CHRISTINA Exie's gowns are like rivers of black silk anchored by finely moulded leather torsolettes and elegant silver-spiked harnesses. Jonathan K. Kirk's burnished leather ''neckties'' are chopped below the knot and fixed with hanks of human hair, delicate rusted chains, industrial rivets and minuscule pulley systems.
To most of Melbourne Spring Fashion Week's expected 100,000 punters (starting today) the young designers' work would probably rate at the unnerving end of fashion.
''Some people who see my collection do ask, 'Why don't you sell it at a fetishwear [shop]?','' says Exie, ''And, I can see how it falls into that category; it's beautiful and sexual, but when you get close, it's sort of ''back off!''
She says her designs are ''more defensive than aggressive''.
Kirk describes his work like an addiction, or obsession. ''I couldn't do my job [designing active sportswear] if I didn't do these.''
Both admit their artistic fashion, or fashionable art, is slow to conceive, laborious to create, expensive and hard to sell. But, there's a growing market for it, among people who want to stand out, not blend into a crowd.
Exie and Kirk are two of Spring Fashion Week's ''emerging designers'' and nothing less than a wild, intriguing level of creativity is expected of them.
With six other emerging designers, they are showing small pod collections of their work in Parallel Tensions, an exhibition at Flinders Lane's 45 Downstairs gallery this week.
A runway show called Tomorrow's Heroes at Melbourne Town Hall will also introduce the collections of seven more ''emergers'' on Thursday.
Emergers are renowned for their inner battle with the labels ''artist'' and ''designer'' and though apparently unshackled by commercial concerns, search constantly for ways to make a living from their work, without compromising their creative integrity.
According to Connel Chiang, the stylist-curator putting Parallel Tensions together, that's getting easier.
''People are crying out for this,'' he says. ''They get bored of mass market [fashion].''
He believes the global glut of mass market fashions is actually working like a catalyst, piquing interest in emerging designers' more unusual, expressive fashions.
''As a consumer, you have to invest more time in understanding [emerging designers] and how they work,'' Chiang says. ''You build a sense of connection and, in a narcissistic way, you find something in that that expresses yourself.''
He says that even mass-market fashion consumers will mix emerging designers' offbeat offerings into their trend-driven wardrobes. ''Why not? The mass market will always be there but there is this small, emerging pocket where people go because they love the philosophy and the concept of what this designer or that designer represents.''
In Parallel Tensions emerging brands including Francis Leon, Jason Hewitt, Oracles, Raggatt, Tettmann.Doust and Melanie Bower are learning to balance fashion's commercial realities with their passion and artistic integrity.
''I don't feel I'm completely divorced from trends,'' says Bower, but I try not to let them rule.''
Her small exhibit of shapely short and long dresses that use the weightlessness and veiling effect of black stretch silk mesh would sell quickly in a high-end designer boutique.
''I think I'm part of a movement of people wanting things a bit more handmade, a bit more unique, and also expensive I guess, but worth it because they'll hang on to it rather than do that fast fashion thing,'' Bower says.
For a full program of Melbourne Spring Fashion Week events, msfw.com.au.