Designer Alannah Hill shares journey from despair to reinvention

World-famous designer Alannah Hill left Tasmania as a teenager but the pain of her childhood, has never left her. 

Hill said her solo move to Melbourne was an attempt to erase her past and start again. 

“I love Tasmania and am very proud to be Tasmanian ... I wasn't fighting Tasmania in the war I waged on myself, I was running as far away as possible from my childhood memories,” Hill said.

“I understood that I had to get away from my parents, not because they were bad or evil, but because my instincts told me to leave. 

I could have stayed at home with Mum and the family in Ulverstone, living on the edge of the Vulcan heater, but I knew I may be buried alive.

Allanah Hill

Hill's success on the Alannah Hill label in Australian and international fashion scenes meant that her name was added to a list of Tasmanians who had left and made it.

But as her brand and identity grew, her life story was hidden. 

Her new memoir Butterfly on a Pin: A memoir of love, despair and reinvention uncovers it all. 

The book documents her North-West Coast childhood growing up in a family where she felt unloved and unwanted, explores the strained relationship with her parents, talks about the rise of the Alannah Hill label, and includes motherhood experiences and health scares. 

One of the more difficult times in her life was when her family, including parents, three brothers and a sister, lived in a Milk Bar at Penguin. 

Hill said when she wrote about the Milk Bar more than 200,000 words arrived on the page –  a lot of which were cut from the final draft. 

“On one level I remembered everything as soon as I began writing about it, and on the other, well, I'd buried the memories inside a very dark coffin and opening that coffin was often spellbinding and too haunting to bear,” Hill said.

“The Milk Bar memories will never leave my mind.”

Hill's memoir.

Hill's memoir.

One of her favoured chapters tells the story of a family from Penguin who scavenged at the local tip and lived in their own “shadow house”. 

Hill said she took on the vulnerabilities of that family, and witnessed a heartbreaking scene involving the mother and a lawnmower. 

“It's an incredibly emotional chapter and at the same time, dark, raw and horrifyingly honest. 

“I believe we all struggle with the fragility of life and for me, nothing is more poignant, tragic and eternally sad than the Williams' story,” she said.

Hill's family story and relationship with her own mother further deteriorated after Hill became a mother herself.

Although her father at one stage acknowledged her tenacity, they were never close. 

She went back to Tasmania twice a year, for three days at a time to visit, but Hill said there was always distance.

“The few times Mum and Edward were together I saw how she might have been with me, impatient, unforgiving, shrieky and nerve struck,” Hill said.

“The way she had been a mother was so different, and mum didn't like my modern ways. She thought I was spoilt as I had a nanny, a career, a Mercedes, I was single, I was 40.  

“All the while Mum couldn't grasp I'd had the gall to have a baby, despite her warnings not to.”

Hill's Tasmanian past is dotted with op-shop purchases and throughout the memoir it becomes evident that Hill reinvented herself through style, makeup and clothing, where she created her “fantasy world”.

“I love how a favourite piece of clothing can lift our moods, put a spring in our step,” she said.

This understanding that fashion has the power to transform stayed with Hill as she developed her “unique, iconic, feminine and rebellious” design collections, and ultimately, it assisted her successes.

Undoubtedly, so did her unconventional, but gutsy personality. 

“I recognised immediately that I wasn't like everybody else.  

I always felt like an outsider, a misfit, like I didn't belong anywhere ... a true Aries ... curious and forthright with the ‘look at me, don't look at me’ paradox.

“I guess my little mantra of ‘I'll show you’ is what has kept me going.”

This mantra has finally resulted in her latest move to tell-all in her memoir, where Hill has proved she is not just a creative in the clothing and fashion sense, but also in writing.

E and Allanah at the Westin Hotel, Sydney, in 2005.

E and Allanah at the Westin Hotel, Sydney, in 2005.

She said the writing process was full of challenges, and there were many drafts.

“I love all the wild imagery [in my memoir] ... love how this can evoke beauty, mystery and darkness ... it often took me several days to get a sentence right,” Hill said.

“I completed the first draft in a gorgeous villa in Italy. 

“The second draft was completed on the kitchen table, but when it became very serious at draft 20, I locked myself away for weeks and my boyfriend Hugo helped me struggle through the darker times.”

On completion, she said it takes a lot of nerve to write a memoir.

“I hope my dark story will give other people with similar backgrounds to mine a sense of hope, and to remind all the unjoined people out there hiding in shame that they're not alone.”