I have a psychic to thank for Threads. “Have you written that book yet?” the woman, a stranger, threw at me back in 2014, before I could even step into the room and properly introduce myself. Her question made me flinch, as the chances of my biography of George Gross getting off the drawing board at that stage were looking remote.
Although I had known the designer for decades – meeting first when I interviewed him for Vogue in 1986, then striking up a personal relationship via my friendship with his twin and business partner, Kathy, at whose request he even designed and made me a to-die-for wedding dress – George was proving an unwilling subject.
I knew him as sophisticated but fun and blessed with an encyclopaedic memory and an unending roll call of colourful anecdotes. His talent I rated as freakish because I wore and adored his clothes, especially the slinky black-tie frocks and the work jackets that somehow fit as perfectly as haute couture.
Best of all, he had a wicked sense of humour – I was sure a book about him would translate to a laugh a minute. Plus, as the George Gross & Harry Who labels had just closed down after forty years, it seemed the perfect time to reflect on a stupendous career.
Much to my disappointment, however, he had already said no to going under the microscope, and I was thinking about giving up on the project.
“But you won’t,” the psychic announced confidently. “You will tell this man’s story, and it will go right around the world and change your life.”
Naturally, this prediction from left field gave me goosebumps and proved just the extra push I needed. After I redoubled my efforts, the book got the green light. I launched enthusiastically into my research, which required multiple visits to Adelaide and a fact-finding trip to Hungary. It was there, mid-interview with one of George’s relatives in the foyer of a Budapest hotel, that I finally understood his reluctance to revisit his past.
Laid bare, the secrets of George Gross’s childhood are dark and haunting. For me, who knew him always as a buoyant optimist, it was an unexpected trail of heartbreak that made his ascent to the glittering heights of fashion even more remarkable.
Born Jewish in Hungary at the height of World War 2, the young George lost scores of relatives to the Holocaust, while barely surviving the ghetto himself in the care of his grandparents. Pain continued under Communist rule, as the Gross family soldiered on, starving, struggling and living in poverty, until a daring escape from the hell of Budapest changed every dynamic.
Arrival in Australia meant freedom, especially for George. As single-mindedly as any genius who grew up pursuing a passion, he had learned to retreat from the ugliness of his early life by drawing beautiful things, coveting fine fabrics, yearning for glamour and designing outfits in his head. Years spent observing his tailor father in action gave him the technical skills to back up his innate talent. In Sydney, the unstoppable teenager formulated a plan – to be a fashion designer – and shrugged off parental insistence that he study medicine.
With Kathy, his lifelong muse, providing inspiration, George began making the glamorous clothing that would define him, always incorporating (even when he couldn’t afford it) beautiful fabrics in rich, jewel-like colours and sleek lines that accentuated the female form.
Given what he has overcome, George’s rise to the top is a triumph over the odds. But I prefer to describe it as an entertaining journey spiced with laugh-out-loud celebrity moments. Or a thrilling hang-on-to-your-hat rags to riches tale.
Typically, the designer who dressed Hollywood stars, royalty and a revolving door of Australian Prime Ministers’ wives launched his professional career in ebullient style – as a 16-year-old schoolboy who sold a sheaf of original sketches to a famous stripper.
That career was still on an upward trajectory at 30, when he blitzed the Australian fashion awards with his first collection; in his 40s, when he shared the Bicentennial stage with Versace, Armani, and the rest of the world’s top designers; at 50, winning a 10 year contract to design Qantas uniforms; and even at 70, as he celebrated four decades in business with millions of loyal customers, sharing it all with Kathy and his partner in work and life of fifty years, Harry Watt.
With all its pain and loss, followed by the exquisite contrast of success and joy, the George Gross story is much more than just a fashion biography. And there’s a movie in it. At least, that’s what the psychic told me.
Available in eBook ($14.99) and paperback ($24.99) at www.leanderpublishing.com