DAYS ahead of the opening of their highly-anticipated archive exhibition, fashion designers Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson are busy attending to sequins, wired skirts and wondrously hand-beaded bodices.

The long-term friends, arguably Australia’s most successful design duo, wrapped up their Easton Pearson label in 2016 after 27 years, but their iconic creations are once again in the spotlight, at the Museum of Brisbane – and every detail counts.

“I’m incredibly excited,” says Easton, “and it is fascinating to have a curator come in and look at the garments in a different way, and present them as objects that have interest other than fashion.”

From a vast collection – some 3300 garments valued at more than $2.7 million, bought and gifted to the museum by oncologist Dr Paul Eliadis last year – a carefully chosen sample of 200 will be on display from November 23 until April 22 next year.

It’s being billed as a summer blockbuster because not only is it the largest textile donation to any museum or art gallery in Australia, but the collection taps the social barometer of Brisbane through the decades.

When Easton Pearson began in 1989, the creations were exuberant, colourful and bold. Embellishments were plentiful and ornate, reflecting the optimism of a city buoyed by the unprecedented global exposure of World Expo 88 and a renewed support for the arts from the incoming Goss government.

This was the period that heralded alfresco dining, architecture that unashamedly faced the river, and bands such as Powderfinger and Custard.

“The whole creative process was a conversation, every decision was made by both of us and it worked brilliantly, for a very long time,” says Easton, a former fashion buyer who met Pearson, a self-taught pattern maker and now associate lecturer in fashion ­design at QUT, in 1987.

“For us, it was never about one-hit-wonders, which is why we made garments that have longevity yet spoke to the times.”

After the Global Financial Crisis in 2007, for example, designs temporarily took on a more restrained aesthetic, but there was always a sense of the unexpected.

“Most of our embroidery was done in India or Vietnam,” says Easton, “and in the early days all of those garments were brought back to Australia and completed in our [Brisbane] workroom, but after the GFC we started to manufacture more things offshore.”

At the height of its success, Easton Pearson was sold in 140 stores in 24 countries, but its cult following was strongest in Queensland.

Stylist and former Courier-Mail fashion editor Kimberly Gardner says Easton Pearson was “the first to clash prints and textures”.

“It exuded a quiet confidence amid a kaleidoscope of colour, turning heads around the world. People started asking, ‘Where did this label come from’, and from then on they took notice of Brisbane fashion.”

Museum director Renai Grace describes the two designers as “the storytellers of Australian fashion” whose “unique approach referenced art, travel, film, literature and music”.

As well as mannequins in striking outfits, the exhibition includes sketches, runway videos, fabric swatches and wood blocks for printing, and explores myriad craft techniques, some thousands of years old. There will also be “slow fashion” workshops on artisanal skills such as Japanese folk-art stitching, on basic garment making and mending, and developing a personal style that doesn’t rely on fads.

For Easton, this educative role is important. “We didn’t just go to the craftspeople and take what they were doing, we took our ideas and worked with them; lots of these old techniques will die out if people don’t incorporate them,” she says.

At a time when a quarter of Australians throw out clothes after just one wear and 40 per cent put unwanted items in the rubbish bin rather than repair or recycle them, according to a 2017 survey by YouGov, the Easton Pearson archive prompts a rethink on fashion’s fleeting trends.

“Sustainability wasn’t something we articulated,” says Easton, who quietly launched her own eponymous label at the end of 2017, “but we were both avid vintage shoppers and it was always part of our ethos.”

“We had some champagne caps lying around and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could use these as decoration?’ so we asked all the caterers around town to collect caps for us, but when it came to production time, of course, we didn’t have enough so we bought blanks from a producer. The wood blocks for the batik patterns were made especially for us in India.”

“Inspired by a Uzbekistani man’s wedding jacket we bought from a vintage store in Paris, the jacket is made of silk brocade embellished with sequins and decorative stitching, finishing at the waist to give a shapely definition. We lined it with a very mundane calico cloth and really loved the contrast and tension that caused. The sleeves are hemmed using an ancient Indian fabric folding technique we call ‘crocodile teeth’.”

“We dyed raffia yarn to embroider this dress, and there are lots of different stitching techniques - the raffia is laid on the surface and stitched across over the top, and elsewhere used just like regular thread. There are little stone chips, some dyed, some natural tiger’s eye and quartz, gold braid and wire through the skirt, which caused all sort of problems when exporting to America.”

“The influence of this coat, which was hand-crocheted in Vietnam, was (19th century Austrian symbolist painter) Gustav Klimt. Some pieces have been joined with copper chain, including the collar, and the top, which is hand-made lace from Southern India, we embellished with plastic sequins we covered with lurex. Lurex is a very economical fabric mostly used for the backings of shrines and temples, so no one would make a garment from it, but we manipulated it to great effect.”

“In Mumbai (India), there’s a huge market selling end-of-run textiles in fabulous prints, and there is a very old technique called surya – which is used to make quilts, tea cosies and other craft objects - but we decided to make it into fashion. So we had these little suryas made then added embellishments like silver rings, sequins and diamantes. It was all about extending the life of these textiles.”

3m Reflective Bomber Jacket

“This was one of our many collaborations with (Brisbane artist) Stephen Mok, who drew all of these shapes and little creatures and flowers, which were then sewn by hand in India on cotton voile with tiny brass beads. The Fastasia belt, from the same Spring/Summer collection, completes the look.”

The Designers’ Guide: Easton Pearson Archive opens on November 23. Tickets $12/$9 concession or $30 for a family pass (children under 12 free).

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