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Uncommon thread
Lauren Pavlich, Kerry Lavell Cox, Alvin Fernandez and Annmarie McGinn. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

Feel free to call ae'lkemi designer Alvin Fernandez the Mr Nice Guy of WA fashion - he won't mind at all.

He prefers to leave the diva behaviour to others and you won't hear industry insiders say a word against him.

That is a rarity in the small, sometimes bitchy local fashion world. Maybe it's because he really listened when his mother uttered the old line: "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." And he's pretty much stuck by that motto ever since.

PROFILE: AE'LKEMI

Indeed, an early admirer was so impressed with Fernandez's approach to life and design that she was prepared to put her money behind him.

"Right from the very beginning his prints were absolutely amazing," recalls Annmarie McGinn, who with husband Ross, bankrolled the designer's first boutique in Claremont.

"But aside from the designs, I could see the drive and the determination he had. We liked him as a person first and foremost, and we liked what he was doing and decided we really wanted to get behind him."

Since founding ae'lkemi in 1998, Fernandez has gone quietly about his business, designing beautiful garments that women of varying ages, sizes and lifestyles want to wear.

His signature look is the glamorous evening dress but the sort of glamour he trades is accessible. You could don one of his dresses for a gala event, a wedding or the races but you could also wear one to a high school ball or a special party.

He's shown at Perth Fashion Festival, Australian Fashion Week in Sydney, G'Day USA in New York and an international designer showcase in Milan. And along with Ruth Tarvydas and Aurelio Costarella, he is WA's premier red carpet and event dresser. Sporting WAGs love his frocks. Lauren Pavlich, Jessica Bratich Johnson and Kerry Lavell Cox are regular ae'lkemi wearers.

But that's not his only market - the Governor's wife, Tonya McCusker, is also a fan.

"I'm a strong believer in buying West Australian and Alvin's designs are fresh, elegant, sometimes funky, and most of all comfortable," Mrs McCusker says.

"My favourite is a burnt orange, off-the-shoulder creation he made for me that I wore to a charity event earlier this year.

"It's a colour I normally would never wear, but the master wove his magic and produced a gorgeous dress that my sister Nikki has also worn (he's now designing her wedding dress).

"I'm one of those rare females who does not enjoy the shopping experience, so I usually race into ae'lkemi saying 'Help!' and he'll pull a few dresses off the racks and I'll be out the door as quick as a flash. He's always so friendly, helpful and unassuming."

Lauren Pavlich, wife of Dockers captain Matthew, has worn seven ae'lkemi Brownlow dresses and five for Best and Fairest.

"His coats, tops and dresses fill my wardrobe. I love how his clothes fit, but I also love the amazing bright prints and the stunning detail in the beadwork finishes.

"Alvin always appears relaxed and friendly, no matter how much he's got going on. Nothing is too much trouble."

Kerry Lavell Cox, wife of Eagles ruckman Dean, agrees: "He's such a warm and easygoing guy and makes finding an outfit a fun process. He's also very reliable in the lead-up to a big event - he delivers the product stress-free."

Fernandez has slowly and methodically worked his way up since graduating in 1998 as Student Designer of the Year from the WA School of Art and Design (now called Central Institute).

He's amassed numerous accolades along the way, including two WA Designer of the Year Awards in 2005 and 2010, and he's been involved with two of the State's most important fashion events, charity fundraiser STYLEAID and the Perth Fashion Festival, for as long as he's been designing.

Last year he held an acclaimed breakthrough solo show at PFF, which secured him the prestigious closing spot on this year's runway schedule.

Called Jungle Fever, the 2011 show encapsulated everything that was identifiably ae'lkemi: the glamorous eveningwear, the vivid prints, the sporty necklines - what Fernandez calls "a mixture of rawness and polish". Particularly impressive was the show-stopping, couture-like finale gown, a white beaded and feathered creation that elicited gasps from the audience.

Despite all this, the 33-year-old designer is unassuming and, it seems, totally lacking in ego.

"I'm not one of those people who jumps up and down yelling 'Oh my god, that's amazing!' when something good happens," he says with typical understatement.

"But last year's show at Perth Fashion Festival did feel good. It felt like a strong statement of what the label is about."

An only child, Fernandez grew up in Singapore and moved to Perth at the age of 12 when his mother, Irene Pereira, remarried.

His biological father still lives in Singapore. He says he has a very close relationship with his stepfather and feels that his life fully "began" only once he moved to Perth.

"My mum was very brave in uprooting herself because all of her family is still back in Singapore," he says.

"It was certainly the best thing she could have done for me because if I'd grown up in Singapore I would not be doing this. I'd probably be behind a desk doing a boring job."

He believes it was coming to Perth that allowed him the opportunity to explore a creative career, although he didn't exactly have a drama-free introduction to the joys of suburban Australian life.

His first school was Girrawheen High - "the one behind the barbed-wire fence" - where he witnessed fights on a daily basis.

"You ended up just walking around them (the fights)," he says.

"You almost became desensitised, in a way."

After a year, he moved to the even more notorious Lockridge but insists it wasn't as bad as its reputation suggests.

"It was actually there, when I was in Year 11 and 12, that my art teacher, Vanessa Cullen, got me interested in textiles and fashion," he explains.

"I always knew how to draw but I don't think before that I was especially creative."

In fact, Fernandez was actually thinking about studying to become a marine biologist but in his last two years at secondary school he spent most of his time ensconced in the art department.

"I didn't really ever want to go and hang outside," he says. "I just wanted to stay inside, draw and be creative."

When he announced to his parents that he was going to study fashion they were at first perplexed, then supportive.

"For the first couple of years studying fashion, my mum was saying, 'What are you doing, exactly?' I had to prove to her that it was a viable career. Once my parents realised it wasn't just a phase I was going through, they were behind me all the way."

Indeed Fernandez will readily admit that he hasn't done it on his own, to coin a phrase: "Behind every successful man is a whole team of supportive women."

Apart from his loving mother, he cites his design assistant, Yvonne Petrinovich, who has been with him for 10 years, and his pattern-cutter, Julie Calabrese, whom he affectionately nicknames The Encyclopaedia, as crucial examples.

"These are women who can look at my drawing and go, 'yep', and know how to turn it into something that is three-dimensional," he says. "Without them, the label wouldn't have progressed as far as it has."

Annmarie McGinn has also been integral to his success. He met the woman who is his muse, financial backer and accessories designer, about six years ago through his partner of six years, David Langdon, a chef who was already a good friend of the McGinns.

"You know when you click with someone right away," Fernandez says of his first meeting with the couple. "It was like that."

Not long after seeing some of his "look-books" at a dinner party, McGinn asked her new friend to make her daughter's wedding dress and the relationship blossomed from there.

"One day she said to me, 'What do you want to do? We really believe in what you're doing. How can we help you?'," he recalls.

"I put that conversation aside, shelved it for a few weeks and then I began to seriously ask myself the same question."

The answer was that he wanted to establish his own boutique at Claremont's Times Square development, which opened in 2008. From there, he steadily built up a clientele for his sophisticated daywear, flattering evening gowns and natty menswear.

Fernandez says the union has been invaluable personally as well as professionally. "We're really good friends, business aside," Fernandez adds.

"It's funny; hopefully your parents believe in you - you kind of expect that. But to have someone outside the family believe in you in that way, believe in your vision that strongly, it gives you such confidence, a sense of validation in what you're doing. They're like my second family."

Like other Perth-based designers such as Costarella, Morrison's Kylie Radford or Ruth Tarvydas, Fernandez has never succumbed to the idea that he must move to Sydney to make a name for himself. Not that he hasn't pondered whether the grass might be greener on the other side.

"What would happen if I'd started my label in Sydney? Would I be any further on than I am today," he wonders aloud.

"You just don't know, so I try not to worry about stuff like that. You can live in Perth and still get access to everything you want. I can Skype my agent in Sydney. It's easier to be based here and have a national and international presence now. There's no point in complaining about Perth's isolation. If it bothers you, move somewhere else."

This is said, in classic Fernandez fashion, in the nicest possible way.

While others might call him a workaholic - he says he's lucky to take one day off a week, usually Sunday, when he "still goes around to Mum's for an amazing Asian feast" - he believes it's not a negative if you love what you do.

His partner, now head chef at South Perth's Bellhouse Cafe, has an equally demanding job, so there's no pressure there.

"I'm just happy to get up in the morning and go to work and do the thing that I enjoy," he says earnestly.

"I have a lot of friends who really don't enjoy going to work. For them it's just a 9-5. I can't do that; it's soul crushing."

He tried once, working part-time in data entry during the label's early years. As someone who admits he gets bored easily, he didn't last long. He just had too much creative energy.

"He's quite inspirational," McGinn says.

"He continues to amaze us with the ideas he comes up with. He's constantly, constantly sketching, throwing out new ideas. He also gives a lot back to the industry but he does it quietly. He mentors young students and he's always available, whether it's for work experience or talking at colleges. There's no uppities, no drama with Alvin. He's just a beautiful guy, really."

The ae'lkemi parade is on September 23 as part of the 2012 Perth Fashion Festival.