Liz Davenport s colourful life
Liz Davenport

"People judge you by your appearance - and your appearance is 80 per cent your clothes."

That's a lesson Liz Davenport learnt as a child in Western Australia's southwest, back when she was running up brown-paper dresses for her dolls on a treadle sewing machine.

And after 40 years in the fashion industry, the Perth designer says the principle still holds true.

"If you don't get your clothes right you are not empowering yourself to the greatest extent."

Well-made, flattering clothes gives the wearer confidence - and the feeling is contagious, she says.

"Garments are actually feelings on coathangers: they make you feel good but they make other people feel good about you."

Davenport, who started out as a teacher, is fond of maxims - and she has put a lot of them into a new book, Liz: A Life of Colour, which tells her life story and her fashion secrets.

"I have no training at all as a fashion designer," she says, "but I have a passion for fabric and a passion for people."

After eight years as a teacher, Davenport took a career leap in the early 1970s to become a fashion agent, representing Sydney and Melbourne designers in the west. One day a Perth retailer told her he was looking for grey flannel pants - and Davenport decided to fill the gap.

When she asked her then opposition for advice, the woman initially baulked - but then offered Davenport the use of her factory and pattern-maker.

The pants became Davenport's "first hot item" and taught her a valuable lesson: "If you made something that people wanted they would buy it."

The lessons kept on coming - with Davenport using the fitting room as a classroom.

"I worked out how which colours worked on the body ... and then I worked out how to work them together for the best value," she says.

"Then I also discovered what makes perfect garments - what makes a perfect pant, what makes a perfect jacket, what to look for - even down to the fact that you should never buy a fabric which will get a sweatmark under the armpit, never buy something unless the buttons are in the right place at the bust point, all of those how-to things."

She engineered her garments to avoid common problems and used that as a selling point, telling customers, "Look, it's not going to sweatmark, it's not going to bruise, it's not going to snag..."

But she says the biggest lesson for any designer - and for any business person - is: "Supply the demand ... Find out what people want and give it to them."

The book spells out Davenport's colour code - putting items together in a wardrobe that is "in a colour palette that multiplies by virtually 100 per cent every time you add a colour".

Eh?

"You've got colours of high multiplicity, which work and multiply very easily, and you've got colours of low connectivity, or low multiplicity, which don't give you much opportunity for expansion," Davenport explains.

Neon colours, such as lime green, have "no multiplicity"; turquoise, cerise, taupe and black have "high multiplicity".

"And you can take out black and substitute it with navy and do any multiplicity that you like - but you can't put black and navy together..."

Confused? You won't be, Davenport says, if you follow the book's guidelines. It's all about "getting the best value that you possibly can (out of) the investment that's in your wardrobe".

In 1980 Davenport came up with the idea of the "miracle in a suitcase" - 22 items that all work together and can fit into an airline cabin bag.

It was inspired by a single day when she had to travel from Perth to juggle meetings in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. When she got back to Perth, she bought a case that was exactly the size of the bag airlines would allow on as hand luggage.

"I remember coming into my office, putting it on the bench and saying, 'How many garments fit in this case?' I could fit 18 in the case, I could wear three and I could carry my coat. That gave me 22. And it was then I worked out what I could do with 22 pieces."

(Recent British research, Davenport says, shows that most people take 44 garments on holiday - and end up wearing only 22.)

Davenport says she designs "intelligent clothes for intelligent people". That might be a twentysomething who makes frequent business trips to Japan, or a mother of the bride who wants something she can also wear after the wedding.

Then, of course, there's the woman wanting to look good for her school reunion.

"That's called the art of looking 10 years younger and one size smaller," says Davenport, who will be attending her own reunion (for Kobeelya Church of England Girls School) in mid-October.

She's thinking of wearing black jersey, "to be slimming around the hip" with some "major colour around the face to make me look 10 years younger and very fashionable".


  • Liz: A Life Of Colour is available online from lizdavenport.com.au and from Liz Davenport stores, $55.

The West Australian

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