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A Lesson in Fashion: Saint Augustine Academy

Fancy yourself as a bit of an indie rock god? Or do you just have a thing for sharp silhouettes and impeccable tailoring? If you’ve answered yes to either of these questions, you’re probably already familiar with the holiness that is Saint Augustine Academy. We’ve seen you lurking outside their eponymous boutique in Surry Hills, don’t even try to deny it. Side Street Sydney caught up with the label’s designer, Alvin Manalo to talk rock and roll, dressing MGMT and his latest collection, ‘Do You Believe Her?’.

“I used to sell suits for a tailor out west when I was young,” Alvin tells us about his background in design. “I watched him measure customers to make made-to-measure suits for them. He let me cut the fabric, so I guess I learned by osmosis.” It was this knowledge about tailoring that he later infused into the printed t-shirts and denim he was making, with Saint Augustine Academy’s first collection featuring directional blazers lined with vintage fabrics. Since then, the label - named after the private Catholic school Alvin attended in the Philippines - has come to cater for men and women “who like the look of sharp silhouettes and tailored items that have a directional point of difference.” Alvin explains that this reveals Sydney style, saying, “people in Sydney aren’t afraid to dress in a way that reflects their personality. They like to cultivate their own look in a way that expresses who they are.”

It’s clear how much of an influence music plays in Alvin’s design process, and goes to show how inextricable these creative spheres are; the two feeding off and informing one another. “Hell, how good did bands like the The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Ronnettes look? It was all about skinny suits for guys and ruffles and lace for girls,” Alvin says, in what could be a brief summary of the label’s overarching aesthetic.

“First and foremost, I start with some kind of narrative that I create with music as foundation… At the end of the day, if I can picture the piece being worn on stage, then it’s a winner,” he says of the design philosophy that is always at the back of his mind when working. Some of these ‘winners’ that have so far seen themselves on stage include ‘The Bluebelles’ mini shorts and ‘The Crystals’ organza shawl, worn by friend and fan Holiday from Bridezilla at the band’s Homebake show. It’s clever if not unintentional advertising, but it furthermore demonstrates Saint Augustine Academy’s ties with the local music scene. Proving his humbleness, Alvin also speaks unassumingly about dressing international act MGMT, saying, “I got to hang out backstage and dress them for their show… getting to meet some of my idols via the label has been great.” One of these idols has no doubt been Nick Cave, who Alvin presented with a Saint Augustine Academy jacket during All Tomorrow’s Parties.

The title of the latest collection, ‘Do You Believe Her?’, takes its name from a song by The Raveonettes, which references “the sounds of 60’s girl groups, British invasion bands and surf rock,” Alvin tells us, ever so well-versed in rock. “The collection aims to say that it’s okay to get really dressed up if you want to.” And trust us, flicking through the lookbook makes you wish for never a bland outfit again, no matter the occasion.

Alvin points out some of these statement pieces: “For menswear, I’m particularly proud of ‘The Who’, a peaked-lapel suit jacket with a chain-link closure that comes in black for evening, or a fine houndstooth print for a daytime party.” Hetero men, if this sounds a little too subversive, rest assured that the line also consists of slightly more demure mod-style suiting, “not necessarily for the guy who has to wear a suit for work, but does anyway because he likes that look.” This certainly makes us think the world would be a better place (at least sartorially) if more men subscribed to this theory, with Alvin adding, “the shirting and jackets translate well from boardroom to bar.” However, he concedes that his favourite piece from the entire collection is the women’s tuxedo: “I like using a traditionally masculine item and translating it for girls,” which alludes to a Patti Smith-inspired androgynous aesthetic.

Since the beginnings of Saint Augustine Academy being stocked at Incu and Capital L, it has grown to sell nation-wide, online and in its namesake store. Opening in mid-2008, the store felt like a natural progression for the label, which had a solid fan base by this stage. “Guys hunted our garments down from interstate!” Alvin says, still sounding a little excited. “We wanted a space where our customers could come and see the whole collection in its entirety. It’s great to be able to meet the people who like to buy my clothes.” With its minimal but completely unpretentious décor, “there’s always someone in the store, shooting the breeze.”

“I’m there most days so when new customers come in they’re sometimes surprised to find the designer working in the store.” Except you won’t find him there this month, as Alvin will be in New York to meet distributors and take part in a trade show in an effort to re-launch the brand on the US market. The rest of 2010 will be no doubt just as busy for the label, showing at RAFW in May and also looking into developing Saint Augustine Academy accessories and footwear.

Alvin Manalo

You can pop into the store at Shop 1, 642 Bourke Street, Surry Hills.

words: Ingrid Kesa


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