By Luke Voogt
From weddings to Fashions on the Field, Lainie Brookman’s dresses have long been part of special days for Geelong women. She speaks to Luke Voogt about her dressmaking journey and her hopes for 2021.
Lainie Brookman went from making dresses for one bridal party a year, after giving birth to her first daughter, to sewing right up until going into labour for her second-born.
“I was quite busy then,” the Waurn Ponds mother said.
“I had a deadline and I went into labour three weeks early – I probably should have timed that a bit better.
“I’d had niggling pains all through the day and there was only hemming and a few things left to do.
“I sat on the couch for a break and when I stood up my water had broken.”
Lainie’s love of fashion began decades earlier as child.
“My mum worked in factories sewing and she always made clothes for us,” she said.
“Her mum was a dressmaker too. When I could I started making clothes for my Barbie dolls.”
She fondly remembered making formal dresses for three high school mates.
“They were late 90s fashion – no big puffy sleeves, we’d just got out of that,” she said.
“But I’m doing lots of puffy sleeves for racewear now, so they’re back.”
She did a fashion course at The Gordon straight of school but her first job in the industry put her off for a while.
“It’s a classic ripped off in the fashion industry story,” she said.
“You’re fresh out of fashion school and you take what you can get.
“I did a lot of work for little pay. You get to a point where you just want to earn a regular income to pay the bills.”
So she got a job at Mitre 10. But a decade later she got back into fashion while on maternity leave for first daughter Mienna.
“We built our house at the same time,” she said.
“We had a room that was going to be a study but I ended up setting it up as a client fitting room.”
She began hemming jeans and taking in clothes, and made a bridal dress and bridesmaids dresses for just one wedding that year.
But her orders “exploded” in following years through word of mouth.
“One of those bridesmaids would get married a year later and come back to me for their bridesmaids’ dresses or wedding dress – and so on,” she said.
“I can pretty much track my wedding dresses back to one client.”
Three years later, she was doing a couple of weddings a month and was “back on the sewing machine” a week after giving birth to second daughter Saige.
“When you own your own business you’ve got to do things like that,” she said.
In 2017 Geelong local Peta Bell looked Lainie up for a racing dress, which introduced the dressmaker to the world of Spring Carnival fashion.
Peta went on to wear several of Lainie’s dresses to races across Australia, including one that made the NSW finals of Fashions on the Field and came national runner-up in 2019.
“This year I had about 30 clients booked in for Geelong Cup, Melbourne Cup and even some girls in Queensland,” she said.
But COVID-19 decimated racing crowds and wedding plans across Australia.
“I’m down 90 per cent what I would normally be doing,” Lainie said.
“With the numbers allowed at weddings at the moment people are postponing – I’ve even had a few postpone to 2022.
“They’ve put their lives hold. I’ve got plenty of clients booked in for next year but a lot are ‘what-ifs’.”
But luckily Lainie’s electrician husband Stuart has had steady work, while mask-wearing restrictions saw her go from “doing pretty much nothing to two months of craziness”.
“I didn’t want to make face masks,” she said.
“But when Dan made the announcement that Victorians had to wear facemasks, my phone started ringing immediately.
“I had to find three other ladies that could sew to keep up with demand. It was good to be able to give them a bit of income in these horrible times.”
As a designer, Lainie is normally ineligible to enter Fashions on the Field. But amid COVID-19 organisers this year created a new category allowing designers to enter themselves digitally.
She designed new dresses for herself and her daughters.
“My girls absolutely loved dressing up, they had heaps of fun,” she said.
“I don’t do menswear, so I just told my husband what to wear.”
But she hopes to see race-goers and brides wearing her dresses again soon.
“I really miss the creativity,” she said.
“I love seeing the end result when it all comes together with the hair, makeup and flowers, and knowing I’ve been part of their special day.”
After 15 years of dressmaking, she has become much better at knowing when and how to tweak an outfit.
“Early on there were some dresses I made that will probably never see the light of day in a photo again,” she said.
“But now I can read people to ‘say, OK, what do we want to change?’ They’ve got to walk out knowing that they’re happy and I’m happy.
“It’s my name on the garment so I tend to steer people in the right direction.”