ALANNAH HILL In this exclusive book extract, the fashion designer shares one of her earliest, darkest memories.
Fashion icon Alannah Hill reveals a life of heartache hidden beneath enchanting designs l Who
In her lyrical debut, Butterfly on a Pin— subtitled A Memoir of Love, Despair and Reinvention— the designer, 56, from small-town Tasmania, vividly tells how she emerged from the chrysalis of her difficult upbringing to conquer the world, before starting over.
The day my mother attempted to kill herself was not like any other day I’d known. It was around 1967 and I was 5 years old. I remember the darkening clouds gathering in the foothills of the small ghost town where my family lived, a ghost town called Geeveston in Tasmania. I was desperately frightened. My mother was very, very sick. In my rush to get to her I slipped on my own footsteps. Breathless, I crept quietly into her bleak and sombre bedroom. Mum was lying on her marital bed, staring at the ceiling, tears falling from her sad brown eyes. I watched the chaotic mess and when the priests told me to get out, I couldn’t.
Somebody picked me up and dropped me onto the floor in the room next door where my three siblings were eating stale honey sandwiches. We began rocking backwards and forwards, humming my mother’s favourite Catholic hymn: “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. I couldn’t hear my mum breathing. All I could hear was the sound of violent hiccups. All we could do was rock back and forth, eating our honey sandwiches, waiting for the gigantic stranger, who was often seen glowering from corners or hurling raging aggression after drinking in the local pub. The stranger was my father.
A biblical hymn sounded from the marital bedroom and so my own hymn to God became even louder. I was shouting “Nearer, My God, To Thee”, shouting it with my stale honey sandwich trapped in my throat, rocking with my siblings in perfect timing, as my giant father arrived home with his imperfect timing. A flurry of noise, a farmer’s hat thrown onto the floor, boots thrown against a wall and there he was, my father: the man I believed was the reason Mum was lying on the marital bed in a state of Catholic exorcism.
I wanted to die. My eyes were blurred from tears and I heard him shouting at my mum. “For God’s sake, Aileen. This again! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Aileen, what the f--k do you want?” I knew even then what my mother wanted. I knew and never spoke up. I wondered why my father couldn’t see it for himself.
The truth is my mother, over a period of 45 years, was almost sent mad by my father’s dismissal of her, and his own unhappiness, which, like the plague, spread death of one kind or another.
When I left Tasmania in 1979, I had never been on a plane. Three decades later, it was not uncommon to find me in seat 1A,
flying first class on one of Qantas’s fanciest new fleet. I’d be bound for London, Paris, New York, Singapore and Tokyo—trips that took in five cities in 14 days. My bespoke sherbet-bomb diary was filled with highflying, career-girl fabric appointments, dinner invitations, posh fashion shows, art gallery openings and VIP tickets for Première Vision, the famous Paris fabric and trim fair. I was chauffeured from the airport to a fancy hotel. I’d climbed to the top of the mountain. Looking down from the clouds at my life in the broken-down houses of my childhood, I’d wonder if it was all true. Did I really make it? I would fret, thinking, God, if I lose this— if my impossible dream gets taken from me—i know I’ll surely die. I’d be overwhelmed by a sense of nothingness, the unjoined girl of my childhood never too far away.
My mother was always two dark steps ahead. Her superb wit always ready to put a two-bob snob like me in my place. To Mum, I would always be a 16-year-old runaway shop girl. On my visits to Tasmania, she would often tell me of her desperate attempt to die, changing the time it had happened, the number of pills she swallowed, and why she was covered in a strange plum sauce.
“I remember seeing priests hovering over your bed, Mum. Who looked after us? Why did Dad look so angry? Why, Mum, why?” “You know I nearly died, don’t you, Lan?” she would ask. “You know you nearly lost me? You do realise I was almost DEAD, don’t you, Lan? What a dreadful man I married—a heathen, a philandering liar with insipid eyes. NO, I don’t know why he didn’t want you, Lan, I don’t know why he wouldn’t look at you! You were such a plain little thing. No personality, dear. Not a SPECK! You must have been frightened seeing your dear old mum dying in front of your very own eyes, Lan. Dying!”
Yes, dear reader, I was frightened, and the terror from my childhood has never left.
Hill knew she had made it when she saw (pictured circa 2001) her designs in the window of Henri Bendel’son Fifth Avenue in New York. Hill and Edward (his father is her ex, fellow designer Karl Bartl) in 2005: “I had just given him four Freddo Frogs and a promise he could keep the fake fur jacket.
“I wanted to die. My eyes were blurred from tears”
Hill produced her first full collection in a cupboard-like space at Melbourne’s Dialogue.
Hill, with her partner, record producer Hugo Race, in Italy in 2016. “I lit hundreds of candles in hundreds of churches for Mum.” This is an edited extract from Butterfly on a Pin, by Alannah Hill, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $32.99; available in stores nationally.