In an ideal world, Gwendolynne Burkin might be a Parisien now. She might head a globally renowned atelier, might be famous for her lock-down collaborations with the craftsmen and women – the petit mans – of haute couture. Her art – her designs for which I once invented the word “exquisitries” because no other quite summed her impassioned, fastidious attention to detail – would certainly suit a Parisien, haute couture scenario.
But, life’s dice rolled differently for Miss Burkin and her gowns – bridal, red carpet, special occasion, liquid silks, mesmerising glints of bead and thread – are made in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. She does sell further afield, as far as niches in New Zealand and the UK, but Gwendolynne Burkin – both the brand, and the woman of delicate beauty, steely principles and eccentric reputatation behind it – are intrinsically enmeshed with Melbourne’s fashion scene.
Fitzroy is a long way from Paris, but Miss Burkin’s designs have a Parisien lilt so it was serendipitous, recently, when a veteren French craftswoman, a bead embroiderer as passionate about her art as she about hers, knocked on her studio door. “She’s given me such scope, as a designer,” Miss Burkin says. “The quality of her book was just amazing.” The woman had moved to Melbourne from France with her pastry-chef husband and was looking for work but until she encountered Miss Burkin, had found the time-honored labor and cost involved in her craft, hard to market. “Most (bridal designers) wouldn’t be able to justify it,” Miss Burkin says. “Even I can only afford her one day a week.”
It’s one day of deep, joyful absorption in finicky tasks. She is not complaining. She is learning and her work is evolving. “I sit with her sometimes deliberating over maybe five different colours of thread just to create the subtlety of tone in the beading,” Miss Burkin says. “Or, it can take three days, just to come up with one very small segment (of beading embroidery design).” (A segment will then be repeated to create a pattern, or featured strategically on a gown.) ” Since graduating from RMIT 20 years ago, Gwendolynne Burkin has worked as a milliner, a ready-to-wear designer (once stocked by Myer), and evening and bridal designer. Her work evolves as she evolves. “My direction is pure.” In fact, her personal direction also involves lush, exotic costumes and striking gowns worn to complement the peacocky splendour of her friend and creative collaborator, milliner Richard Nylon. The pair are A-list and “I” list in Melbourne society – integral in the rich tapestry of the city’s unique fashion community. The irony is in the apparent simplicity of Miss Burkin’s signature gowns.
Several years ago, she honed her offering, began to specialise in bridal and special occasion gowns. They are renowned for the elegant echos of art deco in their waterfall silhouettes, the subtle light-play across intricately embellished surfaces. “But, when you see (the gowns) up close, you’re blown away by the details.” Corsetry is minimal. In fact, she purged her studio of anything resembling the rib-sucking structures favored by some bridal designers, some time ago. “I don’t like that stiffness,” she explains. “It’s too theatrical I think; it “wears” the wearer, rather than the other way around. Does that make sense?” Instead, she incorporates lightly boning in the sides of each gown, with more offered to women with a fuller bust. “We’ve gotten quite good at that..”
In an ideal world, Gwendolynne Burkin the Parisien might have commanded $100,000 for an haute couture gobsmacker in Paris but in Fitzroy, her prices range from a comparatively reasonable $4,500 up to $13,000 for a top-of-the-range stunner. “No, I don’t have diamonds on every finger and drive a sports car,” she laughs. “I lead a pretty humble life.” But a good one, full of beauty and joy if these images of her current collection are fair evidence. Miss Burkin was creative director for the shoot at the spectacular National Trust property, Werribee Mansion, outside Melbourne. She commissioned videographer Warren Dowley to animate the gowns she labored over so intensely with her new-found French beading and embroidery mentor. “There is nothing more enchanting than seeing the garments in motion and exploring all the different angles and aspects,” she says. “The way the light moves through the fabric as the dresses float is mesmerizing.”
Gwendolynne Salon and studio, 71 Kerr Street, Fitzroy (03) 9415 7687, www.gwendolynne.com.au
This article appears courtesy of Voxfrock.