Roopa Pemmaraju's story is one the most intriguing in fashion's recent history but, for a while, it was doubtful she would ever get to tell it. One more rejection; one more crinkled nose - ''Roopa what …?'', ''Roopa who …?'', and she might not be sitting here now, chic and pretty in one of her own vividly printed silk blouse designs, ladylike with knees together, taking tea (green) on a creamy-pale couch in her very charming, very English-style Toorak apartment, talking about her world opening, finally, like an oyster.
For the majority reading this who don't have a clue who she is - yet - Pemmaraju, 32, has an eponymous collection of fine silk dresses, skirts and blouses. They are exquisitely made and finished in her own factory in Bangalore, India, and just as exquisitely printed with patterns acquired under licensing agreements with Australian indigenous artists.
''I love what I'm doing, bringing two artisan cultures - Indian weavers, Aboriginal artists - together,'' she says. ''It is very contemporary clothing for today's world. I'm not a trend follower, or looking at what other designers are doing. I try to be unique in a way that people will love.''
The fusion of such disparate cultural concepts hasn't been easy to market. There were misunderstandings, unfair assumptions, rejections. Even the name, Roopa Pemmaraju, could work like a curse. Until prospective stockists actually saw and touched her graceful silks, doors stayed stubbornly shut. She suspects because of her Indian heritage, her collection was assumed to be ''ethnic''. And, because of its indigenous theme, it was stereotyped as being as kitsch as the ''dot art'' of tourist T-shirts.
''It was very depressing,'' she says of the unanswered phone calls and sparse front rows at her Australian Fashion Week shows. ''Art was something I wanted to work with but people think there are just two different categories of Aboriginal art: the $2 T-shirt, or the millions of dollars' worth of paintings.''
In fact, she had discovered an elegant, fashionable midpoint and it hadn't been easy. She had to tame her Indian tendency to ''go crazy'' with colour and embellishments. ''To put it on!'' she laughs. ''Put everything on!''
She had also been counselled, by eminent Australian Fashion Week stylist Kelvin Harries, about Australians' ambivalence to colour. ''Australians love their black, white and grey,'' Pemmaraju says. ''They love colour, too, but if you're bringing colour, you have to do it very sensitively.''
Finally, she managed to infuse her evolving high-end international designer look with the sensibilities, cultural traditions and flights of artistic fancy brought by the indigenous artists whose work she carefully selected from hundreds of samples. ''I love the Aboriginal art because it's pure, it's natural, it's ethical,'' she says carefully. ''I don't care about the politics. I care about the artists, what's their inspiration, what they see around them, what's their tradition. It is the same way I see my artisans in India.''
When she moved to Melbourne from Bangalore five years ago with her IT engineer husband, Pemmaraju was a fine arts graduate and seasoned professional with experience in two of India's most prestigious fashion production houses. She also produced her own fashion label, Haldi, out of a factory in Bangalore, and had been selected for a group of India's finest young designers to show at Lakme Fashion Week. Anyone else might have plunged head-first into the market, confident of success. Pemmaraju, however, observed the Australian fashion scene quietly, using the time to take a master's degree at RMIT.
Only when she felt ready did she launch her remarkable label, which was financed by a range of hand-embellished saris she called Calanthe and which were selling well in India.
Immediately, that inexplicable pall descended. She spent the next three years in fashion limbo, or purgatory, if you count the anguish of being so thoroughly ignored. When her collection was finally picked up, almost accidentally, by the David Jones womenswear manager, David Bush, she had mounted two group shows and one solo show at Australian Fashion Week without signing a single stockist. ''Everybody, after their show, is very happy,'' she says. ''People to greet and parties …'' She, on the other hand, hovered somewhere between crestfallen and philosophical.
She had spent an extraordinary $110,000 on her show, including flying Kelvin Harries to Bangalore to advise her on colours and styles in a sample range, the best models, music, public relations representation and agent. There was stress, and sleepless nights.
''It was killing me inside,'' she says. ''Did I do the right thing?'' Yes.
Though David Bush had actually missed her show at Australian Fashion Week, he was handed a lookbook and, true to the reputation of his future-fashion radar, arranged a proper showing to touch and see Pemmaraju's remarkable collection.
And the rest, as they say in Indian and indigenous Australian circles, is history.
■Roopa Pemmaruju's spring-summer ready-to-wear collection will be in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane David Jones stores next month. Her resort offering will be available from October.