From dressing Barbies to dressing Elle | Photos

FASHION designer Jonathan Ward has come a long way from the day he "decorated" his grandmother's dressing table with her best lipstick.

"I don't remember it myself because I was wearing a nappy and only just able to stand up," he said.

"It's a family story that has been told many times over the years."

Jonathan grew up in the Tottenham district where his parents had mixed farming and grazing properties.

He always seemed to be drawing and from age four or five would sit at the kitchen table sketching elaborate clothing designs for the celebrities featured in his mother's copies of Vogue and Australian Women's Weekly.

"I loved looking through the magazines and looked forward to accompanying my mother when she was having dresses made for local balls and race meetings," Jonathan said.

"She had a wonderful dressmaker and I would ask for all the scraps of fabric to make little outfits for my sister's Barbie dolls.

"Many hours were spent fitting and pinning fabric for the dolls."

The female form held great appeal for Jonathan who spent his time on the school bus sketching girls.

"I was really interested in fashion and colour, what people were wearing, and how they moved," he said.

The world expanded when Jonathan was sent to board at Trinity Grammar School in Sydney at age 10.

By the time he was 14 or 15 Jonathan was thriving on art classes and winning awards.

When his schooling was completed Jonathan returned to Tottenham for a couple of years to drive wheat trucks and help his father on the farm.

"At that stage my drawing had advanced to another level and people were saying I needed to do something with the gift I had been born with," he said.

"I was encouraged to seek enrolment at the East Sydney Technical College dress design studio.

"I sent sketches and fabric swatches and was accepted as a student. It was so exciting to draw an idea and bring it to life by making someone look amazing."

"She had a wonderful dressmaker and I would ask for all the scraps of fabric to make little outfits for my sister's Barbie dolls. Many hours were spent fitting and pinning fabric for the dolls." - Jonathan Ward

Three-and-a-half years later Jonathan was working with high-end Sydney fashion designer Robert Burton.

"I used to illustrate his collections and work in the design room," Jonathan said.

"I then went to New York, studying part-time at Parson's College of Art Design and working in retail for Yves Saint Laurent.

"Those experiences gave me a real taste for international fashion."

Jonathan returned to Australia when his father passed away. He opened his own business, Jonathan Ward Couture and later the Jonathan Ward Salon Collection.

"In the early days a good friend who had a modelling agency rang to ask if I would dress an Australian model making it very big overseas," he said.

"The model needed something special made quickly for an event to be held at Government House.

"I told my friend to send the model along. She turned out to be Elle McPherson. Things moved quickly after that as the business was driven by word of mouth."

Jonathan extended his private clientele and moved from evening wear into "a lot of bridal, pretty much made to measure".

"I dressed brides of all demographics from all over the world and a lot of celebrity clients as well," he said.

"I designed for many amazing women, including Nicole and Antonia Kidman, Lady Sonia McMahon, Kylie Minogue, Audrey Hepburn, Eartha Kitt, Maggie Tabberer, Lisa Wilkinson and Samantha Armytage."

In 2001 Jonathan was offered the opportunity to work with R.M. Williams as executive designer.

It was a dream come true for a country boy who had worn the lifestyle brand's boots, moleskins, shirts, and belts from childhood.

"I was ready for a change and a challenge and closed my atelier in Double Bay to concentrate on designing collections for men and women and working with footwear and accessories.

"R.M. Williams is an aspirational brand with wonderful DNA. It has wide appeal for both country and city people."

In more recent years Jonathan has returned to couture work for a limited number of clients.

He has enjoyed working with R.M. Williams as well as creating bridal gowns, designing uniforms for a number of private schools and working in an ambassadorial role for Wool 4 School, funded by Australian Wool Innovation.

Jonathan still likes people-watching and his eye is always drawn to individuals with flair.

"The cost of an outfit is not what matters," he said.

"Someone in a $10,000 designer dress can ruin their appearance with cheap accessories while an inexpensive outfit can look tremendous with the right shoes, jewellery and sunglasses.

"Achieving a good look is all about respecting your figure and selecting a well cut outfit in a good fabric."

Jonathan said Australians had become more casual in their approach to clothing.

"There isn't the same glamour as there was when I was a boy on the farm, looking through my mother's fashion magazines," he said.

"But informality can be a good thing as long as people are well presented.

"I am not a suit person myself. I like to wear jeans and boots, a nicely pressed shirt, tie and jacket."

Jonathan said his country upbringing had influenced his view of classic design and frequent use of nature fibres, including wool, linen, cotton and silk.

A highlight of his career was designing a special Jonathan Ward Barbie for the famous doll's 40th birthday celebration in Australia.

"When the Mattel toy company first approached me they asked if I had ever dressed a doll," he said.

"I told them all about those childhood days designing for my sister's dolls. I have often joked that Barbie was the best client I have ever had because she has never talked back."

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