Opera's Fugly Amazingness
Mark Bo Chu with Netta Telma and Pip Lennon
Under dappled sunlight and canopy shade, Opera’s full-story shop window bursts with exuberant displays that verge on sculptural installations. Inside, the refitted house possesses tight clothing racks filled with a cacophony of disparate styles and silhouettes. Designer pieces are dressy, avant-garde and accessible. (I picked up Evisu jeans for $120 at the opening.) Their stock leans femme, but for larger men like me, there is lots to peruse. The bulky supermarket checkout says it all: This is retail and recycling reimagined.
Opera was created by Netta Talmi and her six friends, each with backgrounds in art, set design, graphic design and fashion. I spent a sunny September afternoon with Netta, talking about taste, time and the tangible love she feels for garments. Netta’s colleague Pip Lennon joined momentarily via speakerphone, turning me to the sublime of the “fugly-amazing”—the scattered objects that move beyond the limits of comprehension.
Mark Bo Chu: Where do you usually source your clothes from?
Netta Telma: Different places! I mainly source in-person because I had a business before that involved op-shopping and going to markets. But Opera has experienced such high demand that we have started turning overseas. Lots of clothes are coming from Japan and Europe.
MBC: Are you seeing clothes of a certain era being refreshed today?
NT: I don’t think anyone’s actively trying to replicate an era. It’s just organically circling into fashion. Opera is trying not to follow certain eras or trends necessarily, but rather grab items that we like from everywhere.
MBC: Is there a unifying aesthetic within the collective?
NT: It’s putting together pieces that aren’t necessarily perfect. We’re not trying to put together perfect outfits. Even just looking at the mannequins now, they’re not quite right. Opera’s about accepting that and making it part of our aesthetic.
MBC: There’s a strong sense of humour at Opera, from the sculptural table with the suit legs to the past window display with stuffed red stockings in kitten heels. Is this intentional?
NT: Organically, it’s become like that. Playfulness is definitely part of our aesthetic. Having the windows has provided such a great opportunity to be creative. For me, it’s been a great way to do more interesting installations and play with clothes.
MBC: I love that for collectors of masculine clothing, there are larger sizes.
NT: That’s been really important for us, but it’s really hard. We hadn’t realised how hard it was to find vintage designer clothes in a variety of sizes. There’s stuff out there, but it takes a long time to source. A lot of people who come in are locals who want a larger size, so it’s really important for us to accommodate everyone.
MBC: So, who comes to Opera?
NT: It’s been really nice to see how many local older women come. And men! For all ages! It’s really cool. It’s been interesting how age has played into the shop. The youngest, Luca, is 19 and the oldest, Marley, is 33. I’m 25.
MBC: Do Luca and Marley see something radically different in the garments?
NT: There’s an aesthetic that I see very prominently with Luca and his friends that I might not see in Marley’s friends.
MBC: Could you describe that aesthetic?
NT: That’s really getting into it! (pause) Yeah, I don’t know ...
MBC: Because you don’t want to pigeonhole …
NT: Yeah, I don’t want to pigeonhole, and I don’t know how it would translate into writing. (Laughs)
MBC: Do brands mean something different to different people? Consider, say Diesel. Right now, there’s a Diesel bar in the city, and they have charcuterie.
NT: It’s funny that you bring up Diesel, because I have such a weird relationship with the brand. Since opening, I’ve wanted to focus on timeless pieces that are not so trend-oriented. Diesel, I’ve been trying to feed out of the store because it’s such a trend-oriented brand.
MBC: Even the vintage stuff?
NT: The vintage stuff as well.
MBC: You guys are creating a trend, right? I’d normally mean that as a compliment, but you might feel like it’s a dangerous responsibility. How does Opera create taste?
NT: There’s been a lot of conversation about what does and doesn’t belong in the shop. And there’s been a lot of times when things have been taken off the floor because we don’t think it’s suitable. Before it even comes on the floor, there is a discussion based on quality and style, but it’s difficult to decide together on style because everyone has their own take on what’s cool and what’s not. There’s been times where maybe I’ve taken something off the floor, and someone will disagree, and it might even sell.
MBC: Is it garment-to-garment?
NT: It is! It’s really about the individual garment. As a shop, a blanket criterion we have is that if something isn’t a designer brand, it has to be high quality or unique. It has to have a point of difference and something interesting about it.
MBC: What gives designer brands their authority?
NT: Quality. Style. History.
MBC: Have there ever been big arguments?
MBC: Tell me about them!
NT: Some have come up about diffusion labels. Max Mara has a few different lines. Same with Moschino. There are different lines in these brands, and some of them may not be as on point as others. Personally, there are some brands I don’t think belong in the shop. When other people disagree, it comes down to the individual garment.
MBC: You must have a lot of education and knowledge about the brands’ histories.
NT: Not enough; I should have more. For a lot of us in the shop, our focus is on playing around with the clothes. There are shops out there that know where each runway piece is from. But that’s so different to my relationship with clothes. We’re trying to allow people to be a bit more creative and put things together that you wouldn’t pick together. The way we curate the shop is based on how we would like to go shopping and getting inspired by other people’s perceptions of how a garment can be styled.
MBC: Can you tell if something new has vintage potential? Do you go to new designer shops?
NT: Just out of curiosity. Especially when I was in Europe. I didn’t go to buy though. It was interesting how little of it I would buy! But in twenty years’ time I probably would, you know what I mean?
MBC: What’s the oldest piece in Opera?
NT: We have stuff from the 1940s or 1950s. It’s interesting, I was speaking to my mum about this, she also had a vintage shop when she was younger. She was saying that in the early nineties, vintage shopping was just not a thing. It’s just become bigger and bigger.
MBC: Maybe there wasn’t as much pressure on her to see into the past and future? In a way, it’s quite a lot of responsibility.
NT: Pip was actually going to be involved with this but she’s nervous about potentially having COVID.
MBC: Would she want to talk on the phone?
NT: (Dials Pip) Can I put you on speaker?
MBC: We’ve been talking about the communal aspect of Opera.
Pip Lennon: That’s an ongoing conversation. Things might not be appropriate if they’re too new. Some brands might be too contemporary, or Hypebeasty. But taste is subjective so you can’t pin it down. And that’s the good and hard part of a communal structure. Sometimes I might see a piece and be like, I don’t know if I really hate that, or really love it. There’s a tension in being so drawn to it. I don’t know if it’s because it’s fugly or amazing! I like to play with those things.
MBC: When you see something on the edge of ‘fugly’, are you about wearing it?
PL: My relationship with clothes is always developing and often based on my past relationships with clothes.
NT: I feel like everyone in the shop is naturally buying for themselves, whether it is going to fit them or not.
MBC: I feel like you guys are on the same page, which is awesome.
NT: Considering how many decisions we have had to make, most of the time we’re always on the same page. It’s pretty funny.
PL: It’s very easy between us.
MBC: Thanks Pip. Rest up!
(Pip hangs up)
Before I left, I asked Netta to share what she was loving on the shop floor. She darted from rack to rack, editing the displays, riffing on the quality of a silk Blumarine dress’s detail, a quirky Commes Des Garcons cycling top and Dolce & Gabbana boots in hard-to-find size 42. She explained that the racks are shared by all six stockist-collectors, so their tastes are mixed together. Each stockist has a discreet code printed on the Opera label—to discern who chose the piece. Netta also confessed that she spends many Saturday nights alone in the shop, rearranging the displays, which I found touching. A Fluro-yellow Love Moschino singlet with two inexplicable neckline arcs of beaded tassels reignited our chat about fugly clothing.
NT: See, this is a good conversation, this one, because I really hate Love Moschino!
MBC: “I really hate Love Moschino” is a great sentence!
NT: (Laughs) But! I understand why Pip has put this in here because it’s so bizarre! It’s been a big discussion. Love Moschino.
MBC: Is it fugly… but it’s also cute…
NT: It’s hideous! But it’s so hideous that we like it!
MBC: It could be worn by different body types and give really different effects. Or someone could just wear it as a singlet on a hot day.
NT: The best would be if a seventy-year-old woman came in and bought this—oh my god! Actually, I posted a story a few days ago with a cardigan with a pointed hood.
MBC: With the red! Yeah, my partner loved it, with a mushroom growing from it.
NT: Yeah, super bizarre! And I was like, who will buy this? And someone bought it! It was really cool that she was keen on it.
MBC: Do you ever see locals in your eccentric pieces?
NBC: Yes, it’s so amazing! There was this tie-dyed Juicy Couture hoodie that was really rogue, and this seventy-year-old woman came in, looked quite normal, had a simple appearance, and she loved the jacket and bought it for herself! It was so great.
MBC: You’re colouring our streets.
NT: I love it!
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