Rare examples of elegance collide
Bianca Spender. Picture: Getty Images

Real "wow" moments are comparatively rare during the punishing runway schedule that is Australian Fashion Week but when Australian model Anneliese Seubert (now in her 40s, she was one of the most sublime couture models of the 1990s) took to the Bianca Spender runway wearing an exquisite evening gown and thick gold "collar" by jeweller Joao Vaz, there was a collective intake of breath.

Two rare examples of elegance - the model, and the dress - had collided inside a darkly lit warehouse space at Sydney's Carriageworks. Inspired by dreams and the elusive mystery of night, Spender's show proved to be one of the major highlights of the week.

"She glides along the catwalk - it's like she's on a conveyor belt, it's that smooth," Spender laughs when I ask her about the casting of Seubert. "When we were talking about the models, we wanted a woman with confidence - the idea that you can look your best at any age. She's a real artist in terms of how she transforms the clothes."

The spring-summer collection has been described as Spender's best - and sexiest - to date. With its long lines, dark colours, mix of draping and corsetry, cut-outs and semi-sheer glimpses of skin, it is both seductive and extremely sophisticated. The daughter of Carla Zampatti, wrote one fashion scribe after the show, "is all grown up".

"I wanted to push into somewhere I hadn't gone to before," Spender says. "I wasn't sitting there going 'Oh, I want this to feel sexy'. It wasn't as distinctive as that. I'd been really looking at draping and tailoring and something a bit harder, a bit more tense and modern."

Her first fashion week show in three years, the designer says she wants all the elements to be in place before she puts her collections out into the public domain in such a high-profile way.

"It's partly because I have two young kids but also because I'm a total perfectionist," she laughs.

"I struggle to do that (put on a fashion week show) because you have to get a lot of things aligned: the right venue, the right music, the right creative director. It needs to be taken to a certain level in order for it to work. I'm the sort of person that would rather do an amazing show every few years than one average show every year."

Spender says it is important to create an entire mood - "a whole atmosphere" - when conceptualising a fashion show. Her models walked around the cavernous warehouse space to quietly meditative xylophone music. It was only afterwards that she learned her presentation had made it difficult for the social media masses to Instagram the outfits.

"To be honest, I wasn't thinking about that," she says. "I wanted people to sit back and experience a mood, an atmosphere. I wanted to evoke another world, a sense of disquiet and anticipation. When we tested the music the night before, I got goose bumps. I am so pleased it really did leave an impression on the audience."

To focus exclusively on evening wear was a bold choice that appears to have paid off. It's always been a part of the Spender DNA but she is equally well regarded for her soft tailoring, day dresses and beautifully cut coats.

"There was a sense of drama with the spring collection; I had this moody colour palette in mind and these darker tones, so it all pointed in that direction," she says.

"I love whatever I do to have some depth to it, to really find a story to tell and a progression of ideas that are feeding off each other and have a kind of synergy. I've always done evening wear but I've never done it in that way before, really examining it and playing with the mix of drape and restraint."

Spender appears to have survived the recent spate of closures and retirements in the Australian fashion industry. Her clothes are sophisticated and wearable, with enough fashion edge to appeal to a range of ages.

Already this year she has opened two new stand-alone boutiques, one in the Sydney suburb of Mosman and another as part of the new Emporium retail complex in the Melbourne CBD (her first store was on Oxford Street in Paddington).

"These times either make or break you; they make you really focus on what you do and they can get the best out of you as a creative," she says of the difficult retail climate.

"If you can ride out the storm, you can really push yourself forward."

She watches closely to see what does and doesn't sell, and says she has noticed a clear pattern emerging.

"When I've made my best coat with the most perfectly cut sleeve I can do, that's the one that sells," she says.

"People want quality and longevity now. It really makes you stretch to the stars and try to make it irresistible. No-one _needs _another coat - you have to make people want to spend, and that's the real challenge."

The West Australian

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