From Rag Trade to Arts Precinct: Melbourne’s Flinders Lane

Art + City Guide


Once the site of monolithic bluestone warehouses and rutted roads with deep swampy puddles, Flinders Lane has evolved into a densely packed centre of Australian creativity since first officially recorded in 1843. Though few of the original bluestone buildings remain, looking a little closer reveals the colours and patina of times gone by.

In the mid 20th century, Flinders Lane was the home of the rag trade (or in Yiddish, schmatte trade), which was largely developed by Jewish immigrant families fleeing the ravages of war. Though a thronging centre of soft goods and fashion for a few short decades, this period is strongly etched in the Lane’s history.

Perhaps symbolic of Australia’s struggle as a small market, towards the 1960s innovative designers began to find local audiences shy away from their avant-garde work. The collections were however, snaffled up overseas. One Australian designer, Jill Kemelfield, who crafted garments for Dior for one season said in a recent interview, “Dior himself said Australia was the third-greatest market in the world. We were so good before people knew we existed.” Meanwhile global changes saw production largely leave Australian shores for China by the 1980s.

In a sense, art picked up where fashion left off. Buildings that used to house industrial equipment and fabric bales fell into the hands of gallerists. Among the first on the block was renowned gallerist Anna Schwartz, who opened her eponymous space at number 45 in 1986, before shifting down the street to 185 seven years later, where the remarkably long running gallery still stands. Initially people were resistant to the idea of city-based galleries, it was a foreign concept – on account of the lack of parking and perhaps the grittiness of the area that had then, fallen on hard times. 45downstairs is marked by this former life with its heavy load-bearing floors and columns. Similarly, Arc One Gallery’s interior has industrial bones. Flinders Lane Gallery, opening its doors in 1989 was previously the Bank of New South Wales, harking back to the city’s remarkable days of the 1850s Gold Rush.

Walking down the street you today you will see examples of 1920s and 30s Chicago style architecture, namely the Nicholas and Cavendish buildings. No longer bound by height restrictions of 40 metres, new buildings have continually soared skywards. Hotels and underground car parks sidle up to iconic buildings like the Majorca building or Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Ornate wrought iron details collide with futuristic geometry. There’s a hidden aspect to the street, many places of interest are upstairs or in basements, rather than loudly proclaiming their logos like high-end Collins Street next door.

You might notice that local fashion production is experiencing a quiet rebirth; the burgeoning foodie scene has staked its claim and of course, with around a dozen galleries setting up camp, creative enterprises thrive here.

Fred Kroh