On painting a gender neutral style paradigm

Posted on 23 September 2019

On painting a gender neutral  style paradigm

In conversation with designer Jude Ng on redefining the parameters of what one ought to wear in Melbourne

The first time I wore a men’s shirt it felt different. Not because of its shapelessness or its sleeves—cuffed, loose and far too long. It was because of the buttons, or rather, due to their position. On that day I discovered a tailoring truth I’d never known. When you wear a man’s shirt you button from the right, a woman’s from the left. Granted, the distinction is not comparatively controversial, but in my initial moment of realisation, standing in front of the mirror and staring at the shirt with inquisitorial eyes, it felt incredibly important. Not because it was news to me, but because it felt unnecessary. 

There is no difference between men and women, Japanese dressmaker Yohji Yamamoto once said. We are different in body, he believed, but our sense, spirit and soul are all the same. Even so, for centuries these differences in body have led to differences in dress codes for each gender; to parameters that neatly define what men should wear and how women ought to dress. Yet times and tailoring techniques are changing, and in recent years more and more designers—emerging and established—appear to hold similar beliefs to those of Yamamoto, a strong reflection of a culture that is tired of being told what they should wear based purely on the anatomy of their bodies. 

JUDE pattern maker Evan in the label’s Escher shirt, courtesy of the label

One designer sewing a more gender neutral style paradigm in Melbourne is Jude Ng of JUDE, a contemporary clothing and accessories label located on Johnston Street, Fitzroy. Taking influence from his past life as a painter, Ng favours the unique and offbeat use of shape, colour, and texture over trends that have been influenced by more traditional frames of mind. 

Handmade in Melbourne by Ng and his team, many designs by JUDE can be worn by men and women alike, with each piece embodying a soul and story that the individual then wears and tells via their own unique narration. Instinctive and rooted in authenticity, Ng’s practice abandons preconceived notions how one should dress based on their gender in search for something far more personalised and poetic. Redefining the way Melbourne men and women build their wardrobes one locally-made, limited edition garment at a time.

KATHRYN CARTER: What inspired the creation of your label JUDE? 

JUDE NG: I was always inspired by a love of fine art and how it could meld with fashion to produce a soulful product which is far away from the mainstream. Also, my philosophy was to create my work as ethically as I possibly could, working with local artisans and makers from my immediate surrounds and trying in my own small way to revive the local garment industry.

KC: What is your earliest memory of really taking notice of somebody’s style?

JN: It was definitely with my Mum, and the way she always dressed with style. I loved the way she put together colours, silhouettes and accessories, and took fashion risks in her own way.

Artist Kim Hyunji wearing JUDE in her studio photographed by Lekhena Porter, courtesy of the label

KC: When and where did you first learn your craft? 

JN: I first honed my craft for mixing colours and shapes with my first degree, a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Victorian College Of The Arts, majoring in painting. I then moved on to study for a diploma in fashion at RMIT, so that I could learn the technical skills required to make clothing. All the while I have also been self-taught, sewing and creating from a young age, to help me approach my work from a more experimental perspective as well.

KC: And if you had to, how would you describe your current aesthetic?

JN: I would say: relaxed, unassuming, wearable, with an artistic edge.

KC: Once upon a time you were a painter, do you find that the lens of your inner visual artist influences and inspires the ways in which you approach clothing design?

JN: Yes, definitely. I always look at each garment design in the same way I would a painting, in terms of proportion, shapes, colours etc. It also inspires the way I put together the story of each collection, which eventually reflects in the narrative of each campaign we do.

KC: Japanese dressmaker Yohji Yamamoto once said: In my philosophy, the word androgyny doesn’t have any meaning. I think there is no difference between men and women. We are different in body, but sense, spirit and soul are the same. Many of your own designs are gender-neutral, is this a purposeful choice, or something that happens more intuitively?

JN: I think it definitely happened very intuitively and quite slowly and organically while developing my label. I was always inspired by my sisters and how they dressed, all being tomboys and not [particularly] attracted to clothing that was overly feminine. I was also very inspired by the customers who bought my clothes, and how they were not afraid to express themselves in pieces that had been originally designed for the opposite gender. I think this really opened up the possibilities for me in creating gender-neutral pieces.

My philosophy has definitely evolved through my label, that gender-neutral dressing is the way forward for fashion, giving an ease and freedom to the way we put outfits together to work and function effectively in our daily lives.

KC: So true, nowadays many of us do seem less concerned with what is strictly mens and womenswear, as is reflected in the rise of labels offering gender-neutral pieces, such as your own. What do you think has driven, or rather influenced, this shift away from the strict parameters of gendered clothing towards greater freedom when it comes to how we present our physical selves to the world?

JN: I believe our contemporary lifestyles have become so complex and multifaceted, so we [almost] had to break down the gender barriers in the way we dress in order to meld better with the way we live. Also, our notions of gender have evolved and changed so much, and that it is definitely reflective in the way we dress.

Jess Francis Kissubi wearing JUDE photographed by Danielle Chau styled by RECICLAGEM,
makeup by Nicole Giardossi, courtesy of the label

KC: What role have your instincts played in developing your label’s aesthetic?

JN: My work is very much based on instinct – if it does not feel right or does not give me tingles, I know I will not be putting it out there.

KC: Your flagship store is located on Johnston Street in the heart of Fitzroy, and you’ve been dressing Melbourne locals—many of whom are loyal regulars—for a number of years. Do you feel that Melbourne’s urban landscape, its ecology, has an influence on the way we dress as a city?

JN: Absolutely! I think we are very much in tune with the iconic Melbourne style of dressing, with multiple layers and a sombre palette of colours. This is definitely our comfort zone and the place we feel the most in tune with.

KC: At JUDE you favour the use of quality natural fibres and rare vintage materials, working with traditional techniques that have been reworked in modern ways. Do you feel the meticulous and intimate nature of your practice is what allows you to create garments that you describe as pieces with soul?

JN: Yes, we definitely have a love of detailing and craftsmanship in our work, making sure our pieces are well-finished both inside and out. We have developed our own signature ways of seaming and constructing our pieces, which adds something [unique] to our work. I think it is the little unexpected details in our clothes, the ones our customers discover over time, that give our pieces a special appeal.

JUDE regular @thebeardedmerman in his MORPHE Coat, courtesy of the label

KC: You believe strongly in supporting the local garment industry, making all of your clothing in Melbourne and opting to create only limited editions. Why is this more traditional approach such an integral part of all that you do?

JN: I definitely do believe strongly in supporting the local garment industry, keeping these fast dying jobs and skills on shore, and keeping the art of garment making alive in our own country. Working in limited runs [in this way] also makes the product more special for our customers, who are seeking that exclusivity and originality. 

KC: That level of uniqueness is increasingly hard to find. Do you actually dye fabrics in your workshop, too? It’s quite special to see techniques such as these being performed in-house.

JN: We do not actually dye our fabrics in house very often, but we do use mainly deadstock fabrics, which are overruns of quality designer fabrics from industry. This helps to decrease our environmental footprint. We also up-cycle our fabric remnants in house, creating one-of-a-kind garments and accessories that are sold exclusively in store.

KC: The fashion industry is, by and large, quite enraptured by the concepts of trends and style influencers, which sometimes seem to highlight more emptiness than enrichment within the realm of clothing and design. Do you feel that a part of what you bring to the Melbourne rag trade is a push away from the pseudo and prefabricated, towards something more poetic?

JN: I definitely feel that what we do [at JUDE] expresses an authentic part of who we are, and our genuine view point in the world of fashion, which we are always excited to present to people because we feel it is a fresh point of view. Mostly, also, we just truly want to be ourselves in all that we do, and I am sometimes guilty of working in my own bubble, of not looking at the ever-changing trends that are out there [in the zeitgeist]. Then again, I feel that this gives a timeless energy to our clothes, since we are not influenced by passing trends.

Jude Ng wearing head-to-toe JUDE, courtesy of the label

KC: Given this tendency to keeping your eyes focused solely on your vision, as opposed to the work of others, what do you yourself feel most inspired by?

JN: I am constantly inspired by art and design history of any form. I am also inspired by the natural world, and often like to be amongst nature as a form of inspiration. I think I’m most inspired by designers who have a strong social or environmental [theme] in their work, by those who build their businesses in an ethical and non-conformist way. One of my heroes has always been Vivienne Westwood, for example.

KC: And in your own words, what is style?

JN: Style for me is being able to express yourself in an authentic way which is a true reflection of who you are.

Involved in the entire design process from start to finish—from sketching to pattern making to finishing off the final seam—Ng and his team are proud to be a part of Melbourne’s rag trade revival, committed to helping you foster your own sense of style while supporting our local industry. If you’re ready to button your shirt differently, it may be the time to drop into JUDE at 252 Johnston Street, Fitzroy.

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Words by Kathryn Carter

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