SUZAN DLOUHY: SIMPLE CHAOS
The pressure of being the first in our families to have opportunities for further education can some times stump out our true desires and creative lifelong pursuits of happiness.
For Suzan Dlouhy creativity, design and fashion have always been a part of who she is but, it took a boring government job, crazy dress up Monday's and hunting down amazing street style in Canberra for her true passion to be realised.
Starting her own label SZN, Dlouhy has continued to make her mark in design - from hand stitching 100 scarves for the National Multicultural Festival in Canberra to taking out Fashion Designer of the Year at the African Australians of the Year Award Ceremony. Before moving to Melbourne for love, teaching at The Social Studio and continuing to build her own brand.
MEET SUZAN DLOUHY
THE PIN. So you grew up in Brisbane?
SUZAN DLOUHY. I grew up in Kingston, which is in Logan City half way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and I love it because it is a very culturally diverse area, due to it seeming to be the first port of call for immigrants, I imagine that's how my family ended up there, pretty much any conflict overseas is followed by an increase in Logan of that particular culture.
For a lot of people we have spoken about the feeling that within the boundaries of their household was a different culture to the outside world. Did you have a similar thing?
S. The first time I watched The Wog Boy movie I felt like I identified with that kid with his salami cheese sandwiches. I was going to school with these salami, cottage cheese, rye bread sandwiches, and I’d be embarrassed - I was like, ‘everyone’s got white bread with cheese’, my dad was like, ‘we will not eat that crap!’, and I’d be like, ‘this is crap!’ Now it’s ironic because today people are paying $20 for these sandwiches at a café now. But at the time, I remember begging my dad for white bread, I was like, ‘could you just….buy…like half a loaf! They sell half loafs, and just like six slices of cheese’. So I’d go to my friend’s house and just love what they ate. It was so weird you know, white bread and cheese for me is the epitome for me of what we didn’t have.
My dad is, not formal, but we all had to sit at a dining table for dinner, using a fork and knife from this old cutlery set he had from when he migrated, I think it was very special for him. We’d be like, ‘we should sit in front of the tv, dad!’ and he was like, ‘no, we will not do like the Americans with their pre-recorded laughter, I will laugh when I want to laugh and not during dinner’. I was like, oh my god [laughs]. Just some of the funny shit he says. I’d get to school, and I’d never repeat that to friends at school because it just made me seem more different so I’d be like, ‘yeah sure, I watched home and away’…I didn’t watch that show at all, I don’t know what happened…just trying to keep up, trying to be cool…it never happened.
I read in an interview that you found your way into fashion as a way out of the boredom you had towards your job so, I was wondering if design and fashion were always apart of your life?
S. My Czech grandmother was a seamstress and she taught me how to sew when I was five by hand, I could sew things. All through primary school and high school I wanted to be a fashion designer, that was a given. Everyone knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. My dad taught me to sew on the same machine I have now, when I was in grade five. Then by grade 11, and for some stupid reason, I decided I wanted to study anthropology. I don’t know what happened, I think the culture thing hit me, or the idea of being different hit me and I wanted to investigate that. At the time thought I was going to save the world, from an environment perspective, you know – we’re going to be sustainable and green!
I remember my teacher being like, ‘ah, you’re good at art why don’t you do that’, and kind of rebelled against it, even though all along I told people that I wanted to grow up and be a fashion designer.
My dad said artists die poor, so I was like I don’t want to die [laughs] let alone be poor. So when I did uni selections I put environmental policy first, because it had the lowest entrance scores …I didn’t have high expectations for myself….for the thing that was closest to anthropology. Random. So that course I did was more like an anthropology degree and less like an environmental specific degree. For my second, third and fourth choices I put anthropology and sociology degrees and fifth – I put fashion. I was hoping I wouldn’t get in. I kept going ‘I don’t want to get in, I don’t want to get in!’. That fifth choice was a TAFE because back then, in Brisbane, there wasn’t a uni version of fashion design. I guess this whole time my dad thought it was a good choice, because he was like, ‘well you have a chance to go to get a degree, why would you go to a TAFE? Anyone could go to a TAFE, you could go to a TAFE now if you want’ this was in grade 11. For him, TAFE was short courses you did at night – not courses you did for life. So I got my first choice, and I went. I am very interested in the environment, I was, but the whole time I was at university I would spend all of my time sewing, painting, drawing, I’m blowing cash on watercolours like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know why, everything I did was art related and I persevered through that degree. I failed a whole year, like 7 out of 8 subjects in one year….kept going…because I finish what I start. I made my dad so bloody proud, he was almost crying at the graduation. He didn’t go to university so he really wanted that for me.
When did you realise taking this path down that path wasn’t for you?
S. I kind of skirted around it by doing all these other creative things, everything but the thing I should have done!
It was a building up over four years of hating working in a government organisation there were two things that I particularly hate – one I hate air con so much, and I hate environments where I can’t choose music. It’s always quiet at work, and freezing. Also, everyone in my team was around fifty or sixty and they were all on the verge of retiring, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this for another forty or fifty years!’.
There was another guy working in my corral that felt the same way about our work environment and also had an interest in dressing well and so we started dressing for each other. It was the only thing that brought any excitement to going to work. I’d say, ‘oh Thomas, what are you wearing tomorrow? He’d be like, ‘my paisley tie, checkered shirt and some particular pair of pants’, then I’d tell him what I was wearing, and we’d waste hours doing this sort of shit. That happened for about a year, we’d have fantastic Mondays, we’d dress for each other on Mondays, go to the park and do a photoshoot and we’d hang out. It was getting crazy [laughs].
I started a street style blog in Canberra as my excuse to get out of the building. Everyone else would go on smoko or to get a coffee, and I’d take my camera and doing street style shoots during the workday and then uploading it at work. I was doing all of this at my desk, all the while keeping my job. I still didn’t make the leap that I should just do fashion.
Then one day I was at work on the fantastic Monday and we decided to dress as the bins, because we decided we were no more useful than the bins. We both dressed and posed with these bins. I think we had a collective mental breakdown [laughs]. The two of us got to this stage that was not normal. The thing that kicked it over, was the guy sitting next to me got promoted to the position that I probably should have been in, purely because he wasn’t part time. At that time I was studying part-time and they thought my interests weren’t there. That guy was watching The Simpsons on his computer, but because he was really good at talking the talk and being blokey he got promoted. I thought, this place isn’t for me – I can’t play that game. This cleaner came through, and as he left, he went around the corner, that guy took the piss out of him. And that was it – that broke me.
I would have rather of cleaned that building than worked in it for guys like him. That was it for me. After that I called up the TAFE and asked about courses, they were having an audition for their fashion course the next day. And that was it. It decided my fate.
When it comes to creating and designing, is there something that you are able to express through design that you find you can’t express in anything else you do?
I tend to explain stuff very complicatedly, and at length but my clothing is so ridiculously simple, and presents very minimal but, there is actually a complexity behind it that makes it seem simple, a very complex idea. After the months and months that it takes me to arrive at that design, and put it out on the shelf, it looks like a square. When I’m advertising or talking, I say I am a minimal designer – but there is nothing minimal about the process that goes on there.
My clothing presents a simple logic, that I cannot communicate in any other art form. I couldn’t do it in music, talking, or writing. I’m too all over the place.
How did your involvement with the social studio begin, and how have you found that experience?
S. My first day in Melbourne, I decided to go on a shopping tour of Melbourne – I knew I had to look for a job but told myself to take time and enjoy it. I went on a little day trip, visiting all these different places and I walked into The Social Studio. It was in transition and there was a sewing machine in the doorway. Andrea, who is the general manager, said to me as I walked in, ‘do you want a sewing machine?’ and I was like, ‘woah, this thing!’ I didn’t understand, and I was like, ‘I do, I really do! but first I need a house and a job, because I can see it needs to be serviced and I need a place to put it’. Andrea said there was a lady down the road looking for a sales assistant who could sew and there was a place going for rent above it. I thought she was joking. We got chatting a bit more and she was so sweet. I left there feeling like I’d found my place. I went down the road, within fifteen minutes, went into the shop and the lady had just sent that email about half an hour ago – the email to Andrea. We talked about my experience and clothing and she said I was exactly what she needed. It was ridiculous. So I went back said a big thank you to Andrea and I worked there for three – four days a week. I never took that sewing machine, it was too bloody heavy [laughs].
Six months later, Andrea replied to my email and said she vaguely remembered me saying that I did a fashion design course. She asked if I wanted to teach.
I love the Social Studio. It has its ups and downs. As anything does. It comes with a lot of cultural things that I’ve had to face. My students are often older than me and they’re parents, so I feel like I’m their kid in twenty years. Often the problems they are dealing with, and the crap they have to integrate into their lives, just random requirements that you have as a person, that is harder when you don’t even speak the language – even if you speak the freaking language, it’s hard to integrate that stuff into your life. So I feel like I see myself as their daughter almost, and I know it’s hard for them but it’s worth it and their kids will be thankful…hopefully [laughs]. My parents did the same, and I appreciated it. The Social Studio, at least, gives me that reflection on my past in a difficult setting. Often you can’t do something for everyone, and the jobs these guys are going for are the same ones I’m in, so I tell them what I did and how I hustled. I tell them about how I walked in and chatted – I point out their strengths and give them honest feedback. The Social Studio has been a big learning curve in being helpful but being chill.
Growing up, was there a time where race and identity really stood out to you? Was it something that was always there and recognised?
S. When I was young I think I just went under the radar. I think when you stand out as a person, everything stands out about you.
I’ve always found it really interesting when people talk about Australia being racist. I actually do agree, but the ones being racist find it hard to recognise because it’s done in this joking way, they don’t mean it badly, so they don’t see how it’s hurtful. I remember when I was really young, a girl walked past with her mum and she said something like, ‘Coco Pops’, and it’s the only time in my life where I had a quick reply and I said, ‘Rice Bubbles’. I remember saying Rice Bubbles, I was little – maybe five – and I remember thinking, ‘yeah, I got back at her’. But also thinking, why did she say that? Coco Pops are yummier anyway. My dad made me believe that Coco Pops were two colours and he would premix the Coco Pops with the Rice Bubbles to give it a lower sugar content. So in my life Coco Pops were brown and white anyway. So her insult never made sense, because I was like, but there are two colours! [laughs].
THE PIN. If you could give yourself one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
SUZAN DLOUHY. When I went overseas for the first time, I was 17, and my dad always did this when I was younger. He never told me not to do something, but he phrased it in such a way that made me not do it, or do the right thing. He’d say, ‘keep your eyes open’. When I went on this trip it was the best advice.
So I think I’d tell myself, have confidence and trust in yourself.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Photo credit: Carla Lurato
Models: Mamuch Konnker, Adede Viktoria Abraham, Ivy, Maima, Chipo & Mawut