By Carolyn Webb
Justin Maclean’s late grandmother, Winifred, believed that quality meant longevity in goods she bought at Melbourne’s upmarket department store, Georges.
“She said, ‘Rather than buy five of the cheap things, save up and buy one good thing’,” Maclean says.
Former Georges department store employee and now memorabilia collector Justin Maclean with his name badge.Credit: Simon Schluter
Maybe she was right: Some of Winifred’s purchases have lasted and now feature in Maclean’s collection of more than 600 items from the defunct Collins Street store that was a fixture of Melbourne for 115 years.
They include her kid opera gloves.
“You’d wear them once then have them returned to the store and sent to England to be cleaned,” Maclean says.
The collection also includes Winifred’s beloved black heels by the brand Rayne, the shoemaker of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
“My grandmother said, ‘If it’s good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for me’,” Maclean says.
Georges department store, Collins Street entrance, in 1986.Credit: The Age archives
Georges itself has not survived but its spirit lives on in Maclean’s collection, which he will exhibit for the first time in the Georges Uncovered event on October 28 for Melbourne Fashion Week (called “Georges: A Retrospective” on the MFW website). The sessions are sold out, but more are being planned for the future.
Maclean, now a retired prosecutor, worked as a casual salesman in menswear for Georges for 10 years from when he was a 16-year-old student in 1985 until its last day in October 1995.
He loved the job, including the staff and customers – and handling designer labels like Armani and Gucci. “I got to work with beautiful stuff every day. Oh, it was torture!” he says.
Georges staff in the foyer of the store on the last day of trading in 1995.
In the lead up to the store closure, Maclean salvaged old photos, catalogues, old invitations, newspaper clippings and purchased many mementoes including coat hangers, hat boxes and furniture.
He owns a silver plate teapot from the store restaurant, the Regency Room, and Richard Ginori plates made for the Georges centenary in 1980, featuring the store motto “Quod facimus, Valde facimus” (What we do, we do well).
Maclean even kept his own name badge.
He bought an exquisite, handmade gold-patterned pair of 1930s heels, branded Georges Pty Ltd, for about $60 at a National Trust shop. One quirky item is a green 1960s ankle length men’s kaftan. Maclean says it’s “bloody horrendous” but “of its time”.
A pair of 1930s shoes from Georges, bought in a National Trust shop.Credit: Simon Schluter
Maclean has vivid memories of Georges. He says it wasn’t unheard of for a customer to spend $15,000 in one go and customer service had to be impeccable.
“One woman rang and said, ‘We’re flying to Surfers [Paradise, Queensland] tomorrow. My husband needs a summer wardrobe’.
“We knew all his sizes, so we picked out casual pants, shoes, shorts, polo shirts – sent them up to the workroom to be altered, and they were sent in a taxi free of charge to their house. It just went on to their charge account.”
At Georges during Christmas time, a room on the ground floor hidden behind menswear, called the Knight Club, would sell perfume, lingerie and jewellery for businessmen to buy gifts for their wives, secretaries or mistresses, aided by advice from female staff.
The Georges restaurant, the Regency Room, in 1990, five years before the store closed.Credit: The Age archives
The Georges Uncovered shows are the brainchild of fashion anthropologist Tom McEvoy, who says ex-staff and customers will share memories and objects, which he will document.
McEvoy and Maclean are seeking a permanent home for Maclean’s collection, preferably in an institution, which can display the items.
“By not preserving it all, it just gets lost,” Maclean says. “And yet the business was around for 115 years.”
McEvoy says: “Hopefully this Fashion Week event can start moving the conversation forward, of who’s going to be the custodian of all this history, which we need. Georges was a big part of Melbourne.”
Anyone with Georges stories or memorabilia or for more information on future exhibitions can call Tom McEvoy on 0407 580 678.