When Australia got Chanel

If I have to go into the city, no matter the time of day or traffic levels, I will always take Collins Street. I figure every street in the city is congested, so if I’m going to be stuck in traffic, I may as well enjoy the view. 

When I’m crawling down Collins, I am always astounded by the stores that are open there now, and how far Australia has come in the past 30 years. 

In 1995, I remember reading in (the now defunct) Mode magazine, about the opening of Australia’s first Chanel boutique. It’s still on the same site, the corner of Castlereagh and King Street. I was so jazzed that we finally had our very own Chanel, I took an all-night train from Melbourne in 1996 just to see it. Of course, I bought absolutely nothing, I was an 18-year-old photography student, but I knew this was a big deal and in a country that was sheepish with its own self-importance of the time, it felt like with Chanel arriving, we had finally arrived too. 

At the risk of sounding like an old person, the breadth of what we have available in Australia’s retail scene, was once next to nothing not so long ago. Growing up in Melbourne, I can count on one hand the luxury department stores and shops we had, that were importing gorgeous, fine things. Further to that, I remember even the not-so-refined was hard to come. I remember in the 1980s, as a kid, standing in front of a small selection of Hello Kitty products in Myer and feeling like I had hit the jackpot. Now Hello Kitty is as common as slushies at 7-11. 

Chanel window copy.jpg

Australian luxury in retail started with Georges of Melbourne, a department store, it was like a cross-between Are You Being Served and David Jones. They had imported French perfume, Italian fashion and German cookware. There were as many staff as customers and the carpet was thick enough to sink into. They closed somewhere in the mid 90s, and valiantly reopened 5 years later, only to close again within two years. It was at their Collins Street store I held my first Manolo Blahnik pair of shoes. Before that, I had only read about them in magazines.

For a hot minute in the 1980s, there was another small but mighty department store called Figgins Diorama. It’s claims to fame were many. Opened by the shoe-famous Figgins family, it held the largest, most extensive perfumery outside of Paris. It had its own Rolls Royce that would come and collect you on special event days. At a guess, I think it was about 30 years ahead of its time for Australia, but its opulence was never lost on me. I remember having lunch there as a child; chicken with white wine sauce, complete with wilted grapes. Truth be told, it wasn’t delicious and I didn’t really like it, but even as a kid, I knew this was haute cuisine, and I was in.

My last stand out of luxury players in Melbourne, is of course Le Louvre, a true fashion salon. The original store was in Collins Street (it’s since moved to South Yarra), and each year, the owners would travel to Europe to see the shows and place their orders. Shopping at Le Louvre was a cloistered experience. Technically, you needed to make an appointment and once you made your selection, following any alterations, your purchases were delivered to your home. Because really, how gauche to take your shopping to lunch?!

Now I look down Collins Street and marvel at the selection of opulent luxury stores I see. It’s an endless stream of Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s, Cartier, Burberry and Gucci that Melbourne has to offer. Our once little and remote country now bustles with luxury living likes it’s no big deal. But it is and I still swoon over it!