George Gross and Harry Who were Australia’s world renowned fashion kings, numbering Princess Di, Joan Collins, Olivia Newton-John and Lady Sonia McMahon among their celebrity clients.
After four decades at the fashion helm, the Adelaide designers finally called it a day in 2014.
But so much about this dynamic duo’s fascinating story has never been told – until now. Journalist-author Rose Fydler has written a book, Threads: The Untold Story of Fashion House George Gross & Harry Who.
She chats to The Starfish:
Congrats on Threads. How did you come to do this book?
Thank you. The idea came to me over some months in 2014, the year the George Gross & Harry Who business shut down. As a long time customer I loved the clothes and had come to know a little of George’s background as the son of a Jewish tailor and how he considered his father, an Auschwitz survivor, a mentor, plus a few other fascinating snippets from his past. When none of it was covered in the farewell publicity, I approached George’s twin sister Kathy suggesting I write a no-holds barred account of George’s life. She and Harry were instantly keen but George was not – he didn’t want his story to overshadow theirs – and I believe it took quite some persuasion, pushing even, to talk him around.
Did you realise how much work would go into it from the outset, i.e. more than 50 interviews?
I had no idea! I sensed I was embarking on a great story, but the multiple layers were a complete surprise.
It was fashion, love, history, family, celebrity, all emotionally intertwined – plus rare design talent and the drive to build a powerhouse business of four decades from scratch. It made me feel strongly that I had to get it right. As I meticulously worked my way through the detail, I spent nearly two years flying to and from Adelaide several times a month to interview George and Harry.
I tried to impose myself on them as much as possible during these three-day visits, chatting for consecutive 2-3 hour stints with my tape running. Then I’d start transcribing on the plane home, so I’d be ready to return with another lot of questions as soon as possible. It was a long process but the material gave me goosebumps and always, I couldn’t wait to hear more.
An enjoyable process?
I loved it, particularly as George and Harry generously welcomed me into their world, and answered every question with searing honesty. As I became part of the furniture and interviewed them at home, on walks with the dog, in the car, at the beach, and at restaurant tables all over Adelaide, I regularly basked in Harry’s warmth and sparkling wit, and held back tears or felt my jaw drop as George bravely recounted childhood events or matter- of- factly described each stunning step of his meteoric rise. “Fascinated” probably best describes my general state of mind during the entire interview process.
We all know of George Gross and Harry Who for their fashion success, but what are some other things about them that would surprise people?
They are both talented artists who paint, and who also have a passion for real estate and interior design. They are animal lovers who consider their small fluffy dogs their children.
George and Harry have been an item since they met in Adelaide 1967, and like so many men in that era, they had to keep it a secret for so long. Do you think having to keep that secret made much impact on their lives?
I don’t think so. Both strong characters, they liked who they were and never hid a thing from the people that mattered. George’s main reason for not discussing his sexuality in interviews was that it had no place in the business arena. As the gay marriage debate raged last year they watched with interest, but stated often that marriage wasn’t for them. They are very happy just as they are.
You interviewed George extensively. Now that you know him quite well, how would you describe him?
He certainly isn’t someone who can be summed up in a couple of words! At first meeting he is just as courteous, cultured and charming as you would expect. But he is also incredibly tough and driven (and unapologetic about it), plus a visionary on a number of fronts, and a man who operates via passion and an unshakeable will of iron. He has my total respect.
Their celebrity clients included Princess Diana, Joan Collins, Olivia Newton John, and Adriana Xenides. What did you learn about the late TV star while researching this book?
That Adriana was as gentle and sweet in private as she appeared publicly, but also riddled with angst and demons that drove her to hidden drug and alcohol abuse. Very sad. Also, thanks to the multitude of people contacting me since the book’s release, I discovered that she still maintains a massive fan base across the world, even eight years after her death. Listening to George talk about her, it was clear they shared a great love and respect that went beyond her wearing George Gross & Harry Who designs on TV for a decade. He explained it as “getting each other” as soon as they met – when you pin clothes on someone’s body every week as George did, you develop a special sort of intimacy and trust. He and Adriana had that.
Your book says Rose Hancock once made an impromptu marriage proposal. Can you tell us what happened there?
Rose Hancock quite possibly qualifies as George and Harry’s most enthusiastic customer – she liked the clothes so much she decided to marry the designer. She and George had never met before she walked into the crowded Sydney flagship store, caught sight of him and called out: “Hey George, I’ve got the jangle and you’ve got the dangle – let’s get married!” The memorably worded proposal would send anyone into a flap – but George, acutely aware of all eyes and ears on him, tried to let her down gently. “What about Harry?” he replied. Rose’s reply was hilarious.
We’ll have to read the book to find outt! How are George and Harry both doing today?
At 81, poor Harry has experienced some serious health troubles but is still home and living comfortably. His beloved George tends to him with regular help, and also finds time to mentor young designers and TAFE fashion students.
Who would your book appeal to as a Xmas present?
I think the book would make a good pressie for fashionistas, business people, history fans, Aussies who survived the 80s, and definitely the millions of George Gross & Harry Who customers out there. Or anyone else looking for a good juicy read over the holidays. Threads is an incredible true story, an inspiring tale of rags to riches success, as well as resilience after tragedy.
What will your next book be about?
I’m just at the point of taking a big breath and embarking on a fiction book – the first in a series.
Threads, The Untold Story Of Fashion House George Gross & Harry Who, by Rose Fydler (Leander Publishing) is out now.