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.
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!
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.
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.”