Home-town homage

By Alana Scheter
The Age
December 08, 2013
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In a typical Swanston Street tourist shop, the shelves groan with the weight of the trinkets and knick-knacks for visitors to take home as souvenirs of their visit to this fair city. There’s row after row of brightly coloured T-shirts proclaiming ”G’day mate” and plastic, thong-shaped key rings. There are also novelty pens featuring the Fosters-guzzling bogan, koala-themed boxer shorts and shot glasses decorated with pictures of W-class trams.

For tourists, they might be the perfect items to take home for show-and-tell, but most Melburnians will fail to recognise their home in any of the images or designs plastered on everything from stubby holders to fridge magnets.

Just a few blocks away in the central business district is another shop that sells locally branded merchandise with a distinctively different vibe.

A Melburnian could walk in and recognise their city straight away: Melway maps printed on to cushions; iPhone covers with images of the city’s gritty laneway graffiti; tea towels with old tram scrolls featuring the best-known suburbs; and a children’s wooden game dedicated to the infamous hook-turn.

There’s no other word to describe the offerings than ”cool” and they have more in common with New York’s iconic self-proclaimed ”I Heart NY” or London’s effortless ”cool Britannia” reputation. They’re aimed at residents, not tourists, and there’s not a koala in sight.

The Melbourne Shop is just one of many retail spaces that have jumped aboard the city’s self-love bandwagon.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s gift shop has a section devoted to Melbourne, plus furniture and gift shop Wilkins and Kent and pop-culture chain Urban Attitude each stocks an ever-growing range, with Melbourne landmarks splashed across everything from books to mugs.

At markets across town, stall-holders are hawking canvas totes proclaiming Brunswick’s bar scene, Carlton’s coffee obsession and Hawthorn’s leafy vibe. Many of the products feature pop art or minimalist design and have a cheeky humour to them, which is, of course, very Melbourne.

When asked to describe the best aspect of living in Melbourne, the answers are almost uniform: cultural diversity, great food and coffee, a vibrant arts scene, world-class shopping and, of course, our chock-full sporting calendar.

At South Melbourne boutique Melbournestyle, that version of Melbourne has been neatly shrunk and covers everything from elegant silk scarfs to necklaces.

Owner Maree Coote believes the products, artworks and books she sells reflect the way Melburnians see themselves and that they like having something in their home to remind them of that.

“Melburnians are intellectually in tune with their city,” she says.

“We have a sense of humour, wit and charm, and an intrinsic design sense. They love to be delighted by objects, ideas and creativity that reflect the character of their home town.”

Above Melbournestyle is gallery space dedicated to Coote’s whimsical art; all of the images feature iconic Melbourne landmarks, such as Flinders Street Station, but look fresh and exciting in their bold colours and strong black swirls.

“Somehow it nourishes us to see ourselves and our sensibilities reflected back in a design or a book,” Coote says.

”It’s reinforcing of community, of a shared experience, of a sense of place. It’s about knowing who we are and what makes us ‘us’. It’s our story.”

That wasn’t always the case, though. Melbourne has a long history of looking over its collective shoulder and comparing itself with other cities. We have measured our performance against the world’s biggest cities for affirmation that we’re doing OK; just type ”Melbourne compared to …” into an online search engine and the top three responses are London, Sydney and New York.

Every time we have won the right to host an international event, it has been held up as proof of our reputation as a [insert sporting, fashion or food] capital over everyone else.

It’s this appetite for approval and affirmation that’s traditionally kept us in a parochial mindset.

But it’s also this collective chip on our shoulder that could be pushing the march towards city pride, University of Melbourne senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences Lauren Rosewarne, believes.

“Compared to many big cities, Melbourne still has a very small population. It’s also not a major tourist drawcard in the way that other cities are. That said, this is likely both part of the charm, as well as a reason why we seem to try harder cementing our reputation in areas such as the arts.”

The booming art, craft and design fields have become key elements in the rebuilding of the city’s status and in turn, how we perceive our home town, Rosewarne says.

“In recent years I think this has become a more significant point of pride and can be witnessed in the rise in craft items with ‘I heart Melbourne’ on it, for example, which are produced not exclusively for a tourist market, but, in fact, appeal to proud locals too,” she says.

Jeremy Wilkins opened his popular furniture and gift store Wilkins and Kent, on Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street, 20 years ago and since then has witnessed the subtle shift in what customers want to buy.

“There has been a change, without a doubt. They love it. The local people are not embarrassed by the products; they can say ‘this is where we come from’ and it’s a great thing,” Wilkins says.

Celebrating individual suburbs and village identities – not just the city as a whole – is a big feature, he says.

“The area we’re in [Fitzroy] has become a destination; all the different cultures and languages, people are interested in taking a piece of the area home with them.”

Coote agrees, adding Melburnians have always loved their city, but have previously expressed it in different ways.

“[They] have demonstrated this by their actions of protecting it over the years – refusing to give up their trams in the 1950s, saving their theatres from demolition, cherishing their buildings, parks and beaches,” she says.

When Urban Attitude stocked its first specially commissioned Melbourne range last year, by graphic designer Jimmy Gleeson, the reaction was “overwhelming”.

Store spokeswoman Jess Mulquiney says locals from both sides of the Yarra are enthusiastic buyers. She believes taking a slice of Melbourne home is an extension of the city’s vibrant coffee and laneway culture, which has become a source of pride.

“It’s the ability to connect with these aspects of Melbourne and bring them into your everyday life that makes the products so appealing,” Mulquiney says.

“Iconic trams, Melway maps and symbols such as Skipping Girl vinegar can be a part of a Melburnian’s identity and being able to bring these landmarks and sites into your own home must be a reflection of who they are,” she says.

Based on the success of their first range, a fresh collection of Melbourne-branded homeware will be released in January.

In recent years, Melbourne has been showered in the praise it used to crave. We’ve been named the world’s most liveable city for the past three years in the Economist Intelligence Unit Survey and the University of Melbourne remains Australia’s top-ranked university and is now firmly in the top 40 across the world. The 2013 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings placed it 39th, up from 43rd a year earlier.

In 2012, we jumped from 38th to the top 10 in the City Reputation Index, beating the likes of New York. The poll, which compared 18,500 cities across G8 countries, measured trust, admiration and respect for a city.

Social researcher and demographer Mark McCrindle believes Melbourne’s growing reputation as an international destination has helped brush off any notion of cultural cringe.

“What’s changed is we appreciate and respect the culture of our cities. Australia has some global cities and Melbourne is a standout.”

McCrindle believes the design and marketing of this new appreciation of our city has perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist that has given Melbourne a desirable personality.

“I can totally understand it and relate to it. It’s sophisticated and there’s a depth to it. Melburnians are cool and funky but it’s not just the young people. It is a destination city,” he says.

Melbourne’s change in confidence in itself and its offerings hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The 2012-13 Tourism Victoria annual report reveals the southern state dominates as Australia’s most preferred destination.

Between 2008 and 2013, the annual growth of international visitors coming to the state has outstripped the national trend (4.7 per cent compared with 2.3 per cent). We also beat Sydney (1.2 per cent), which, as any good Melburnian knows, is what matters.

Results from the 2012 Roy Morgan research holiday tracking survey reveal Melbourne is expected to remain Australia’s most popular destination for domestic holidays, snaring 22 per cent of the market, following by the Gold Coast (17.5 per cent) and Sydney (11.7 per cent).

On the international front, visitors increased 6.1 per cent – to 1.78 million – during 2012-13.

Natasha Skunca started her brand, Make Me Iconic, four years ago and is among the new breed of designers and makers who are taking Melbourne icons and not-so-well-known sites and reimagining them.

She says her aim is to make “fresh things familiar and familiar things fresh”.

A self-confessed Melbourne girl, Skunca lived in London for 10 years before returning home several years ago. She brought with her a husband, two children and a stack of “cool” London souvenirs to remind her of her time in the British capital.

“I wanted to decorate my home with Melbourne-themed items, but there was nothing available like there is in London. I realised there was a niche in the market, so I started my own business.”

Skunca’s products have become cult favourites, with the wooden tram, hook-turn prints and Skipping Girl mug selling out throughout Melbourne.

Since her launch, the market has very much embraced the trend.

“Now, everyone is doing Melbourne souvenirs. It’s great to see such a creative community going on.

“It’s for people who love Melbourne and want to have a little bit of pride about Melbourne,” Skunca says.

Back on Swanston Street, the small crowd of tourists whirl around the tourist store, grabbing those kangaroo T-shirts and crocodile-skin wallets that claim to represent Melbourne. They ”ohh” and ”ahh” over their selection, unaware that just a few hundred metres away is a shop that sell a much more authentic version of the town.

But that’s OK, because there are plenty of buyers eager to snap up proof that they live in the world’s most liveable city.