GE­ORGE GROSS AND HARRY WHO: Aus­tralian fash­ion icons’ book ex­tract

In an ex­clu­sive ex­tract from the new book Threads, we take a peek into the world of iconic fash­ion de­sign­ers Ge­orge Gross and Harry Watt, who dressed some of the world’s most stylish women.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - AWW

Ge­orge can still hear the screams echo­ing all the way down the line from Lon­don. It was 1990, and the most stylish woman in the world had just walked out of his Knights­bridge store in Lon­don with six pieces of the cur­rent sea­son’s para­chute cot­ton range in var­i­ous shades of khaki. Princess Diana had tried on the Ge­orge Gross & Harry Who out ts in the dress­ing room, just like any other cus­tomer, while a body­guard minded the front door. Parad­ing in front of the big mir­ror in the shop, she turned this way and that, be­fore pro­claim­ing her­self de­lighted. Her Royal High­ness chat­ted ex­cit­edly about how per­fect the clothes would look on her trip to South Africa to see her brother, Charles, and his fam­ily. Once she had paid for her pur­chases and left, the shell-shocked shop as­sis­tant had prac­ti­cally needed smelling salts be­fore she picked up the phone to call Aus­tralia. The Peo­ple’s Princess was go­ing on sa­fari, and Ge­orge Gross & Harry Who were go­ing with her!

Aussie icons

Ge­orge would never have swapped places. Not on days when a cus­tomer like Rose Han­cock swanned into the Dou­ble Bay shop. The for­mer wife of the Western Aus­tralian min­ing bil­lion­aire, Lang Han­cock, wore a wild-eyed, ea­ger look on her face, and was ac­com­pa­nied by a maid car­ry­ing two heavy arm­fuls of shop­ping bags. Sta­tion­ing her ser­vant in the corner, Rose clat­tered a dozen hang­ers to­gether and headed to the change room. Pass­ing Ge­orge at the desk, where he was help­ing a six-deep crowd of reg­u­lar clients, she waved. They’d never met be­fore, but she acted as if they were best friends. “Hey Ge­orgie dar­ling, it’s so lovely to see you,” she cooed loudly over the din. “You know, I’ve been think­ing what a great team we’d make. We should get mar­ried. You’ve got the dan­gle and I’ve got the jan­gle!” A hush fell on the busy shop as a stunned Ge­orge replied: “Um, I don’t think Harry would like that very much!” But Rose rolled her eyes and wouldn’t be put off. “Oh pif e, he can have Wil­lie!” she scoffed, re­fer­ring to her sec­ond hus­band, Perth real es­tate agent Wil­liam Por­te­ous.

Other celebrity cus­tomers made it their busi­ness to be dis­creet. Aus­tralia’s rst lady of song, Olivia New­ton-John, qui­etly dropped into the Mel­bourne show­room when­ever she needed a top-up of glam­orous dresses for the stage or sleek jack­ets for her pri­vate life. The un­pre­ten­tious star made quick de­ci­sions, whizzing in and out of the change room to get opin­ions on one stun­ning out t af­ter an­other. Ever friendly, she al­ways signed au­to­graphs for the staff on the way out the door.

Oth­ers were mem­bers of Ge­orge’s First Ladies Club – clients with house­hold names, cour­tesy of hus­bands who had reached the elite sta­tus of prime min­is­ter. Sur­pris­ingly, down-to-earth Hazel Hawke was the only one who ever re­quested to shop in pri­vate. Un­like the other wives, who bought off the rack in the shops, she felt more com­fort­able with­out the eyes of the pub­lic on her. Hazel browsed with the re­tail buy­ers, in the Syd­ney show­room, where she had rst pick of the new sea­son. She al­ways paid for her pur­chases on the

“Princess Diana had tried on the out ts - just like any other cus­tomer.”

spot with a cheque. Then she’d waltz out the door with her shop­ping, farewelling staff with her trade­mark “hooroo”.

Tall and lean, Tamie Fraser ap­pre­ci­ated the way Ge­orge made his tai­lored trousers ex­tra long. Over six-foot, Tamie car­ried her­self in a re­gal man­ner. She of­ten drove her mud-spat­tered four-wheel drive in from the Vic­to­rian fam­ily prop­erty, Na­reen, to shop in the Mel­bourne ag­ship store in Ar­madale. Ge­orge hap­pened to be there one day when she walked in. He sold her the wool crepe dress and match­ing tted coat she wore to the open­ing of Fed­eral Par­lia­ment that year in Can­berra.

Lady So­nia McMa­hon was the ul­ti­mate Syd­ney so­ci­ety dame. Model ma­te­rial, she was blessed with great beauty and un­shake­able con dence, and lived for beau­ti­ful clothes. Long be­fore Ge­orge started the busi­ness, she had fea­tured on the front pages of news­pa­pers around the world, look­ing sexy in a barely-there evening dress on an of cial visit to the White House – a dar­ing feat for the wife of any head of state. Not just a de­voted client but a “great mate”, she and Ge­orge so­cialised of­ten. She en­trusted him with the im­por­tant pieces in her wardrobe, the most cru­cial be­ing her mother of the groom out t for the rst mar­riage of her son, the Hol­ly­wood ac­tor Ju­lian McMa­hon. He was get­ting hitched to Aussie songstress Dan­nii Minogue, and Lady So­nia did not ap­prove. Hav­ing set­tled on a cream lace dress, low cut but taste­ful, with lean lines that showed off her long legs, she re­ported in to Ge­orge on the morn­ing af­ter the wed­ding. The day had been per­fect, like her out t! Lady So­nia had not man­aged to stop the mar­riage, but she was con­vinced she had out­shone the bride.

Ge­orge de­signed and made many gar­ments for fash­ion and me­dia per­son­al­ity Maggie Tab­berer, a larger than life woman in a time be­fore “plus size” was a thing. The strik­ing for­mer model would of­ten ex­press her ex­as­per­a­tion to Ge­orge, com­plain­ing that beau­ti­ful ready-to-wear out ts larger than size 18 sim­ply did not ex­ist. With ev­ery cou­ture gar­ment re­quir­ing sev­eral ttings, the dis­tance be­tween Syd­ney-based Maggie and Ade­laide pre­sented prob­lems. Un­til Ge­orge de­cided to im­pro­vise. His

South Aus­tralian friend Peter Noble – a sim­i­lar size and weight to stat­uesque Maggie – be­came the tting model. Ge­orge would make the toile and have Peter model it dur­ing sev­eral tting ses­sions while he made his ad­just­ments. At times, the scene looked com­i­cal. Frown­ing with con­cen­tra­tion, Ge­orge would cir­cle Peter, a burly gure draped in one of Maggie’s dresses. The some­time model took his moon­light­ing se­ri­ously. Peter stood with­out mov­ing a mus­cle, his arms out wide, while the de­signer pinned fab­ric on his torso.

In 1982, Ge­orge made one of Maggie’s all-time favourite dresses via this un­ortho­dox and top-se­cret process. She had re­quested “some­thing spec­tac­u­lar” as soon as she got the nod to host the

Lyre­bird Awards at the Syd­ney Town Hall. The event was tele­vised and would be an im­por­tant night for Ge­orge, as he would win two awards and be in­ducted into the Aus­tralian fash­ion in­dus­try’s Hall of Fame. Up on the stage, Maggie shim­mered through­out the long evening in Ge­orge’s cus­tom-made full-length se­quinned silk num­ber. Shar­ing the stage with Princess Ira von Fürsten­berg and other glam­orous in­ter­na­tional pre­sen­ters, she out­shone them all.

Maggie, al­ways con­scious of her weight, had made cer­tain re­quests, and Ge­orge had lis­tened. The care­fully en­gi­neered dress em­pha­sised her face and legs, her best fea­tures. A slit in the dar­ing skirt went all the way up to her crotch. The blou­son top – very in that year – had shoul­der pads. Re­ceiv­ing the dress in the mail, Maggie had tried it on straight­away. She rang Ge­orge as she stood in front of the mir­ror. “Thank you, thank you,” she said.

“I’m very grate­ful. You’ve done the im­pos­si­ble – I look like a very glam size 10 foot­ball player!”

With her sense of hu­mour and warm heart, Maggie was al­ways a favourite cus­tomer. But she didn’t be­come a close friend of Ge­orge and Harry’s un­til at least a decade into their ac­quain­tance­ship.

Ge­orge’s mate, Kerri-Anne Ken­ner­ley, also en­listed his be­spoke ser­vices. The TV host led a fre­netic life. On-air ve days a week, she reg­u­larly dashed into the Syd­ney shop to choose some­thing off the peg for work or a pub­lic ap­pear­ance. For special events she would re­quest one-off out ts from Ge­orge. The con­cept for these would be dis­cussed quickly over the phone, and he knew her well enough to cre­ate some­thing mag­i­cal. On one oc­ca­sion, the brief was just one sen­tence. “I need a green dress,” Kerri-Anne in­structed Ge­orge, a few weeks be­fore his 50th birth­day in Ade­laide.

On the night of the party, the mys­tery was solved. Ar­riv­ing on the arm of her hus­band, John Ken­ner­ley, Kerri-Anne made a grand en­trance.

She waltzed into the room, a vi­sion in green. Around her neck was a neck­lace of moulded gold, stud­ded all the way around with egg-sized emer­alds. The gob-smack­ing jew­ellery was a gift from her dar­ling John, and the per­fect match for Ge­orge’s frock. “It’s ab­so­lutely fab­u­lous, dar­ling,” she trilled, be­fore div­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally into the cel­e­bra­tions. Later that night, the party girl jumped on stage with the band, as she was wont to do. Grab­bing the mi­cro­phone, she belted out a song for the birth­day boy, “River Deep – Moun­tain High”, one of Ge­orge’s all-time favourites. He would never for­get Kerri-Anne in fab­u­lous voice, as the very green belle of the ball.

In­ter­fer­ing mother

One beau­ti­ful but trou­bled tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity would be­come synonymous with Ge­orge Gross & Harry Who cloth­ing. Ge­orge met Adri­ana Xenides in 1981 as her star was as­cend­ing, when pro­duc­ers of Wheel of For­tune asked him to dress the much-loved “let­ter-turner” for her new tele­vi­sion role. El­e­gant Adri­ana wore clothes exquisitely. And as Ge­orge thought the na­tional top-rat­ing show might yield a spin-off in public­ity, he agreed and set up a work­able rou­tine.

It seemed an easy gig, as the Ar­gen­tinian-born ex-model lived in Ade­laide, where the show lmed ve episodes over two days each week. Adri­ana would meet him at the fac­tory ev­ery Mon­day so they could run through the clothes he’d picked out for her to wear in the next ve shows.

At the start of their multi-year con­tract, ev­ery­thing ran like clock­work. Meet­ings were swift and smooth and pro­duc­tive. Adri­ana seemed shy, but good-hearted and po­lite and grate­ful. She had a cu­ri­ous way of speak­ing, which Ge­orge put down to years of elo­cu­tion lessons, and as they es­tab­lished a rap­port, she con ded in him how she’d al­ways wanted fame. Her big dream was to be­come an ac­tress. Her one small role in a TV minis­eries had scored good re­views but she’d never been hired again and couldn’t un­der­stand it.

Wheel of For­tune was only a step­ping­stone, she told Ge­orge. But mean­while, she loved wear­ing Ge­orge Gross & Harry Who clothes on-air, and he and Harry loved the way she looked in them. They liked her very much. The only prob­lem they had with Adri­ana was her mother. From the rst day

she blew into the fac­tory two steps ahead of her daugh­ter, Consuelo made trou­ble. Fiery and crit­i­cal, she seethed with rage as she sized up her sur­round­ings. She took her role se­ri­ously as the bul­ly­ing stage mother from cen­tral cast­ing who in­ter­fered in ev­ery as­pect of her only child’s life. Ge­orge’s wardrobe choices were no ex­cep­tion. Any of the clothes he se­lected were lam­basted and dis­missed, in front of him. “Vile and dis­gust­ing rub­bish. Aw­ful colours. De nitely not good enough – next!” Adri­ana shrank away in Consuelo’s pres­ence. Ge­orge no­ticed how she seemed terri ed of up­set­ting the woman.

Ge­orge de­spaired as he wit­nessed Consuelo’s med­dling make a mess of her daugh­ter’s com­pli­cated love-life. In­sist­ing only she knew what Adri­ana needed, Consuelo ac­com­pa­nied her on dates and re­fused to back off even dur­ing the TV star’s three mar­riages and six en­gage­ments. She called Adri­ana at all hours of the night, heap­ing scorn on ev­ery man try­ing to steal her baby away. Ge­orge was friendly with Ade­laide restau­ra­teur Frank Cor­tazzo, Adri­ana’s sec­ond hus­band. A good guy who adored Adri­ana, he ran for the hills af­ter a year of Consuelo’s at­tacks.

But af­ter her mother had been dis­cour­aged from turn­ing up at the fac­tory, Adri­ana’s trou­bles con­tin­ued. She of­ten seemed frag­ile or upset, some­times an­gry. When she be­gan to miss ap­point­ments, Ge­orge en­listed staffer Chrissie Si­mon’s help as her min­der, to man­age her wardrobe and keep her on the rails.

Warn­ing bells sounded as Adri­ana’s gure melted away. Al­ways a volup­tuous size 10 through­out her mod­el­ling ca­reer and when Ge­orge and Harry rst started dress­ing her, she lost weight, un­til size 8 sam­ples hung off her gaunt body. When she dropped be­low 46 kilo­grams, noth­ing tted or hid the bones of her chest. She blamed the clothes, then burst into oods of tears or be­came ag­gres­sive. “Oh I can’t wear this, x it!” Af­ter sooth­ing her back from the brink of hys­te­ria, Chrissie would have the clothes al­tered. Then she would ex­plain once again that sam­ples had not changed, pro­duc­tion had not al­tered, and sizing did not lie. In her opin­ion, Adri­ana just needed to eat more and not take ev­ery­thing so per­son­ally. Flow­ers and choco­lates would ar­rive for Chrissie the next day with­out fail, as a thank you from the trou­bled star.

As Chrissie be­came a shoul­der to cry on, she re­ported back to Ge­orge that some­thing was se­ri­ously wrong. One Mon­day, she raised the alarm when Adri­ana did not turn up for her ap­point­ment. Check­ing on her at home, Chrissie found drugs in the bath­room – up­pers and down­ers – and empty bot­tles of pre­scrip­tion drugs strewn all over the apart­ment. Mean­while, Adri­ana sat va­cantly in the corner, rock­ing back and for­ward as she hugged her beloved pet dog.

That week, Adri­ana se­cretly checked into a clinic, but she would never es­cape her ad­dic­tion. Her mood swings and weight loss con­tin­ued. When chal­lenged, she would ash her bright forced smile and deny ev­ery­thing, in­sist­ing she merely had the u. Through it all, her fame grew, and she never stopped want­ing to be loved. In 2010 when the news spread that she had died, it was a day of mourn­ing at the fac­tory in Ade­laide.

“Warn­ing bells sounded as Adri­ana’s gure melted away.”

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