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At home with Leanne Whitehouse

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The fashion luminary's lifelong passion for design was inspired by a small but important (and famous) lump of plastic.

Guiding light ... Leanne Whitehouse has mentored a generation of star Australian fashion designers.

Guiding light ... Leanne Whitehouse has mentored a generation of star Australian fashion designers. Photo: Nick Moir

"That was painted by the man who taught me to design and draw, a wonderful fashion illustrator named John Gould,'' says Leanne Whitehouse, pointing at a large abstract acrylic, as she greets me at the door with a warm smile, her puppy, Lu Lu, jumping about.

The dog is named, naturally, after a handbag designer. Her previous dogs were similarly named Fendi, Nina and Coco.

Barbie was absolutely my inspiration. 

It's not terribly surprising to find the fashion industry luminary's Woollahra property is the epitome of taste, its white walls dotted with notable art works and souvenirs of travels. The 56-year-old has almost single-handedly guided a generation of Australian fashion designers, including Akira Isogawa, Alex Perry, Lisa Ho and Camilla and Marc.

The original Barbie doll.

The original Barbie doll.

Whitehouse pours tea in a motherly fashion as she relaxes on the tree-lined balcony.

''Ah good, now … I can bring out my toys!'' she says, referring to a bucket of raggedy soft toys for Lu Lu with whom she travels between her homes in Melbourne and Sydney and a country retreat near Crookwell, in the southern tablelands.

''My Melbourne house is 50 times more modern,'' she says, ''but my farm is definitely country farm-style with pale lemon walls and pink-checked curtains on the inside of white cupboards.''

When Whitehouse moved to Crookwell a decade ago, neighbours laughed at her taste.

''It's a modest farm so the neighbours thought I was mad when I moved in and bought lots of chandeliers!''

Whitehouse's choices are steeped in her childhood and a transience stemming from countless moves across the country every time her father, who worked for an American corporation, was promoted.

She says she doesn't really form an attachment to places or things, admitting she'd be happy to style a house and move on every few years, as long as Lu Lu came along.

''I was born in Perth and I live between Melbourne and Sydney - every promotion dad had meant a transfer,'' she says.

''I went to an enormous number of schools, but as I had a twin sister, I always had a friend.''

And, while she can't quite put her finger on her influences - citing a Norwegian grandmother with a flair for design - Whitehouse credits a bit of plastic with inspiring her career. Granted, it's a very famous piece of moulded plastic.

''Barbie was absolutely my inspiration,'' she says without a hint of a smile. This is a woman lauded internationally by the fashion industry, who has worked with, among others, John Galliano through her relationship with Accademia Italiana, in Florence.

''I knew at four or five years of age I wanted to be a designer and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

'' I had a calling and I spent my childhood making Barbie doll dresses and drawing pictures of clothes.

''I used to go to school with all the Barbie clothes I'd made. I could sew and make a pattern but I preferred drawing.''

And draw she did, until, aged 16, she made it to design school, then known as the National Art School, at East Sydney. Within three years she was teaching at nights and by the time she was 28 she was the full-time acting head teacher.

''I found my home there,'' she says. ''I think my path was absolutely guided - that I should have that path to do what I'm doing today.''

There were a few years in which she strayed from that path. Waking up one morning questioning if she was ''going to die'' in the old building, Whitehouse sold her belongings and headed to the then-dangerous and not-so-glamorous New York.

After a series of life-threatening incidents she sought frivolity and sunshine in Jamaica, where she became a windsurfing champion.

''It was a lovely period,'' she says.

But it was when she returned home and had her daughter, Billie, now 26, that she really hit her stride.

''I remember thinking, when I wanted to leave Billie's father when she was one, 'How do I take a child out of all of this? This has got to work.' That's the bulldozer energy you get when you have to provide for a child,'' she says.

''There was no choice. That was that and it was time to get on with it. I realised very quickly that I needed to start a business - my day care cost $450 a week more than what my take-home pay from TAFE was - so I thought, 'How am I going to take care of day care and rent and food?'''

So, with $1300 in her bank account, she put a small ad in a magazine (''it was all I could afford with that money'') and 25 people responded. Of that group, 24 people gave her money to start a school.

''I remember interviewing all these kids with Billie bouncing on my lap in a small rented cottage.''

When asked what gave her the courage to back herself, Whitehouse is assured: ''I'd had a long time teaching designers and we sent 1000 students away a year as we couldn't fit them in the National Art School, so I knew there was a market. I thought, 'I've got this opportunity and I'll write the syllabus and curriculum.' And back then there was no accreditation required!

''The money I got from these kids' deposits was more money in the bank than I'd ever had - and I promised the premises would be somewhere nice,'' she says.

The school opened in 55 Liverpool Street with desks and sewing machines Whitehouse bought at auction. ''I carried the sewing machines in. That was the beginning of it!''

Now in its 25th year and with 600 students - a huge reunion is planned for next year - the premises is a state-of-the-art, seven-storey block in Surry Hills.

The Whitehouse Institute of Design now has a Melbourne campus that formed the backdrop to the Foxtel reality program Project Runway. And there are plans to expand into Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.

The school, she says, could expand ''virtually anywhere in the world'', though she shrugs at the idea of internet degrees.

''Surroundings matter,'' she says matter-of-factly. ''Sitting in a car in a high-rise carpark trying to blog something is not inspiring.

''It is colour and shape and form and texture and all those beautiful elements that make up the excitement of good design.

''It's the hands-on stuff that gets you going.''

Expansion of the institute remains firmly on the cards, though.

''The last time I felt a little stale, we opened in Melbourne, which has been an amazing success,'' she says.

''In my mind's eye I didn't have a picture of what it would be like, but now I have a picture it could be a lot bigger, business is exciting and design education is exciting and education in Australia is exciting.

''There are so many young, entrepreneurial, far-thinking people who challenge your every thought; these kids are amazing.''

Having just stepped off a plane from a convention in San Francisco, Whitehouse's enthusiasm is palpable. But her farm is where her heart is. The place from which she draws her strength.

''It's there I'm home,'' she says. ''Even if it's lonely mostly, I love to go to the farm, I love working with cattle, I love being on the tractor.

''I love being in the garden - it's a hard physical slog there, but it's just beautiful.''

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