Kara Baker is what the French call la perle rare. The rare pearl, that exceptionally precious thing that is so hard to come by – and a real joy to find. She’s also what the French call a couturière. Inadequately translated as ‘seamstress’, even worse as ‘dress-maker’, English lacks the gravitas her métier implies.

Headquartered in a first-floor walkup in Melbourne’s downtown, Kara Baker provides a unique service to a select clientèle. She measures, fits, drafts, cuts, sews, refits and delivers individually-tailored garments to women with a refined eye, an appreciation for sublime detail. In the process she becomes counsel, confidante, friend. It’s an experience that today may seem an indulgence, but until some fifty years ago was simply a reality.

In 1966, haute couturier Yves Saint Laurent opened his Rive Gauche prêt-à-porter boutique, behind the Place Saint Sulpice, on the Left Bank. Famously attended by his nascent muse, Catherine Deneuve (freshly minted as the haunted Belgian manicurist of Polanksi’s Repulsion) the fact of an haute couturier making clothes for the masses sent shockwaves through the otherwise unflappable world of high fashion. Instead of the old trickle-down from haute couture salon to public salles, Yves began looking to the street for inspiration. (The student riots of May ’68 would provide the source for his iconic ‘beatnik’ collection.)

While the introduction of ready-to-wear is responsible for putting most couturières out of business, at the pointy end of the luxury business there is a revival of interest in the hand-crafted, the authentic, the seriously one-off.

Kara’s aesthetic bounces about the same period YSL Rive Gauche first saw the light of day. Her’s is essentially a late 1960s, street-chic vibe. Talitha Getty in Marrakesh. Diana Vreeland at Vogue. Jackie Onassis, perhaps still Mrs Kennedy, globe-trotting either way. Timeless icons all.

It’s at the intersection of high and low that she gains traction, creates a frisson. It’s evident in the smock dresses that are a leitmotif of each collection; fitted to bodice, they flow from below – I imagine them worn over old cowboy boots (Kara sees them more over 1970-esque wedges). Evident, too, in drop-waist parka coats, borrowed from the boy-zone but reworked in an almost Pierrot style, hoods rouched to softly frame the face. And then there are those wicked, tailored trousers, genetically programmed to stride down 5th Avenue.

“I’m not interested in dictating a look,” she says, “It’s more about opening up a dialogue with the customer – often an ongoing one since so many of them become regular clients.” It’s a dialogue interwoven with the notions of integrity, history, attention to detail and full customer service – the essence of luxury now. “I’ve made conscious decision to remain small, concise, detail-driven and hands-on. Mine is a highly individualized craft, and I strive to retain that feeling.”

At a recent fitting, I witnessed a first-time client on what was, essentially, a blind date. She’d been gifted a garment of her choice, and was quite intrigued – not to say, intimidated – by the offer. A working woman, a single mother, a forty-something academic, she arrived at Kara’s studio just in time for morning tea. Roasted rice green tea from Lupicia to accompany handmade cakes from Brother Bubba Budan, just around the corner on Little Bourke Street. Kara’s salon is a casually elegant affair, the sharp volumes of an industrial loft softened by lush carpeting, intriguing wall hangings (many by Melbourne artist, Gavin Brown) and row upon row of come-hither books. After tea and a casual chat, attention was turned to the rack of samples hanging midway across the room.

At first glance, it’s an enticement of pattern and colour, of billowing sleeves and rouched capuches, dropped waists and capped sleeves – occasionally intersected with solid slashes of inky black silk.

“At first I was a little confronted,” says the client. Let’s call her Anna (name changed to protect the innocent.) “Nothing looked like anything I’d seen in the shops, I didn’t recognize a trend. But being encouraged to try on a few garments demonstrated that sometimes you need to go out of your own comfort zone and be surprised.”

She pulled out a simple, black pencil skirt. Kara suggested a cap-sleeve, patterned silk top to pair with it. And handed her a pair of elegant high heels. The transformation is immediate – rigorously tailored, the waisted skirt dropped to just below knee, creating a demure, almost blocky silhouette. But the centre-front split rising to mid-thigh cantilevers, just so, adding a sexy, seductive edge when the wearer walks. Adjusted to sit just a fraction above the knee, and cinch the waist, following the curve of the hip, it is perfect.

Next Anna chose to try a scoop-back dress, then a ballooning round skirt, almost an avant-garde dirndl. Both also in black. Being petite, they floated on her, making her look a little lost, perhaps even uncomfortable. Until Kara worked her magic.

“Being fitted was a revelation for me. I put the garment on as I would in a retail changing room, and being fairly ‘meh’ about the way it fit, I would have returned it to the rack. But then, having the garment adjusted to fit me really transformed the clothes. I’ve never really considered what a poor compromise buying a mass produced garment is. It’s made me reflect that possibly only 10 percent of my wardrobe actually fits me correctly.”

Next came a curve-ball. Would she try on that kind of blousey smock, with the inset Liberty print bib and the billowing floral silk/cotton sleeves. Just for fun. (It was fun, anyway, to watch her face – I suspect her to have been a goth, in her youth…)

Kara has for years sourced exotic fabrics from Italy and France. Not one of them will you see on the high street; and it would be rare to see someone wearing the same garment, in the same fabric as you. “That’s an integral part of the offer,” insists Kara. “If I have two clients interested in the same garment I will certainly let them know of each other’s existence, and direct them to different fabrics and perhaps even offer slight modifications, to ensure the unique nature of each piece.”

“Being able to select from a choice of fabrics is a treat,” Anna adds. “And the final fitting was a collaborative process where Kara asked about preferred length of sleeves, hems etc – and also about how I wear my clothes. For instance, I always push my sleeves up to the elbow, regardless of whether the garment should be worn that way or not. .. So we adjusted the dress to allow for that. Kara suggested the hem length to best suit my height (as well as the style of dress) and I’d be surprised if most women knew what was most flattering to their body shape.”

Kara Baker knows. “People keep coming back knowing that a shape or a style works well for them, so they order it in the latest fabric. I might rest a style for a few seasons but then I’ll come across a fabric that re-invents it and I’ll get excited about showing it again. And of course the relationship is personal and therefore more satisfying for both.”

Since her first job as pattern maker for the New Zealand Ballet & Opera Co, then her second working alongside Zandra Rhodes in London, she has understood the power of clothing to convey a message of elegance and individuality, through correct measures of fabric and fit. As fashion becomes a mega-billion dollar business, and mass brands like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo take over the high street, designers like Kara Baker are more and more scarce. La perle rare.

by Stephen Todd

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