INTERVIEW: KNITWEAR DESIGNER LIBBY PEACOCK

Fashion & knitwear designer Libby Peacock's signature oversized and over-the-top aesthetic is nothing short of fun, funny, feminine and fabulous. 

Libby's design language embodies the figurative, graphic and kitschy exploration of Australian symbology that defined an entire era of Australian fashion. Strangely, there's very little of Libby's work online, compared to her fellow Australiana-embracing contemporaries Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson.

I first discovered Libby’s jaw-dropping knits whilst flicking through ‘Fashion Australia’ (published in 1987) and was compelled to track down the designer upon witnessing the colour, wit and attention-to-detail exploding from her incredible pieces. Eager to learn more about how such garments were made - and what it felt like to be a fashion designer at the top of her game - I found (stalked) Libby on Facebook and she was kind enough to reminisce about the past and share her archives.

Hailing from sunny Western Australia, Libby ran her label throughout the 1980s whilst raising her three daughters as a single mother: no mean feat for a business of 125 employees at its peak. Read on to learn more about the life and work of this true Australian fashion visionary.

Hi Libby! Can you tell me how you started making your incredible knitwear?

Libby Peacock Designs started with one jumper. I knitted the kangaroo on the front, my mother knitted the sleeves and my Auntie knitted the back. We’d go sell to the local Australiana shop, buy more wool and the label grew from there – from nothing, really. The label lasted 10 years throughout the whole of the 1980s: from 1981 in its early phase, to the very early 1990s.

Can you explain the inspiration behind your designs?

All my life, I’ve had two real loves: one was fashion and the other was art. It was necessity really, that I started knitting. I was always crafty and loved to make things. When my marriage broke up, I had three little girls and needed to find something I could do for a job. Weirdly, the flamboyant picture knitting I was doing for fun was becoming fashionable around the time I was wondering what I could do [for work]. At that moment, Australiana suddenly became fashionable. With knitwear, I could combine Australian imagery with my love of wool and fashion. It all fitted together perfectly.

Why did you create knitwear, in particular?

[Designer] Liz Davenport and I went to school together. When my marriage broke up, I worked for Liz. Knits became popular during that era [early 1980s] so I started making a few knits and it all fell into place from there. A year later, I broke away and started doing my thing. The Wool board got involved and asked me to create special one-off things. It was all very exciting - such an incredible time of my life.

How did you run your label in terms of the production process, labour, marketing and distribution?

At its peak, I had 125 hand knitters working. All the knits were made completely by hand. My best knitters could knit a jumper a week. They were mostly older ladies – pensioners sitting at home who had bored their grandkids to death knitting the same old stuff over and over again. They loved it! All the ladies were very involved in the excitement of the whole business.

The garments were relatively expensive, because they took a long time to make as they were all done by hand. I always used the best quality wools I could find.

When I started doing Australiana knits, I was retailing in boutiques around Australia and America. An entire collection was stolen from David Jones Melbourne, which was such a shame – it was a lot of effort to make with a huge market value that suddenly disappeared. It didn’t matter; we still pushed on.

In 1985, I bought the worldwide rights to The Phantom, because I’d always loved him since I was a kid. The guy who wrote the original comic bought 8 of my Phantom knits for Christmas, which was one of the bigger career thrills I had. He loved them, which meant so much to me.

Tell us about how the label came to an end.

By the early 1990s, a lot of designers started getting their work made overseas. Cheap knits from China that were really quite beautiful started to flood the market. That was the beginning of the end. Kitschy knits were also not as fashionable as they had been; in the mid 80s, knitwear was exciting. Like everything else, they had their time. 

Why were you attracted to using Australian symbols in your work?

There seemed to be a ‘thing’ with Australiana in the early 80s, didn’t there? People were phenomenally proud of Australia – kookaburras, koalas, kangaroos and the like. All things Australian became fashionable and a lot of Australiana shops started opening up in the suburbs and in airports across the country. I’ve always loved the quirky side of Australian culture – kitschy stuff like the old tins with kookaburras on them, that sort of thing.  My grandfather had more Aussie sayings that any human being on earth. I should have written a book!

What did you love about the 1980s?

Oh goodness, it was a WONDERFUL time during my lifetime! It was a very exciting time to be in Fremantle, where I had my studio. America’s Cup hit Fremantle in 1986 and the Wool corporation asked me to do a special range of American’s cup sweaters.  You can’t not have fun with that sort of thing. I did a jumper of Bondy with balloons and streamers…

By Bondy, do you mean ‘Alan Bond’?!

I do indeed! I’m pretty sure his wife still has the jumper with his face on the front. A lot of the knits were one-offs for marketing purposes.  The more outrageous stuff was made for newspapers and magazines.

In those days, it really was [an attitude of] ‘anything goes’. When you think about it, the pieces we [1980s designers] made were wearable art, not just fashion. Back then, fashion was no-holds-barred outrageous. We did whatever we felt like doing. And it sold. I made a Dame Edna knit with diamante earrings and diamantes on her glasses. It was so precious. My daughters loved it all as much as me. They are all artists and designers now.

They learned it from their Mum – that’s fantastic!

My daughters were tiny when I started and grew up with the label. We did everything together. It was a true all-female team.

How would you describe Australian style?

I find nobody dresses as well as they used to. I was discussing this recently with my eldest daughter. People don’t take fashion as seriously as they used to. Starting from the 60s, fashion was very much at the forefront of young people’s minds. All our wages went onto designer clothes. We didn’t buy cheap clothes. We didn’t travel overseas much, so we had money to spend on beautiful outfits. Nowadays, anything goes - it’s not like fashion changes too much - it’s all merging together. I’m not exactly sure if Australians do have our own fashion identity. I do think the humour and quirkiness [of Australian culture] is always there in the background.

Libby Peacock is now a proud grandmother and continues to create using wool as her favourite medium . Connect with Libby on Facebook