Evan Wade (“EH” or “Wadie” behind his back) was an Anglophile, well spoken and impeccably dressed. He always loved good clothes, preferably imported labels purchased at Henry Bucks. He kept his moustache neatly trimmed and smoked a straight pipe, never wearing anything that didn’t suit him or made him look ridiculous. He started work at the age of 13 in 1903 as a Warehousemen in Flinders Lane, progressing to become an overseas buyer. As overseas fashion buyer, he subsequently managed fashion control at Burrell Watkinson, 118 Flinders lane, the first of the specialty dress houses. Local garment manufacturing became established as a result of the Great War, and by the Twenties, the ‘rag trade’ had become a huge industry, with many specialty houses centred in the narrow canyon of Flinders Lane.
On 7th May 1926 he started his own business as E.H. Wade Pty Ltd, at 260 Flinders Lane, later shifting to Cavendish House, 159 Flinders Lane. In 1941 Cavendish House was taken over by the Government, and the Rationing authorities moved EH to the basement of a new art deco building at 187 Flinders Lane called Yoffa House, just up from St Paul's Cathedral. There EH established a showroom, office and warehouse that remained the business home for the next forty years.
Evan and his first wife Nancye were said to have been an ideal couple, both with fine looks and dress sense, but tragically Nancye was diagnosed with TB and passed away in 1931. The youngest of her three sons was only two years old. By then the Great Depression was really biting and EH had to fight to save not only his family but his business. He was able to restructure, and in 1933 employed 17 year old Colin Venn as a sales representative.
Colin grew up in Adelaide, where his great-grandfather had been one of the earliest settlers. His father managed Arthur & Co, an importer of textiles and manchester, so Colin had a formative association with the ‘rag trade’. Sometimes he accompanied his father on sales trips, an early exposure to the life of the Commercial Traveller which was to become second nature to him. Moving to Melbourne in 1926, Colin finished his schooling at Melbourne High as the Great Depression bit. He got a job selling buttons for the importer W.H. Smith, at 232 Flinders Lane, starting there in January 1932, soon after his sixteenth birthday. As he delivered orders of buttons to Fashion Houses up and down Flinders lane, he was impressed by their beautiful showrooms which opened up a world of wonders. He wanted to work in one himself, and the following year got an interview with Evan Wade, who employed him as a Junior Salesman, but also undertook to develop Colin as a Stylist, interpreting overseas trends in terms of local tastes and available fabrics. This was an irresistible offer, and Colin took a huge drop in income to get into a fashion house.
Reunited with Jean and his four year old son, he continued the task of making a garden out of the bare clay surrounding their home on the edge of Melbourne in Balwyn. Colin’s grandfather had been one of Adelaide’s first nurserymen, and both his father and father-in-law were keen gardeners, a passion Colin inherited. Much of what he grew he used in flower arrangements. He always had stunning arrangements in the showroom during showings. This artistry flowed over to his home and church as well.
For a few years after the war business remained difficult, with rationing of fabrics continuing. The firm’s premises in Yoffa House was entered down stairs from Flinders Lane. There a padded and buttoned red leather door opened into a passage direct to the showroom. A side door opened into the front office, where the girls wore a brown uniform with yellow collar. As stylist, fabric buyer and salesman, Colin shared a room with Mr. Wade between the front office and the showroom. At the rear was the Warehouse where grey dust coats were worn and where all the rolls of fabric were stored, pieces measured out and cut for the factories, and the completed frocks hung and later packed for dispatch. Everyone pitched in for the ‘send outs’ on Friday, including Mrs. Wade, as dresses were folded into cardboard cartons with loads of tissue paper.
When a client came to the showroom Colin would make his sales pitch while an assistant helped dress the mannequin, who would show the garments. The mannequins were from agencies, including a few regulars like Phil Purvis. Wadie would sometimes work with Colin, who remembered:-
‘Some of my happiest memories were working with him the Showroom, where he would hold a client for me while I finished another appointment. His skill was remarkable. He could be charming, interesting or whatever the situation needed. Long after he ceased to be active in the selling and buying side of the business and left it all to me, he would always be there when I needed him. He enjoyed these occasions as much as I did; it was quite exhilarating.’
After the war the firm had a factory (work room) at 238 Flinders Lane, managed by Mrs. La Frank, where twelve machinists were employed. Another was managed by Charlie Rose. Colin would visit these several times a week with sketches and photos, searching out fabrics and working up designs. Bolts of fabric sent up to the work rooms from Yoffa House were cut by hand, and finished garment returned there, with unused fabric.
The 'Women's Weekly French Fashion Parades' began in 1946, with Dior garments and mannequins being flown out on Lancastrian airliners (converted bombers). When the new Constellation airliners entered service in 1948 the return fare was £585 ($38,000 in 2017 values). But the sensation of the “New Look” easily warranted the cost of air travel, and the parades of Dior garments put on by David Jones and Myers galvanised the local fashion scene and helped to restart the 'rag trade' post-war. Colin made local adaptations of the style which so impressed that he was offered work with Dior in Paris. But with a family including three young boys, he was not prepared to make the sacrifice. Besides, he was loyal to EH, who rewarded him with a new label - 'Colwade'.
The firm had agents in the major capital cities. They provided showrooms, hired mannequins and arranged appointments with buyers, some of whom travelled hundreds of miles from up-country. The Sydney agent was J.A. Jones, then Nigel Watts and Shirley Smith, who was a dynamo. George and Betty Jennings were the Brisbane agents, and in Adelaide, G. Heithersay. Smyth & Hickman were the original Perth agents, but from the late 1950’s it was Phyllis Townsend, a business woman who excelled in the rag trade, one of the first industries to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for talented women. It was a long six hour flight home in the piston engined DC-6B for Colin’s son Chris, who took on the Perth trips after joining the firm in 1958.
Colin was with the firm 50 years, eventually owning it himself as C. Venn & Associates in the early 1970's. He retired in the mid 1980's and died in 1999. In retirement he continued to enjoy opera, classical music, gardening and his thirteen grand-children.
After the war Colin never went camping - he had had enough of tents, rain, mud and insects to last a lifetime. He was also slow to venture overseas. His many Interstate business trips made more flying and hotels a dubious prospect. His grandfather had advised his father - both commerical travellers - to ensure his employer put him in the best hotels, as the best was not as good as home! But in retirement he and Jean made two trips to Britain and Europe, one of Colin's chief delights on both occasions being the Chelsea flower show.
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Images of Flinders Lane in the late 1940's and the 1950's.
A far cry from Flinders Lane - Colin (wearing a slouch hat) with his crew beneath the wing of a 6 Squadron Beaufort bomber at Vivigani, Goodenough Island,1944.
Colin and Jean preparing Christmas dinner 1962. This was one of their own chooks.
E.H. Wade Beginnings ...
Van Roth Style
On the evening of his 26th birthday, 7th December 1941, Colin boarded the train for Sydney. Next morning the conductor brought the news to his first class sleeping cabin on the ‘Melbourne Express’ that the Japanese had invaded Malaya and launched pre-emptive attacks elsewhere in South East Asia and the Pacific, including a devastating blow against the Americans fleet at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. He remarked that this was ‘not much of a way to start a business trip’. He joined the RAAF in April 1942, and after training as a wireless mechanic he was posted to New Guinea and lived in tents for 18 months. Wherever he was posted Colin volunteered for the Welfare Committee, and put on shows for the airmen, scrounging fabrics to make costumes and stage sets. It was a far cry from Flinders Lane, but his skills were certainly appreciated! Wadie sent him copies of ‘Life’ and fashion magazines to keep him aware of developments - after the Nazi invasion of France, Paris lost its fashion crown to New York and Hollywood. Colin loved classical music, but jazz was the thing the airman liked, and he found himself the 6 Squadron disc jockey at Vivigani, on Goodenough Island. He would slip in the occasional classic ‘to educate and lift them a bit’!
At home restrictions made business conditions very trying too. The firm had been on part Army contract since 1940, making various uniform items and equipment accessories such as water bottle covers and bandoleers as contracts were allotted to them. They were only permitted to devote about 40% of production to civilian clothes, and the amount of fabric and fancy work on a garment, even the hem line, was subject to strict rules. Supplies of cloth were very short, and there was a constant scrounging for fabric, with even hessian (burlap) being used. Conditions began to improve in 1944, and Wadie told Colin he was -
'…thankful to now have a happy staff again…some of the drips we have had to put up with should have been drowned at birth!'
EH had served as a voluntary Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Warden – perhaps the best dressed Warden in Melbourne! He fell seriously ill towards the end of 1944, and Colin was granted leave from the RAAF to help keep the company functioning.
One of his first tests was to sell some old stock. He hawked them around town, and eventually unloaded the lot at Paynes Bon Marche, in Bourke Street. He returned to Cavendish House floating on air! But his first interstate sales trip was a disaster. Wadie sent him to Hobart because the salesman who looked after Tasmania had retired. He had worked the Hobart boutiques for years, and was well respected, but when this ‘wet behind the ears’ kid showed up, they were offended at Wadie, and sent Colin packing. Wadie was furious, and Colin thought he had lost his job for sure. But finally EH softened. ‘All right, I’ll give you another chance’. Colin subsequently made the Tasmanian accounts thrive, and built up the Melbourne and Sydney accounts too.
In the Thirties the winter stock was predominantly coats and utilitarian frocks. In summer, they made frocks and coats in lightweight wool and fancy silk and printed fabrics. Summer outfits were not complete without a wrap or coat, even when the weather was quite warm. EH did the fabric and material purchasing, the stock control, much of the styling and selling, and managed the finances. He jobbed out manufacturing to suitable workrooms because at that stage he owned none himself. In 1937 he married his Accountant, Jean McDonald.
Colin's childhood love of the movies and ballet developed further during his teens. He still bought 'Picture Show’ magazine, keeping some of them, and was a keen devotee of the Russian Ballet, which visited Melbourne annually from 1935. About that time he met Jean Neil, whose father was manager of the Wool & Needlework Department of the Myer Emporium, which occupied half of the Lonsdale Street store’s ground floor; the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Colin's brother Lance followed him into the trade, working for the fabric wholesaler Whaley Tyrrell & Co. In a further connection with the ‘rag trade’, Jean’s mother had worked in the Myer’s showroom, selling dresses to Melbourne’s well-to-do ladies. Colin married Jean in 1939, by which time he was doing some of the styling, and in 1940 he created a replica of Vivian Leigh’s crinoline gown from the blockbuster ‘Gone with the Wind’. It was displayed in Myer’s windows as part of the movie’s promotion. He was made a Director of the firm that year.