My Australia

My Australia: From Dad’s pool room to designing dresses for the stars

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Top Perth fashion brand Ae'lkemi is celebrating it's 20th anniversary this year – but it might not have existed if Alvin Fernandez's parents hadn't made the move to Australia.

‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.

His outfits have graced the catwalks of New York, London and Milan, earning praise for their bold designs and gaining a celebrity following. But Alvin Fernandez, the creator of the Perth fashion label Ae’lkemi, could have had a very different career.

“Ultimately, I was supposed to do marine biology in uni,” Fernandez told SBS News. “That didn’t happen because I missed out by a couple of points.”

Alvin Fernandez Aelkemi China Fashion Week
Alvin Fernandez at China Fashion Week 2017.
WA Fashion Council

Fernandez has been crafting women's couture clothing in Perth for the past 20 years. His designs have been described as “feminine with a modern twist” and worn by the likes of Danni Minogue, Delta Goodrem, Jennifer Hawkins and former Spice Girl Mel B. 

His family moved to Australia from Singapore when he was 12 years old, introducing him to a different style of education.

“It’s a bit intensive over there (in Singapore). After school, it was homework straight away and external tutoring,” Fernandez said. “(In Australia) it’s a bit more relaxed.”

But when the results of his final exams started to look unfavourable, Fernandez took some advice from his art teacher Vanessa Cullen and applied to study fashion and textile design at the WA School of Art and Design.

“I suppose I really wanted to influence him to see beyond art as just a high school thing,” Ms Cullen said.

“With the school he was in and his cultural background, he could bring something very unique to the fashion industry, I believed."

But telling his family about his budding fashion career was no easy task.

Alvin Fernandez Aelkemi
Fernandez working in his studio in Claremont, Perth.

“I sort of did that (studied at the art school) without my parents' knowledge for the first six months. Being from an Asian background, they sort of go 'If you don't get into uni, you go into business school',” Fernandez said.

“They see art, music, whatever as a hobby, something you don't make money or a living out of."

Fernandez set out to prove otherwise, finishing top of his course and going on to work with the late Ruth Tarvydas, one of Perth’s most respected and iconic fashion designers. He began creating his own brand and after visiting boutique after boutique with his work, he was referred to a fashion agent in the city. 

“I took my range, walking up and down in 35-degree heat with two big garment bags. She looked at the range and she goes ‘Yeah, cool ... we’ll get back to you’.” Fernandez said.

His agent called him back with an offer to take the range on a sales trip around Australia. By the time she had arrived back, 30 stockists around the country wanted his pieces.

“I was working out the back of my parents' place, so basically Dad’s pool room was my studio. He put a new table over his pool table and that was my cutting table.”

I was working out the back of my parents' place ... Dad’s pool room was my studio.

Since then, Fernandez has established himself as one of the country’s top fashion designers, winning a number of awards and paving the way for his entry into the Asian Couture Federation, the first Australian designer to be inducted into the group.

Ae'lkemi is a play on the word 'alchemy'. The label's tagline is 'Turning a raw material into something precious'.

Local fashion influencers in Perth often ask Fernandez to design their event wardrobe for the whole year, something that requires a lot of trust in the designer according to real estate executive and fashion influencer Emma Milner.

Alvin Fernandez Alchemy Samantha Wyllie Emma Milner
Fernandez with friends and customers Samantha Wyllie and Emma Milner.
Kyle Brown - SBS

“No-one else does it like him. He knows exactly what I want and he knows what looks good on me,” Ms Milner said. “His talent and creativity, he (finds ways to) reinvent the wheel all the time. He’s just a creative genius.” 

Longtime friend and marketing agent Samantha Wyllie says one of the best parts of Fernandez's work is his desire to include everyone.

“Whether you’ve got money or whether you don’t, he makes everyone feel comfortable. He’s just the go-to person in Perth.” Ms Wyllie said. “He’s so humble, so for him it’s amazing because he’s achieved so much.”

Alvin Fernandez Aelkemi Asian Couture Federation ACF
Fernandez receiving his Asian Couture Federation award in Singapore in 2014.
Aelkemi

But while some may think he’s living the high life of fashion, Fernandez sees his work in another light.

“It's kinda cool to get those accolades. I mean friends and family tend to get a little bit more excited than I do. I pretty much go, 'That's amazing, that's great, thank you, let's just get on with the work’,” Fernandez said.

“It’s not a 9 to 5 job and it’s not as glamorous as people think it is.”

Celebrating Ae’lkemi’s 20th anniversary this year, Fernandez believes his family’s decision to relocate to Australia gave him the chance to do something different.

“Being Australian to me means having the creative freedom to do what you want and to chase your dreams.”

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