From The Advertiser, Up close and personal with George Gross and Harry Who, by David Penberthy:
THE lady in the store was insistent. She loved the dress. It was superb. It was just overpriced.
People didn't pay that sort of money for clothes in Adelaide. She'd wait, and buy it when it was reduced in the sales.
But the dress would never be reduced. It would also never be worn.
Harry Watt can finish the story.
"There was one outfit of George (Gross)'s which was absolutely fantastic and this woman was desperate to have it," Harry says. "She would come in once a week, once a fortnight, she just kept trying it on all the time. The price was always the same.
"She was in again one Friday and came up to George with the dress in her hand, and George said to her, 'Madam that really does look fantastic on you, tell me, are you buying it today?' And she said, 'No, no, I'm waiting for that sale that's going to make me buy it.'
Back in 1967, two blokes met at the South Australian Hotel in Adelaide. George Gross, 24, was a Hungarian refugee who had arrived in Australia at 14. He designed his first gold-sequinned sheath dress at six and started selling his designs at 15. Harry Watt, 30, was a travel agent who had developed a love of adventure during a stint in the navy. They became a couple and a few years later, in partnership with Gross's twin sister, Kathy, they started the fashion labels George Gross and Harry Who.
"And George said: 'Madam, I am sorry but that dress is never going to be on sale.'
She said, 'Yes it will, no one in Adelaide would ever pay that price'. And George just looked at her and told her that he would sooner burn the dress than reduce the price.
"And the lady laughed and said 'Oh, no you wouldn't'. So George got out his cigarette lighter and set it alight."
It wasn't meant as an act of cruelty. Rather, it was a dramatic attempt to educate shoppers that they had to appreciate quality and craftsmanship, by two men who were so passionate about their work that they would rather see it destroyed than devalued.
The date was August 7, 1973, back when Rundle Mall was still a street, when dresses were sold in "frock shops" and the only balls in town were at the Adelaide Oval.
Two young men, a Hungarian immigrant called George Gross, and a former naval officer and travel agent called Harry Watt, had just launched their own fashion revolution.
It would start in Rundle St, opposite where Bert Flugelman's chrome sculpture now stands, and eventually spread across the world, with outlets in New York, London, Dallas and Scandinavia, shows at the Sydney Opera House with Gianni Versace and Donna Karan, collections sought and bought by Princess Diana, Elle Macpherson and Joan Collins.
Throughout this lifelong global journey, George Gross and Harry Watt have continued to call Adelaide home.
Right up to today, when we meet them at their sensational home on the Henley Beach esplanade which they share with a white shitzu-maltese terrier cross called Bobby, who like any good fashion victim actually leaps on to the couch and holds his pose when our photographer gets his camera out.
George and Harry are not the type of South Australians who believe you have to "get away" to succeed, even in an industry as specialised as theirs. On the contrary, being based in Adelaide was central to their success.
It provided a perfect test market for their now iconic brand, a manageable business and manufacturing base, and a place to escape the chaos of interstate and international expansion.
For George, home was originally Hungary, which he left as a 13-year-old after the 1953 Soviet invasion, settling with his refugee parents and sister in Sydney's eastern suburbs and attending Randwick High School.
"The phrase wasn't used back then but the eastern suburbs were very multicultural," George says. "I never felt any discrimination or any putdowns for being a foreigner, not one.
"It was just good fun."
As a boy in Hungary, George had grown up on a cinematic diet of American romantic dramas, the few films which were permitted by the communist censors.
He became obsessed with screen siren Rita Hayworth, and from the age of five, would sit in his room sketching evening gowns in the style of 1940s Hollywood glamour.
On the other side of the world, in Adelaide, a young Harry was also imagining a career in fashion, as a designer of high-end menswear, but his life would initially take him in a different direction. The pair would not meet until 1967 at the now-forgotten South Australian Hotel, a grand old pub opposite State Parliament on North Tce, the site of what is now the Stamford Plaza Adelaide. George had been running the Miss Shop for Myer, which was then the hottest thing in the Australian fashion industry.
Harry had just emerged from a fledgling career in the navy which instilled in him a love of travel.
"It was the height of the Cold War and I remember Mum was crying when I left, but by God it was fun," Harry says.
He served on aircraft carriers, doing night watch and driving the ships, and his service was such that he was urged by the navy brass to make a career of it.
But after his first trip abroad, sailing to Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila, Harry decided to leave the defence forces and become a travel agent, in no small part because agents were then given two or three free overseas trips a year.
It was a happily fateful change of career. Soon enough, he was standing at the bar at the South Australian Hotel at a tourist industry social night where a friend introduced him to George, in town on a marketing trip.
The pair hit it off straight away.
George was already progressing in the fashion industry, and Harry wanted to follow his boyhood dream and start working in the rag trade right away. In his own laconic way, Harry says: "It was simple really. George got sick of working for someone and so did I. We decided to start our own business."
George moved to Adelaide in June, 1968, when the Western world was in the grip of revolution, and they started planning their own revolution.
The speed with which their twin brands - George Gross and Harry Who - were embraced locally and able to expand interstate and abroad can best be attributed to their steadfast shared vision. They are united by an obsession with cut - "the architecture of clothing" as George describes it - coupled with what Harry describes as an almost tedious commitment to working and reworking an outfit until it is perfect.
"You really have no idea how often you might work over and over and over on a style until you get it absolutely right, and that's what makes the difference," Harry says.
The other edge they had was that, unlike some in the fashion industry with a disregard for the conventional female body shape, George and Harry do not think that women should conform to punishing stereotypes.
They are proud of the fact that their clothes make women who are not "perfect" look like a million bucks.
"I won't mention any names," George says, "but sometimes I will be watching a newsreader on television, and she can be looking really middle-aged and frumpy, or blowzy and fat, and the next night she will be wearing one of our jackets and she will look trim and modern and youthful.
"I'm not skiting, it's just about having an understanding of a woman's body, and an understanding of where cut can enhance the good points and camouflage the bad points."
The first challenge they had was to explain this vision to the women of Adelaide at the start of the 1970s.
This was a time when people were still staid and conservative in their fashion tastes, and resistant to more high-end pricing.
But with the exception of that one dramatic incident involving a cigarette lighter, the conversion was swift.
It worked because the clothes were unlike anything Adelaide had seen locally. It also worked because they made the act of shopping an event.
"It was the first really smart boutique in Adelaide," George says. "There were lots of frock shops but nothing like what we did.
"My sister became a partner with us and the three of us, with very little money, we pooled our meagre resources and built a shop in Rundle St where Johnnies (John Martin's department store) used to be, opposite where the silver balls are today. It was a two-storey building with a narrow shopfront.
"We clad the front in brass sheeting; it looked so elegant and beautiful and modern that it stopped traffic. We had spent weeks and weeks working out the budgets and on the very first day we opened the door, we did a week's budget.
"Women were saying, 'Oh this is so fabulous, it's like being in Europe, the shop is so different to anything else which is here'."
Harry says the shop injected a bit of vim and zip into the city and became a bit of a source of state pride. "I think the reason we had so much early success in Adelaide is at that stage, ladies used to go to Melbourne to buy their clothes," Harry says. "If they knew that they were being as good or better from us then they would save themselves the airfare."
The Adelaide store was up and running so fast and smashing its budgets that moving interstate was the obvious next step.
"Sydney worked very well immediately," Harry says. "We were selling to department stores and it just grew.
"We were doing something modern and they just liked it. We ended up with a full collection to be marketed across Australia and that's how the national business started."
As their brands took off, the business grew and grew. They had an agent in Dallas, were opening stores and outlets in Europe and the US, and across Australia's east coast.
They enjoyed terrific magazine publicity in New York. George remembers going to Saks of Fifth Ave and seeing one of their outfits on display. He inquired as to whether they had any more, but they had sold out.
In London, they attended the launch of a fragrance by actress and author Joan Collins, but it was Collins who sought them out, asking if she could attend the launch of their collection at Harrods the following day.
Not long after, Harry got a phone call from their London agent. Princess Diana had been to the famous London store after hours and bought six items from their Harrods collection.
"I designed a particular group that somehow or other looked a bit safari and she bought six pieces because she was going to South Africa for a holiday," Harry says.
"The agent rang me at two o'clock in the morning screaming "Guess what, guess what, guess what!"
Both George and Harry were massive fans of the late Princess. Indeed, their affection for Diana manifested itself in some disdain for Camilla, who was described by Harry in a Sunday Mail article on the occasion of her 2005 wedding to Prince Charles as "looking like Danny La Rue going to the races".
He also sketched an outfit for Camilla, a sort of equestrian dominatrix chic - patent leather boots, black sequined jodhpurs, a black top hat as a riding hat, and a diamond horseshoe tiara and black veil flying behind her.
"She was on the horse riding down the sunset towards Charles," Harry says. "Looked terrific."
The high point of their career also involved the late Princess.
George was lucky enough to meet her and Prince Charles in the late 1980s when they were invited to show their collection at the Sydney Opera House with the world's top fashion designers. It was just one of many honours in a career which has seen their respective labels win 13 Australian fashion design awards, yet bizarrely, no Order of Australia, despite their tremendous and lasting influence on the industry.
Today, while they still sell strongly overseas, they have concentrated instead on consolidating their Australian business.
The demands of their overseas work and the constant travel had eventually started to take a bit of a toll on the pair.
"It had to stop," Harry says. "We were travelling non-stop. It was impossible to do 13 collections a year and then go to all these places."
Now beyond the age at which most people retire (George is 69, Harry 75), they still have a work ethic which puts most youngsters to shame. George and Harry put this down to personality, where as creative people, the urge to keep making things and following through on ideas is so central to their make-up that it is hard to imagine just stopping everything.
Harry now paints. He's only been doing it for a couple of years and his paintings look great.
Their Henley Beach home has three on the loungeroom wall - all stylised landscapes - a yellow paddock on the way to the Barossa Valley, a neighbour's house at Henley on an overcast day, a view east to the Adelaide Hills.
George spends more and more time reading.
He is up with current affairs and enjoys politics.
"I am quite conservative," he says.
"But I am also pro-union, as long as unions are used for the betterment of workers' conditions, you know, not for lining up hookers."
They love their life, and they love their life together. For this is obviously a love story.
They have been together since they met in 1967.
But there will be no schmaltz or soppiness from them. "We've been together 45 years," George says.
"Do you get a medal for that?" Harry asks.
Despite this lifelong relationship, they aren't about to immerse themselves in the current debate over gay marriage, and aren't even sure if they support it.
They went to a gay wedding once, at Carrick Hill, where the grooms urged guests to wear chiffon and pastel and were "married" in the style of the American South, all parasols and juleps.
It's not for them.
"I don't really like talking about gay marriage, it's such a fraught topic," George says.
"In the scheme of things, there are other issues which are much more pressing.
"My personal view is that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, if a man wants to marry a man or vice versa, then so be it, but I am not saying it is a necessity or an essential.
"Harry and I are living proof that we have been living together very happily for 45 years."
George smiles at his partner and says: "Just imagine Harry, we could do a Zimmer frame wedding." "No way," Harry replies.
Australian Fashion Unstitched: The Last 60 Years by Bonnie English and Liliana Pomazan
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (May 10, 2010)
Amazon: Australian Fashion Unstitched: The Last 60 Years
Australian Fashion Unstitched provides a compelling and authoritative survey of the myriad influences and attributes of Australian fashion over the last sixty years. This post-war period saw Australia's fashion industry come of age. The word couturier became part of the Australian lexicon and glamorous Paris catwalk shows graced our shores, showcasing overseas styling to large audiences in our major cities. Displaying pride in our nationhood and paying tribute to our heritage, our young and emerging designers, in turn, embarked upon a long, sometimes arduous journey to offer Australian fashion to the world. Unique indigenous textile design, cutting-edge swimwear, and fresh interpretations of global trends infiltrated the international marketplace, sustaining and bolstering the trademark of Australian design. Australian Fashion Unstitched narrates this fascinating story through the eyes of the designers themselves, as well as the journalists, academics, fashion photographers and museum curators who represent this vibrant industry.
More Fashion Designers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
More Real Life Romances at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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