Dom Bagnato: 30 years in Australian menswear

When Dom Bagnato established the suit brand that bears his name in 1984, every one of the beautiful garments he sold was proudly and lovingly constructed in Australia.

For the son of Italian immigrants, it was a point of pride that each of his creations came to life in a warehouse in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

When the local textile industry hit hard times around 1990, Bagnato held out for as long as he could, changing to a different local supplier at great financial cost, before bowing to the inevitable and moving his manufacturing to China "with a heavy heart".

Springing into action

Melbourne's annual Spring Fashion Week celebration kicks off on August 30. At the same time Bagnato is celebrating 30 years as a survivor and, latterly, icon of the often tumultuous local rag trade.

Now 57 and a member of the MSFW advisory board, he says he relishes the opportunity to provide guidance and advice to talented young designers.

"This is why I love being involved in Fashion Week and being on the advisory board as well, because I now contribute something I didn't have, encouraging young people to plug into all the facilities they have available today," Bagnato says.

'I just fell in love with that moment'

A love affair with clothes began aged nine during a visit to his godfather's tailor shop in the small northern Victorian town of Tatura, where his parents were market gardeners.

"I walked in, and I can still see and smell the room, and I see this tailor who is standing behind a table, the light is behind him, the smell of the steam, I just fell in love with that moment," Bagnato says.


"He reluctantly accepted me to go after school and play in his workroom. To keep me occupied, he put me in a corner on a green stool and he gave me buttonholes (to sew) - it was more a 'keep him quiet' sort of thing."

The nine-year-old's course had been set. He completed technical school, where his determination to take sewing classes proved unpopular with the other boys and brought another of Bagnato's passions – boxing – reluctantly to the fore.

His path inevitably led to Melbourne and after several jobs including a trainee supervisor at Sackville (which became Sportscraft) and a pattern maker at the Government Clothing Factory, he and wife Pia took a gamble and established the Dom Bagnato brand in 1984 as a suit wholesaler.

Well suited even on Struggle Street

From the beginning, Bagnato's design ethic has been heavily influenced by his father and uncles, who in spite of their humble day jobs would dress in fine suiting for social occasions.

"We were struggling, but here they were dressed up at functions in ties, hankies and coats. Without even knowing it that was a big driver for me, was presenting yourself well.

"Dad used to say there's nothing more powerful than a good name, and by that he meant integrity, how you present yourself in life."

However, persuading Australian customers to take such pride in their appearance and add a touch of individuality proved challenging. In the early days the wholesale buyers who picked over his carefully curated collections would buy "so safe".

"I would show this amazingly powerful collection, coordinated and full of style, and they'd go and buy the navy suit," Bagnato says.

"That's what drove us to open up our own store, because we believed that the consumer was not seeing the whole Dom range."

Banishing bland

But the 1980s-era customer also sought out corporate blandness. "We had all this great stuff on the racks, and all they wanted was the navy suit. It was terribly frustrating," he says.

"Instead of capitulating, we just mellowed it back a bit, softened it, and eased the consumer into the taupe suit or the charcoal with a tinge and just took them through a journey."

It's only in recent years that men have begun to embrace a more adventurous dress sense, and today Bagnato is in his element as his customers snap up the flamboyance and individuality he has always offered them.

"We are an Italian brand. We're not born in Italy, but our essence is Italian and our approach to the way we want guys to dress," he says.

"Italian men will wear jeans and a white shirt and they'll still look amazing because of attitude, they just have this swagger about them. It's that."

Milan comes to Melbourne

Bagnato says MSFW brings a touch of Italy's fashion capital to Melbourne. "I'd go to Milan and see the buzz and the romance that fashion adds to a city, and I'd think, 'that's what's missing in Melbourne'.

"Walking around last year, sponging in the atmosphere, I felt incredibly proud of what it was doing to the city. That buzz I was hungering for, it was there last year.

"The thing that drives me to this very day is not just seeing our stuff on people, but seeing people beautifully dressed, presenting themselves well and just enjoying the joy that clothing gives you. That is what drives me. It's a way to give people joy."