PEARLS. On the first day of her VCE product design course last year, that was all Anna Kentwell knew about the project that was going to monopolise her time and energy for six months. It would feature pearls.
Today the work she created is part of Top Designs 2013, an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum of outstanding works by VCE design students. Anna happily admits that from first to last it was an amazing journey. It wasn’t just about the principles of design, although she learnt so much of that; it was also a journey of self-discovery.
The first step in the design process for the Wonthaggi Secondary College student was to write a brief for herself.
“I did drama and all those creative subjects,” she says. “I like characters in stories. I’ve always liked the idea of costume design because it looks at enhancing character.” So the project would preference costume design over fashion.
Her brief evolved. The client, a fictitious pearl company, wanted a garment studded in pearls, one that would show off their natural beauty. “Pearls,” she mused: “marine setting, beach elements ...”
The research phase harnessed the energies of her parents. “I love design of all sorts,” says Richard Kentwell, her dad. “It was a chance to get involved on the periphery, to encourage her to think a little left field.” They went to the beach to collect materials for inspiration and came back with a sack full of stuff: shells, seaweed, bits of detritus. “We discussed wild ideas, almost totally impractical but who knows?”
They sourced fabrics. Anna practiced dyeing on small bits of material. She read; she experimented. Wanting the pearls to nestle in flowers of ‘coral’, she practised cutting fabric into strips, coiling each strip then stitching a pearl into the middle of each coil. Out of this research phase came her first drawings. “It was fun looking at all the designs she came up with, asking how things would work,” Richard says.
After a lengthy process of elimination the final design was committed to. The upper dress was to represent a shell, the middle section sand and coral, and the skirt seaweed. A demanding three-month construction phase began, overseen by a production plan and requiring the recording and photographing of each step along the way. Anna’s mother, Helen, who had taught Anna how to sew, admires her daughter’s perseverance. “She made 270 of those coral flowers,” she says.
And she took risks. One of the biggest was the day she wrapped the skirt fabric around onion peel and rusty metal, tied it into a big ball and, fingers crossed, threw it into a pot to boil for a few hours. Anna elaborates: “It was difficult because the colour had to fade out into a white fabric. I didn’t have much control. I just had to trust that it would work.”
When she lifted it out of the pot and unravelled the bundle, she knew that it had. The colours and patterns were perfect.
There were constant changes of direction. Because she was running out of time, Anna decided beads would be quicker than making up the additional coral flowers she needed. In fact it took longer. “I’d never beaded anything before. It took me ages to cover all that space.” She’d stay at home bent over the dress while her mum and dad combed the world on bead expeditions and tracked down beautiful silks in an old Victorian terrace in Fitzroy..
Then there was the heavier-than-expected bodice. Anna solved the problem by threading two strings of pearls along fishing wire and running them from the bodice over the back. “You learnt the rules as you went,” she says.
The unique garment that emerged from this long process of trial and error was photographed at Cape Paterson by a team of Anna’s school friends. Brittany Watters modelled the dress, Holly Parker was the photographer and Caleb Hooke the artistic director. Anna for the most part was able to stand back and watch. “I let Holly go for it. I trusted her to get it right.” Although she did share one important role: “We’d throw the skirt up and then run out of the picture.” She laughs.
The photo shoot was a standout moment for her dad. “It was wonderful seeing them out on the rocks working on that task,” Richard says. “I was proud of them. They were all so passionate about the project even though it wasn’t their particular gig.”
Anna learnt so much from the experience. “Seeing it come from the paper, it looks so much better than the drawings. It was really satisfying learning what worked, what didn’t. I like the colours, the shapes. Using onion skin and metal as dyes worked really well. I like the femininity of the dress and the way it belongs to the beach. Everything in the frame works together. It’s confirmed for me that I would really enjoy a career in costume designing.”
Anna is taking a year off before she takes on a one-year design course at Swinburne. Shortly she’ll travel to Europe, planning to meet up with her parents in Italy and then travel to Greece and India together. She’s chosen India in part to experience a radically different culture, in part to visit the markets and see all those amazing colours.
So the design process opens out to new horizons. “This dress has been a part of our lives for a long time,” Helen says.
Top Designs is at the Melbourne Museum until June 30.