Selected to showcase her designs at this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia, designer Valeska Dominguez set the tone for her return to the world stage. After selling her successful jewellery business, Valeska returned to the studio, honing her textile design skills through study at the Fashion Design Studio at Ultimo TAFE. Ultimately creating a collection utilising merino wool and referencing the Opera House’s iconic design, Valeska is determined to continue to champion Australian design.
B-C: How'd you start your label and why did you decide to return to education and TAFE to study fashion design?
Valeska: I started off as a graphic designer and I worked in advertising and then when I had my children I wanted to stay home with them and I decided to go into jewellery design as a way of keeping me creative and fulfilled. I ended up building that business into a global business and selling my jewellery all across America. I did pieces for Lady Gaga and [Katy Perry] and as a result of that I ended up licensing my jewellery brand to a multinational company and along with that came a five year non-compete in my contract. So I thought ‘What am I going to do for five years?’ I thought ‘I really love fashion and I'd really love to know how to make those beautiful couture outfits and I think I might just learn that.’
B-C: What insights did the program at TAFE give you?
Valeska: I'm a really big believer in TAFE. My sister went to Enmore TAFE and studied interior design and as a result of that won a full scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York and my mother was a fashion designer and she used to be a guest judge at TAFE forty years ago. So I knew the value of FDS; it has always been the number one school in Australia and it also really focuses on all the technical skills. Whether you decide to make your own clothes in the future or have makers do them, you understand how to speak to all of those makers and finishers and that is something that if you're just studying fashion and just studying what other people are doing you don't know. I never thought of going anywhere else; it was FDS or bust!
B-C: In creating this collection, there’s a strong connection between the designs of the clothes and the architecture of the Opera House. What drew you to that building?
Valeska: Having been in this industry for a long time, I really believe [Australia] has a beautiful voice in fashion and we're not necessarily identified as that yet. We have a beautiful simplicity about the way we dress. So my goal was to create a quintessentially Australian collection using Australian products and then I thought, ‘What is the most iconic thing about Australia that people around the world recognise?’ That's the Sydney Opera House. You can see the Opera House come out through the pieces, although they're not literal examples, they're all of the textures and the finishes and the colours.
B-C: Did you go back to some of the original, mid-century designs that the Opera House is a part of?
Valeska: Absolutely. When you walk into the Opera House, there's all of the timber matchstick finish on all the walls. I interpreted that into pleating. I put a lot of sewn-down pleats to create that linear voice of the interiors. When you're outside, those huge beautiful grand steps that lead up, I was looking at all those lines, going ‘How can I interpret this?’ For instance, there's a pair of deep purple woollen pants, I had them all pleated and I top stitched them and then ironed them out so I got all these lines to create a patchwork of linear work down the pants and that was to replicate all the stairs.
The hardware on the collection is all brass. I've used brass-plated buttons and belt buckles because when you're in the Opera House every fixture, so it doesn't rust, has been made of brass and I really loved that so I wanted to really take all those beautiful elements that were put into the Opera House and then find a way to make them into fashion.
B-C: The other side of this is the use of merino wool throughout the collection, what drew you to that, not only in the connection to Australia but for its functionality?
Valeska: In 2018 I won the Woolmark Sponsorship Prize. As a result of that they gave me access to a beautiful wool lab, millions and millions of samples of all the wool from around the world being made from Australian merino, so I was able to go through these catalogues and catalogues of suppliers. 98 per cent of the world's [woollen] apparel is made with Australian merino wool because we have the finest in the world. So although we don't mill in Australia — there's only one little mill down in Tasmania left — but we grow the wool, spin it and then send it all over the world to Italy, and to the Netherlands and China and India and then they weave it and turn it into fabrics.
I love wool because, yes it's Australian, yes it's trans-seasonal because it breathes better than cotton and linen and it is biodegradable and sustainable. I want to make sure that when my clothes can no longer be worn, after they've been worn a lifetime or maybe a couple of generations, they'll just return back to the earth and not sit in landfill for the next five hundred years.
B-C: How has showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia this year impacted you as a designer?
Valeska: To be selected to go to Fashion Week was something that I really wasn't expecting and I think it inspired me. I never thought that they'd have a mature age student [in the FDS: The Innovators show] ever. That's another beautiful thing about TAFE; there's no discrimination about your age or where you're from, it's about your talent. They recognised my talent and said ‘You're going.’ Really it's just allowed my design to shine and not be focused on well ‘Who is she and why is she there?’
B-C: How do you hope the Australian fashion industry grows and develops in the future?
Valeska: I am such a supporter of the Australian fashion industry, as everybody knows and keeps reminding us it's such a hard industry but we have such a strong voice. I hope that by highlighting a collection that's inspired by the Opera House and by Australian merino wool and organic cottons and recycled lycras that it will give Australia a voice to attach to, as this is what Australian couture looks like, this is the new look for Australian fashion.
I think it's a very exciting time for Australian designers.
You can find Valeska’s collection here: https://www.valeska.com.au/2019-collection.