, with many stocked at trendy stores such as Café Forgot in downtown New York and the online marketplace APOC Store.

“I was just in New York and LA, and a lot of people were asking why these Australian brands are so good,” says Galea. While the international fashion set may be impressed, high-end rags are an acquired taste, and your average mum is not onboard.

“The other week I had a mum and daughter shopping for the formal,” says Galea, who sells Ramp Tramp Tramp Stamp and some of her friend’s smaller and more “raggedy” labels out of a shopfront in Haymarket. “The mum pointed at these arm warmers and asked how much they were, and I said, ‘They’re $400.’ I told this whole cute story about how the designer made them from tulle bows she took off trees after a wedding on her street. This mum is looking at me like, ‘So they’re made from trash? That’s disgusting!’”

As they say, one mum’s trash is another fashion girlie’s treasure. While not everyone has the means or sartorial inclination to fork out the big bucks for handcrafted garb, designers like Galea and Laidlaw are part of an energetic rebirth in local fashion. If you are of the annoying “my kid could make that” school of thought, I encourage you to fire up the sewing machine and go ham on an old frock – distressed rags chic is harder to achieve than it looks.

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