Designing women

Image of Anne Schofield and Vivian Chan Shaw

Anne Schofield and Vivian Chan Shaw

By Caroline Baum

Both are icons of style and attended Sydney University, yet Anne Schofield and Vivian Chan Shaw had not met until introduced by SAM at Zigolini’s in Woollahra. Once the coffees are ordered, there is a delicate question to be got out of the way: are the two elegant women, both capable of earning admiring glances and now holding court at the eastern suburbs meeting place – contemporaries? Tactfully, it emerges that Chan Shaw was a few years before Schofield in the ’50s, which explains how the two women managed to miss each other. More surprising is that they failed to meet in the social whirl once they had established their eponymous businesses. After all, such women were few and far between in Sydney until recently. Perhaps the simple answer is they were too busy working.

Schofield is the more extrovert of the two. Yet while Chan Shaw may be shyer, both share a steely unblinking resolve that has seen them survive every setback, downturn and trend. Beyond the whim of fashion, they have earned the right to be described as classic in their enduring sense of style. Both exhibit a shared liking for flamboyant colour that stands out in a sea of uniformity.

Although Anne Schofield is acknowledged as one of Australia’s most knowledgeable dealers and collectors of antique jewellery, she might easily have chosen a career in fashion. She grew up playing dress-ups among the materials of her milliner mother. By the time she was eight years old she had learned how to entertain and distract clients when a hat was not quite ready for a fitting.

“My mother also let me model her designs and entrusted me with visits to suppliers, sending me to the haberdashers’ warehouses in York Street for ribbon, lace, buckram and veiling,” she says in her precise, clipped voice. Like most girls of her generation, she learned to knit and sew and by the time she became a student, she was modelling herself on French actress and chanteuse Juliette Greco.

“I did the black around the eyes, the long black hair falling forward, although I always wore it back by day. My other role models were the Hollywood soubrette Jane Powell and of course Elizabeth Taylor; I grew up with that National Velvet look. I bought Vogue patterns and made full gingham skirts, worn with a cinched in belt, and white shirts with wing collars; and I always wore high heels because I was so small, even though flatties were fashionable. Around me there were still a lot of young women wearing twin sets and pearls but because I hung out with the drama students (including her future husband Leo), we were a more bohemian bunch.

Image of newspaper clipping of Anne Schofield

Anne Schofield began her jewel- and history-encrusted career in this stylish shop, much to the delight of the local paper

“After I married Leo, we went to live in London close to the Portobello Road. I started gathering up vintage pieces, which were very fashionable and cheap in the ’60s. It was possible to buy original designs and couture for next to nothing. Eventually I had a huge collection spanning the years from 1790 to 1940, including a large number of accessories, shoes, bags, hats and I sold over a thousand of them to the National Gallery of Victoria.”
After returning to Australia in 1965, Schofield started dealing in clothes and jewellery. “At first, it was jet necklaces, ivory, amber. When I moved to Woollahra I started to specialise.”

When she opened her first shop she had so few items to sell she filled the display cases with fans to dress up the space. Her strong scholarly streak meant Schofield always enjoyed discovering the stories behind each piece, an approach that continued when she began collecting jewellery.

Image of one of Schofield’s treasures: from Czarist Russia

One of Schofield’s treasures: from Czarist Russia

“I’ve had to educate my clientele to appreciate the history, rarity, workmanship of pieces such as Australian gold rush jewellery, or carved gemstones or cameos and to go beyond the bling.” She had to overcome a prejudice against the past and develop her clientele’s interest in heritage pieces. This she did with regular study trips to Europe. “I would go to the V&A every year, attend lectures, look at Lalique and other great designers, sharpen my eye, and eventually studied gemology.”

Retail is in Vivian Chan Shaw’s blood: her father imported embroidered ladies’ blouses from China, while her mother ran a baby and children’s wear boutique in Surry Hills, as she had previously in Shanghai.

“With typical business savvy, she saw an opportunity, being close to the maternity hospital in Crown Street,” observes Chan Shaw. (An earlier generation was not so fortunate: both Chan Shaw’s grandfathers came to Australia in the 1860s, seeking but failing to find their fortunes in the Gold Rush. One became a journalist with a Chinese Australian newspaper the other was a providore.)

Chan Shaw was often sent on errands

Image of Sydney University publication featuring Vivian Chan Shaw as a student

Vivian Chan Shaw was one of the University’s pioneer exotic students, seen here in the centre of an international celebration on campus

Like Schofield, the young Chan Shaw was often sent on errands into the city, visiting wholesale suppliers, but her family had other ambitions for her even though, to their consternation, she eventually went her own way.

“Mum wanted me to be a concert pianist,” she says ruefully. “When I was eleven I went to the Conservatorium High School because I was something of a prodigy. But by the time I was 15, I decided I was not that special compared with my peers and I tossed it all away. At Sydney I read music, but then I fell in love, got married in Melbourne, had five children very quickly and then my husband left me, so I found myself a single mother at 30 and needed a job. I was estranged from my mother at the time, so there was no help from that direction.” Under the definition of alumna however, she has been claimed by the Conservatorium.

“Renee Fabrics had several shops selling up market bridal laces, all imported, and I became a textile buyer there. Slowly, I started doing sketches of dresses for clients and that was good for business. Eventually I became the manageress and then I had two firms fighting over me – I chose to go to Cann’s in Market Street, where I was the fashion coordinator, and then I moved to Merivale. They had a total concept emporium and were an important name in Sydney’s fashion retail sector, selling everything from sportswear to knitwear and bridal. They were into manufacturing too, so that’s how I learned about that side of the business.”

In the right place at the right time

It was, both women agree, a fluid, exciting time, “Full of optimism that threw up originals like Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson. We were both in the right place at the right time,” says Schofield, “when it was possible to start with nothing.”

It was however, not a time when starting a business was the norm for women, particularly single mothers.

“When I decided to open my own business, I tried to get a bank loan. The bank wanted a male guarantor and that made me furious,” says Chan Shaw, shaking her head at the memory. Undeterred, she forged ahead. Her first piece, she remembers, was a hand-knitted sweater with a voluminous collar of whipstitch teased by hand into a ruffle (a signature look that flatters long necks and which she still produces today). “I was wearing it and a customer bought it off my back, quite literally!”

Image of Chan Shaw knitted fabric

Chan Shaw knitted fabric

All the clothes in Chan Shaw’s collections are hand-knitted to this day on a domestic flatbed loom, using a mixture of yarns including wool, silk, cotton, mohair and synthetics.

“The moment you produce work on a machine it becomes standardised and I am not interested in that. My customers want something individual and unique. Even a famous knitwear house like Missoni in Italy can’t do what I do, because their pieces are mass-produced. It limits the shapes they can create.”

Chan Shaw has a five-storey house in Darlinghurst filled with yarn which she calls her colour library.

“I mix colours like on a palette and change colours along a single piece of yarn, which is what gives them more depth and interest (the only ones she dislikes are neutrals). I am always experimenting, inventing new techniques. So for example to simulate the look of astrakhan fur on this jacket,” she says, pointing to the crinkling detail on the sleeve of what she is wearing, “I pinch the fabric to create the textured effect.”

The pace is relentless, with Chan Shaw designing 100 pieces in each collection twice a year, inspired mostly by nature and organic forms in plants, flowers and sea creatures. She employs a loyal army of a dozen knitters at her company headquarters in Woolloomooloo, most of whom have been with her for more than a decade, “who understand how to decode my drawings covered in arrows”. At her boutique upstairs in the Queen Victoria Building, 60 per cent of her sales are off the rack ready-to-wear, with 40 per cent made to measure for a clientele that includes some customers she has known for more than 20 years.

“I know how to flatter a figure, to make a hem that flips out and looks flirty on a slim figure and where to put more fullness into the shape for a larger figure,” says Chan Shaw, who rarely wears clothes by any other label and is proud to add that her glamorous daughter Claudia – her business partner, co-designer and presenter of ABC TV’s The Collectors – does the same. She also exports a small number of pieces to fashion retailers in Chicago and London. By far her most unusual client was Barbie.

Overseas fans

“Mattel chose one of my designs for Barbie’s 30th birthday and the gown became part of her international designers collection!” Real-life celebrity clients have included Colleen McCulloch, whose wedding gown she created, opera singer Suzanne Johnston and Margaret Whitlam, while overseas fans include Oprah Winfrey, Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick. Last year, Chan Shaw was awarded the Fashion Group International Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, extending her brand in a new medium, she designed a collection of six vibrant pieces, swirling with almost retina-detaching colour, for Designer Rugs.

Photograph of Vivian Chan Shaw and daughter Claudia in the Queen Victoria Building boutique

Vivian Chan Shaw and daughter Claudia in the Queen Victoria Building boutique

Like Chan Shaw, Schofield has passed on her taste to her three daughters: Emma, Tess who is a respected theatrical costume designer whose work is seen in theatres across the country, and TV presenter and broadcaster Nell.

These days, Schofield often wears Indian cotton pieces by designer Brigitte Singh by day and Issey Miyake by night.

“I like Asian things, they are always beautifully made, finished with attention to detail and they suit my figure, with their quilting and pin tucks. In recent years I have come to wear a lot more colour and only use black as a contrast.”

As for current trends, Schofield says the appetite for art deco jewellery is still going strong and there is great demand for platinum. Her personal favourites are more esoteric and include Indian jewellery, carved coral, inlaid tortoiseshell and rare, carved art nouveau horn.

Too cautious to make predictions

“But this year the market has been nervous rather than optimistic or buoyant.” She is too cautious to make predictions about future directions in such uncertain times but wishes that Australia had a museum of decorative arts, including costume and jewellery.

“We badly need one so as to be able to display the fantastic collections we have that people never see. The Powerhouse has some marvellous stuff but it never shows it and one museum can’t do everything. I’ve given them plenty of things. At the moment I am trying to persuade them to have a major jewellery exhibition in 2012/2013 with my own collection as the nucleus.” (A small selection of Schofield’s collection is on display at the Nicholson Museum at the moment.)

Chan Shaw has donated to the Powerhouse too. “They have the wedding gown I made for Claudia, It took me seven weeks of working night and day to create it using black and white lace appliqué embroidered with thousands of gold beads,” says Chan Shaw, with pride that is both professional and maternal.

Something of a workaholic

She also designs jewellery to complement her knits. “I’ve always collected semi-precious stones and unusual beads,” she says, fingering a smooth jade necklace she designed that matches her sweater. Although something of a workaholic, like many running their own business, Chan Shaw is an avid reader, cook, theatre, dance and filmgoer, but the creative impulse is something she never abandons.

“Even if I did not make things as a business I would do it anyway as I find it very calming to lose myself in the creative process.” The one thing she does not do anymore is play the piano.

Both women are unsentimental about their careers and what motivated them to pursue such strongly individualistic paths, but they agree that they have much in common.

“Both our businesses are very hands-on, very personal and there are no short cuts,” says Chan Shaw.

“And neither of us is in it for the money!” adds Schofield emphatically, at which both women laugh from the heart.

Image of Anne Schofield in her Queen Street Woolahra emporium

Anne Schofield in her Queen Street Woolahra emporium