Exquisite folds, delicate detailing and a meticulous making process; pleated garments exude a sensuality and movement that has forever fascinated the world of fashion. Over the course of history, the process of pleating has evolved under many artisan’s hands, with technology taking little reign. Human touch, tradition, curiosity, and entrusted knowledge are still at the heart of this exacting and time-honoured craft, with a lineage traced back to ancient Egypt. Handmade pleats decorated rulers’ tunics of silk, cotton and wool, disappearing once washed, only to be done all over again.
Pleating machines, the permanent press, and polyester have simplified the process and enabled mass production, although many pleaters still choose to create them by hand. One is Rado Pleating, a specialty hand pleating house that has been in the heart of Surry Hills, Sydney, since 1962. It is the last of its kind in Australia, and I was introduced to their immaculate artistry through their work for Australian designer Bianca Spender. Mark Radowski, a second-generation pleater, has worked at Rado Pleating for most of his life, keeping the company’s legacy alive since his father passed away. Mark’s parents started the business in 1962, having escaped war-torn Communist Poland to Australia in search of a better life, and built the business from the ground up with help from their local community. Mark is passionate, grounded and an excellent conversationalist. After many failed attempts at getting ahold of him on email or text, I called Mark on the phone, and what unfolded was a dynamic conversation on his family’s personal history, places he finds inspiration and the lasting importance he places on community, collaboration, and supporting of local production and manufacturing.
What did your family do to work in pleating, having had no experience in the field when arriving in Australia?
My parents came from diverse cultural backgrounds. They were both Polish; my mother was Catholic, and my father was Jewish. He met some people in the Jewish community who tried to help him, and one of them had a pleating business. There were quite a few pleating companies in Australia back in the 60s, and clothing manufacturing in Sydney was particularly vibrant. I guess he thought this might work and rented a cheap space on Reservoir street, the same street as our current factory.
“Pleating is folding a fabric in some fashion, in multi-direction, one direction, or graduated direction."
"Most of our work uses pleating moulds. Things like sun rays..."
Why did they choose to start in Surry Hills? Do you have childhood memories of the factory? What was it like?
Surry Hills was the traditional heart of the rag trade in Sydney. In the 50s and 60s, these big open factory spaces were available cheap because Surry Hills was pretty much just a grungy working-class suburb. My parents found a factory space on the 7th floor of this building. The elevator only went to the 6th floor. They had no money and were just starting out, so they took the space. It was pretty physically challenging, as I recall as a kid. Totally flat, low roof, no elevator. But our experience was probably no different to most migrants back then. We all go through tough times in the beginning, and then hopefully, you end up making good. Which was the case, I guess.
Did your dad learn about the trade through the Jewish community he worked with at first or was he self-taught?
He initially learnt the skill set from another older Jewish guy who had a small pleating business, I think someone in the same street. He was happy to help him. When my mum and dad started their business, they started off small, doing everything themselves. As they got busier and gained credibility in the fashion industry, they had a small workforce of maybe 6 or 7 people in their little congested space.
When did you join the business?
My background was high school teaching, and my parents didn’t want me to join the business because it’s very much up and down. Clothing manufacturing and other parts of the industry are generally constant once you’ve built yourself up. But pleating is very much fashion dictated. Some years pleating was the fashion, and some years it wasn’t, and suddenly you need fewer people, and you don’t have much income. I remember my father telling me he never had more than a one year lease on his factory space because he never knew what the future would hold.
How have you seen it change over the years?
Right now we’re very small, there’s only around 6 of us, but back then we had 30 staff. Most of them came from our ethnic background, which is Polish, after the war having had negative experiences of Communism. I was much younger and had lots of energy and enthusiasm. My father and I were quite different, but I think that we complemented each other quite well. He taught me a lot of technical skills, and I encouraged him to take on more space and buy more machinery. When he realised he would have someone by his side through it all, he said, ok, let’s expand. We had the whole floor, 30 staff, and it was bustling. Fast forward to the late 80s early 90s, the tariffs came off clothing. Suddenly everything started shifting offshore. But through it all, we’ve been here in our building, inefficiently occupying space in Surry Hills.
Tell me about pleating…
Every pleat has their own particular characteristics. Pleating is folding the fabric in some fashion, in multi-direction, one direction, or graduated direction. Movement relates to the pleat and the fabric that you’re using. Most things we pleat aren’t natural fibres but polyester, mainly because polyester is the most functional fabric to pleat. But we do pleat silk and wool too. Wool pleats quite nicely. Pleating is highly skilled process work. You use special pleating moulds, which we make ourselves. In the 20 years before I joined my dad, we didn’t have machinery and equipment. He only used pleating moulds.
And using pleating moulds is what you would call hand pleating?
Yes. Our history and our expertise are in hand pleating. Initially, my father learnt how to make them, then my mother, but they’re very time-consuming. We became so busy that we had to employ a person full time to just make pleating moulds. The fabric is placed into them, compacted, and gets placed upright in a large stainless steel box that has steam and heat pumped into it. When we first moved into this building, we used most of its 4 levels to store our moulds. We had 10,000 pleating moulds. We still have around 1000.
What is your role at Rado?
My role has been procuring work, managing the business, production, quality control and timelines. Nowadays, it’s my wife Marysia doing the pleating, and occasionally our two sons lend extra hands. I didn’t ever get involved in the actual pleating side of it. All the pleating companies in Australia have closed. We managed to stay open because we own our own space, and my parents established a good reputation for having quality work. We’re focused less on the price that we charge than on making sure everything we do is to a particular standard. Sometimes some of our competitors weren’t that focused on that.
Do you have a collection of vintage pleated pieces you reference? Is there a historic pleater you love? I remember seeing pieces from the early 1900s by the Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny at The Met in New York, which took my breath away.
That’s the kind of pleating which my folks wouldn’t have been aware of initially; Fortuny or other historical references. Back in the late 80s, grunge had a big influence on fashion, and that kind of crushed and distressed effect was very popular. We weren’t familiar with it. We didn’t even see it as pleating. We were immersed in the tradition of sun rays, knife pleats, box pleats. And I remember one of the designers we worked with took me aside and said, "Can you do this kind of stuff? The crushed stuff like Fortuny?" and I said no, and she said, ‘Well, you want to learn quickly, or you’re going to miss out.’ Motivated by the fact that we had to keep a lot of people busy, we found different ways of presenting that look in different formats and developed new pleats. Being creative is motivated by commercial realities, and you’d be wise to modify your brain and adapt.
I guess it was less about looking at history and more about looking at the current. Do you use more hand pleating techniques or machinery now?
We do what’s best for the situation. Most of our work uses pleating moulds. Things like sun rays, based on those half-circles, which Bianca Spender does a lot of. When Bianca discovered us a few years ago, she got excited by some of the sunray samples we showed her, and she developed some of her collections based on those patterns. She seems to have a lot of success with them. We use machines only when we can’t do it by hand because we feel we have more control over the moulds. However, small pleats can only be done on the machine. Many of the crushed pleating, Fortuny type pleating or those with larger spaces that look more organic, like tree bark or something, can only be done on the machine.
Because so much pleating work now goes offshore, has that made you focus on custom design work where you work closely with your clients and designers?
That’s partly true. Probably 99% of Australian fashion is manufactured offshore. A lot of the luxury or upper-middle brands have offices here where they design or make samples here but produce offshore. We have references of old moulds we hardly ever use, and we also have garment samples here that we’ve made over the years, and some of them go back 40 years. Sometimes people are encouraged or inspired by what we show them. I don’t know how Bianca works, but I think she’s probably far more creative to be doing what mainstream markets are doing. Still, a lot of the commercial fashion industry since the 70s has gone over to Europe, brand’s find looks working overseas, and if it’s popular and selling in volume in Paris or Milan, they’ll buy the samples, photograph them, and have us recreate them.
I mean, that’s basically the fast fashion model now, but they just get it from catwalk images online, and often have it on the shelf before the designers do. It’s interesting to think about that historically, though, that by nature of the fact that Australia is on opposite seasons, and we don’t feel we have a big enough market to be leaders in design, that we’ve always been following trends. I hope that’s changing. When you work with Bianca, does she seem to be an independent thinker when creating her designs?
I definitely think so. I don’t know exactly how Bianca works, but she obviously has talented people around her, people who help and inspire, whether it be her design team or a pattern maker. It seems they work really collaboratively. She leads the team. She’ll have her own ideas about what she wants to do. I mean, how are designers inspired? Whether it be by fashion or something from history which triggers an idea in their head. They’ll come to us when they want to bring the idea or concept to life, and if we can, we’ll always accommodate whatever they need.
When did you start working with Bianca Spender?
I met her for the first time a few years ago. She came here with a couple of her colleagues. She was genuinely excited about discovering us because she hadn’t done pleating before and could see this as a whole new aspect of her work. From that moment onwards, every season, she’s had some pleating in her range. Pleating adds a whole different dynamic to a garment. It could be a whole skirt or a little inset on a cuff or collar. It depends on the creativity a designer has. We work closely with Bianca and with her design team. She seems to attract and employ people who are very capable.
It seems like you attract people who are artistically minded and creative.
The ones who are producing in this country are probably more likely to be that. On a personal level, I find it disappointing that most mainstream companies produce offshore. Most are large enough and expensive enough to do all or at least some of their production here, but for financial reasons, they choose to produce offshore because there’s a far bigger financial advantage. They’re focused on the bottom line.
You place a lot of importance on locally made and Australian manufacturing. Where does your passion stem from?
I think whether it’s a fashion garment or a tin of tomatoes, you want to feel like you’re supporting your local community, even if the cost is a little more. I’ve made attempts to talk to people at an owner or senior design level at many companies to encourage them to produce here, but typically they don’t.
I think that the collaborative aspect and tactile nature of working closely with craftsmen and artisans are really worthwhile.
Some people are reassessing their position now that we had so many supply chain level issues with Covid. But people at the budget level of manufacturing are locked in. They’ve got no choice. If you’re selling a shirt for $40 and need to pay someone a legal living wage in this country, realistically, you’re not going to be making it here. But there are plenty of people reassessing it because, yes, you can make more money making it in China, but we can still make a living and justify making it here. Hopefully, the people at the higher price point will start making that decision.
I think consumers are becoming much savvier, and the narrative element and storytelling behind the clothes they buy and wear are becoming more important.
And isn’t it great to be able to put a label on your garment and say it is proudly made in Australia? There’s a sentimental aspect because I’ve been here over thirty years, and a practical aspect. If we close our humble little pleating factory, no one will ever reopen pleating in Australia. No one could invest the amount of money into the machinery, rent. It just wouldn’t make financial sense. Maybe someone with passion and interest will carry it on for us, but if not, the last remaining pleating factory in Australia will vanish.
Do you think a motivating factor was to keep the tradition of your family alive?
If we were motivated by the financial aspect of what we can make week-to-week, we wouldn’t still be around. But we’re not motivated by that. We’re comfortable, we’re happy, we don’t need anything more. My father, he’s been gone for nearly thirty years now, had a saying; ‘How much can you eat?’. He didn’t want to live in poverty, but he didn’t need excessive wealth in his life. If some larger companies were driven more by that mindset, there would be more local manufacturing.
In Paris, there was a pleating workshop by Gerard-George Lognon, and when retired without an heir to take over, Chanel purchased it to keep the atelier’s traditional craft and skill alive. There’s a history of importance on craft and couture in France, which I wish we saw more of in Australia.
There are designers here in Australia who are placing importance on Australian manufacturing over profit. You can support local industry, and Bianca Spender is doing that, and I don’t think enough credit is given to the people who make that effort. These brands know they’d make more money manufacturing in China, but they choose not to. It’s a choice.
What is inspiring your world at the moment?
Over the last 30 years, we’ve encouraged and had many students come here on industry visits to see how the process works. Sometimes they’ll come back with their ideas about incorporating our facilities when creating their designs. We admire and are inspired by the young people coming through, new designers, often forging a new path. They’re always very excited to find there’s still
someone who can meet their pleating requirements. That’s a really pleasurable aspect of the business, contributing to their education and development, I suppose. An influx of them come towards the end of the year when their collections are coming together. They’ll send us a couple invitations when they have their end of year parades, and we get to see the pleating that we’ve helped to create become these amazing garments. It’s inspiring to see.
I’m sure they get a lot of inspiration visiting your space and feel excited that someone is keeping the craft alive. I imagine that they’re learning so much about the historical element of pleating too, and tradition. You guys are living that.
Totally. We get people from all industries, dressmakers, Opera Australia, ballet companies or theatre companies. But students find us essential. They have no other choice, so it’s pleasurable to know we can assist them and contribute to their development. It’s good to feel needed. We worked really hard in the first 20 or 30 years to be where we are now. As I come to the end of my working life, I’m here because I want to be here. It’s a good place to be. The legacy that my family helped create, this modest little story, which eventually will come to an end. Hopefully, the pleating will continue, but I’m not so sure. But for as long as Marysia keeps enjoying her work, we’ll keep turning up and doing our thing.
BY SALLY PATON