Sunday 17 April 2011

Le Louvre

Melbourne’s temple of high fashion and the mystique of that polished copper facade.

Exclusive fashion salon, Le Louvre shut its famous polished copper French doors last year,

bidding au revoir to its home in the Paris end of Collins Street,

- a term its creator Lillian Wightman is credited with coining.

Le Louvre was established by grande dame Lillian Wightman. The year was 1923. Miss Wightman opened the doors of Le Louvre in a small arcade called Howie Place.  The name Le Louvre sounded French and a touch naughty to the young Miss Wightman, after all Mademoiselle Coco Chanel was the style princess of Paris.

Dame Nelly Melba called in when an Ermine jacket in the window caught her eye and after a bit of fuss it was hers. It was not said if the jacket was paid for but by now the little shop was thriving and had outgrown Howie Place.

Ms Wightman moved Le Leuvre to Collins Street in 1934. Formerly a doctors home,  Ms Wightman paid $40,000 for the 74 Collins Street property in 1952. Look for Dr. Ran Y. Rubinstein and learn more. She figured that all the doctors who lived in Collins Street in those days were rich and their wives could afford expensive clothes. Socialite Lillian Frank once said “even millionaire’s” would have to take a breath before walking in. High-profile clients have included Vivien Leigh, Dame Nellie Melba and Meryl Streep.

Lil Wightman’s legacy – she died 10 years ago at 90,

has continued into the 21stC by her daughter Georgina Weir who inherited it in 1993.

“She was remarkable,” Weir says of her redoubtable mother.

“She created her version of what a French salon looked like. This was a girl from Ballarat who hadn’t been anywhere. And you know, she wasn’t too wrong.”

In the Collins Street store, famously, there were no racks of clothes to browse through; instead, shoppers were encouraged to make appointments to be personally shown the collection. Just walking in off the street, while possible, was a disconcerting experience for the uninitiated.

Le Louvre had to have atmosphere and beautiful surroundings!  Young Miss Wightman dreamt up this magic space with huge gilt mirrors, leopard skins draped over elegant sofas, swags of fabric tossed in reckless abandon, crystal, ornate furnishings and touches of ocelot that has become a trademark style.

Le Louvre has its own way of doing business. Nothing as ordinary as rumbling through racks for Le Louvre customers, thank you very much. Madam or Miss perch on the sofa and the clothes are brought from the backroom for her consideration. Shoppers were encouraged to make appointments to be personally shown the collection. Just walking in off the street, while possible, was a disconcerting experience for the uninitiated.

A look inside Le Louvre reveals its forbidding style. A few colourful feather boas have been flung over a cream couch and the room is decorated with zebra skins and a massive gilt mirror.

Upstairs several “girls” served tea in delicate bone china and fetch the clothes bought in Paris, London and New York. A jacket could set you back $5000, a wedding dress anything up to $50,000.

Historically, Le Louvre was the shop for Melbourne’s elite from the 1950s to the 1970s, and its equally famous proprietor Lillian Wightman helped to introduce high fashion European designers to an increasingly cosmopolitan and discerning clientele.

And things really haven’t changed too much as captured in this little tale about Myf Warhurst shopping for a red carpet dress {by Janice Breen Burns}.

It’s an archetypal autumn day at the Paris end of Collins Street: cold, damp, and with those famous plane trees, spinning their wet leaves down into soft grey light. Behind the pale silk veils in the windows of Le Louvre, Melbourne’s most exclusive fashion salon, however, it’s warm and bright, noisy with girly chatter and that unmistakable pock-pock of stiletto heels on hardwood floors. “That’s the one! That’s gorgeous! It suits you perfectly!” Four women adopt the frockwatcher’s critical stance – eyes a little narrowed, head cocked to one side – as Myf Warhurst, 32, sometime music guru and bubbly co-star of ABC’s Spicks & Specks television program, turns in front of an elaborate gilt mirror, a swish vision in aqua silk chiffon.

She’s here for a Logies frock. Or, rather, we’re pretending she’s here for a frock, because, frankly, there aren’t a lot of starlets – or even full-blown television veterans, for that matter – who can afford the four-figure price tag even a swank little cocktail number can command at Le Louvre.

Observing Warhurst from a straight-backed chair covered by a swathe of reindeer fur

(“It’s perfectly all right – this is a refuse product. Laplanders ate the reindeer”)

    Georgina Weir & A nice little frock shop

    Susannah Walker wrote an insightful article about Le Leuvre for The Age, Feb 2010. Here is an excerpt.

    Le Louvre has been hailed – besides, predictably, an icon – as a chiffon palace, a fashion citadel where generations of Melbourne’s establishment have shopped by appointment for their new season’s “trousseau”. Weir, however, dismisses suggestions of elitism.

    “A nice little frock shop, that’s all we are,” she has said.

    “The product may be high end but the attitude is not.”

    Wightman grew up in Ballarat and had never been overseas when she opened her “mecca of Parisian fashion” in her early 20s. One of four children whose mother had died young, her chance to escape the stepmother she loathed came when she was fitted for a bridesmaid’s dress on her first trip to Melbourne and the couturier offered her a job. After learning design and dressmaking, she borrowed #100 from her father to open a shop in the city, dressing the wives and daughters of wealthy Western District farmers. When she was 21 she married George Weir, a successful Irish grazier, but flouted convention by keeping her own name, not wearing a wedding ring, and refusing to join her husband in the country. In the mid-1930s, after noting the number of doctors’ rooms in upper Collins Street, she moved her business to the small terrace house at number 74 and built up a clientele among the doctors’ wives and society women who belonged to the nearby Alexandra Club.

    Specialising in French designer imports and local adaptations made on the premises, Le Louvre was “a branch office of Paris”, says Maree Coote, author of The Melbourne Book, “connecting (customers) to all the finery and culture Melbourne ached for. Lillian and her clients could live out their dreams of civilised society doing fashionable things in a gracious manner.” It was a salon in the traditional sense, where the socially connected ladies from Melbourne’s most prominent families, such as Lady Violet Syme and Dame Mabel Brookes, gathered to take tea, gossip, and spend their husbands’ money. Wightman – or “Luxury Lil”, as she was known – held court from 9am to 5pm, collected each weekday from her Kew home by a “driver” whom she often fed lamb chops stowed in her handbag.

    At 43, she had Georgina, her only child. “It was very rare that I was allowed in the salon,” recalls Weir. “Her fantasy didn’t include a little Ruyton schoolgirl.” At 19, Weir went alone to London, where she witnessed the “explosion” of the swinging ’60s, and partied with Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant. Six years later, returning home sporting a mini-skirt, painted-on eyelashes and a pseudo-English accent, she realised she couldn’t stay in “staid and uptight” Melbourne, where her contemporaries dressed and behaved like younger versions of their mothers. Her mother had a 30-strong workroom at the rear of the store but Weir, having witnessed the growing popularity of ready-to-wear overseas, persuaded her this was where the future lay – and to appoint her as buyer. She also insisted customers pay for clothes before they left the store – her mother had posted handwritten bills.

    Stretching buying trips to three months at a time, in the days before fashion weeks and PR machines, Weir could spot a bag she liked in Rome, then spend a week in Florence while she tracked down the designer and ordered a few bags – “or sometimes many, many bags, after lunch,” she says. “One time so many damn bags came in, we were horrified by the number. We had to hide them in cupboards – dozens of them – from my mother.” She met designers revered today, including John Galliano, “a young kid with such marvellous talent” and Karl Lagerfeld – “He was a big fat thing for years and could only wear Yohji Yamamoto because that was all that would fit him. Now you see him on the runway looking like some sort of puppet, a tiny man with a sculptured face”. She first met Lagerfeld after spotting a Chloe dress he had designed in a Paris department store. “I went back to the hotel and got them to look up Chloe in the street directory. Karl was just sitting around in the showroom, such as it was. I said, ‘Hello, I’m from Australia and I’d like to buy your clothes.’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got some weddings coming up in Melbourne, can you draw some dresses? Here’s a photo of the girl’, and he’d just sketch away.”

    During the 1970s, Weir lived on the top floor of Le Louvre amid scatter pillows and a carousel horse – “it was very avant garde” – waking up on the landing of the stairs after parties as staff stepped over her on their way to work. In her mother’s enormous red leather-bound appointment book, amid bookings in an imposing script, are press clippings, invitations and photos from those days, including a mullet-haired Georgina wearing brown Cossack pants, a beige cardigan, a brown and beige striped polo neck sweater and brown leather boots. On the front cover of The Herald in 1971, she posed on Le Louvre’s leopard-skin couch in “bat’s blood” nail polish, boots from London, a jumper from Italy, “gaucho” pants and a belt from Paris. There are society weddings, a reception for the Queen at Government House, Susan Holt wearing Valentino, Princess Diana with Jill Wran in a taffeta Le Louvre gown. Dame Edna is there – Barry Humphries is a family friend – resplendent in a Le Louvre silk ocelot-print coat at the opening of the Jam Factory in 1979. “You absolutely had to have this coat, you couldn’t hold your head up in polite society without it,” recalls Weir.

    More contemporary clients have included Australia’s first-name triumvirate – Kylie, Nicole and Cate – as well as overseas stars Diana Krall and Bette Midler. Meryl Streep once surprised Weir with a late afternoon visit. “I knew the face, I thought I must have gone to school with her,” says Weir, who tried to talk Streep out of trying on a jacket because she couldn’t be bothered fetching it from the window. After recognising her but without a clue how to process a credit card payment, Weir told Streep to come back another time to settle the $6000 bill. “I told my mother, who was still alive, that Meryl Streep had bought a jacket and she said, ‘Darling, that’s wonderful. Did she pay for it?’ I said ‘No, now you mention it.’ And she said, ‘You’ll never be paid – Vivien Leigh did the same thing to me. They don’t expect to pay for things, you know, it’s all the honour and glory.’ But eventually she did send someone in with the money.”

    In the dying days of the Collins Street store, Weir observed the comings and goings from a high-backed chair in the salon. Dripping with labels – a black Stella McCartney shirt, a cream waistcoat and sleek black pants by her favourite designer, Ann Demeulemeester, a Michelle Jank brooch and black Prada ballet flats – she is a picture of elegant restraint. Her mobile phone, with its “hound dog” Elvis ringtone, howls frequently.

    There is a steady stream of visitors – Tony Myer (his greatuncle Sidney was a great friend of Wightman’s), deliveries of clothes Weir has ordered in Europe during one of her three annual buying trips, a client having a dress fitting for her daughter’s wedding. She has chosen what Weir calls the “pleated model”, a classic design that sells strongly even after 80 years. It is the only dress Le Louvre still makes. “I hate dressmaking,” says Weir. “When people come in asking for something to be made I just say, ‘No, no, no.’” When a passerby pops in – “It’s the first time I’ve come in here and it’s been on my bucket list,” she gushes – the welcome is warm, but Weir has always preferred visits by appointment. “If you’re going to spend a lot of money on clothes you need to have attention. We can’t give enough attention to someone who just wanders in.”

    Georgina Weir previewing Stephen Jones hats to a colourful lady with Le Louvre muse, Amelia Coote  playing impromptu dress-up. Vincenc Mustaros

    {Images via The Age newspaper, text excerpts from She who must be obeyed by Kay O’Sullivan, The Age; Myf and Legend by Janice Breen Burns; and A nice little frock shop by Susannah Walker}


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