Studibaker Hawk: The party is not over for these 80s dresses

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The US had the padded shoulders of Lynda Evans in the TV series Dynasty, the UK had Princess Diana’s wedding gown but in Australia, the ruffled dresses and ra-ra skirts of Studibaker Hawk best captured the aesthetic excess of the eighties.

Expanding their collection of clothing from the decade of decadence beyond the vibrant prints of celebrated designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, the Powerhouse in Sydney has acquired 22 garments from Studibaker Hawk’s co-founders Janelle and David Miles, along with illustrations, silkscreens and posters.

Co-founders of Studibaker Hawk, David and Janelle Miles, with pieces from their archive donated to the Powerhouse in Sydney.Credit: Wolter Peeters

“The eighties were an incredible time to be designing,” says David. “Kings Cross was on fire and Oxford Street was alive. We just rode the wave.”

They also designed waves of fabric, which cascaded in wired ripples at the bottom of boned bodices, covered in a riot of colour and often embellished with glitter and puff paint, alongside co-founder Wendy Arnold.

Launching at Paddington Markets in 1982, winning a Fashion Industry Award in 1985 and securing accounts with David Jones, Myer and Grace Bros. by the end of the decade, they were the quintessential eighties’ success story.

“But we made no money,” David says. “That came in the nineties. The era of outrageousness was over. We saw it coming but the scrap heap of labels that didn’t is significant.”

“It was the coming of Giorgio Armani and prints were over,” says Janelle. “We made a collection of black dresses and that took off. That’s when we really became a national fashion business.”

“We became serious business people,” David says. “It was a lot less fun.”

For Powerhouse curator Glynis Jones the Studibaker Hawk archive is a rustling snapshot of eighties Australia, where the party spirit of the America’s Cup and the Bicentenary, or even the local disco, required a dress as effervescent as spumante.

“The style of their dresses screams ‘party’,” Jones says. “They’ve got that very corseted bone bodice and layers of frills and flounces coming off it. Janelle developed a technique of wiring and padding that created even more movement and volume.”

“No wonder it became the most sought-after party dress.”

Eighties flashback: Studibaker Hawk clothing in a fashion shoot from the height of their fame. The Australian label is now part of the Powerhouse’s fashion archive.Credit: Ryan Hernandez

After transitioning to more sleek, sophisticated looks in the nineties, David and Janelle sold the Studibaker business and their diffusion line Smith and Miles to fashion business New Twist in 2008. Their adaptability and commercial focus brought success but it’s the post-punk, pre-yuppie, eighties-era dresses that are now coveted by collectors scouring charity stores and online vintage boutiques.

“We were at a vintage fair the other day and there were plenty of Studibaker dresses,” David says. “At the time we weren’t aware of their legacy. When people find out who Janelle is they ask her whether she remembers the dress that they have in their wardrobe or wore to their school formal. Over the period of the company there were nearly 6,000 designs, so it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint.”

The continuing appeal of Studibaker Hawk is easier to understand after Australian Fashion Week, held in Sydney earlier this month, where the palette and textile focus of multidisciplinary artist and designer Jordan Gogos covers the same path blazed by David and Janelle.

“I saw David and Janelle at a Jordan Gogos show and someone in the crowd was wearing a Studibaker Hawk dress. I had to introduce them to the actual designer.” Jones says. “They made art and they made a business. That’s pretty rare and worth a closer look.”

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