Gold Coast Bulletin/2003-03-25
By Rachel Syers
Urban streetwear designer Shem is stirring the fashion industry's senses with his modern take on clothing. But as Rachel Syers reports, this success story is just a small part of one man's journey through troubled times.
HE was born into a religious cult in India, and when he expressed a desire to live in the 'real world', his parents exorcised him.
But when fashion designer Shem speaks of his unorthodox childhood growing up with the Children of God cult, he is matter-of-fact.
He seems almost unaware of how bizarre his story sounds, especially to his contemporaries, who spent their youth playing sport, going to movies, or visiting the beach with the family on the weekend.
At 25, Shem's personal story is already layered with fascination.
In the 10 years since breaking away from his free-loving parents and leaving the cult, Shem has done everything from drugs, to being arrested and put into a youth detention centre, to studying commerce at university and working in a bank.
Now he's putting on fashion parades at L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival and designing clothes for his moviestar mate, Heath Ledger.
It's all part of a journey of self discovery for Shem.
"I'm still going," he says, speaking at his 'Shem Style Delinquent' studio in Melbourne's busy Chapel Street, Prahran.
"When I did philosophy at uni, I realised that it had just been drummed into me that 'this is how it is' when I was living with my parents."
"But then I realised everything they were saying wasn't a fact, it was just their opinions," he says.
His father is from New Zealand and 'took a bit too much acid', and his mother is from Sydney - they met in the early 1970s at the cult's base in Calcutta, where Shem was born, and remain involved with the sect today.
Shem explains that the cult, often referred to as 'the family', was very regimented, despite its members all being 'hippies into free love'.
"You were not allowed to talk to anyone outside of the cult - there's about 50,000 members around the world - because they don't like you fraternising with anyone, other than talking to people for reasons of necessity," says Shem.
"I didn't like it, so I left when I was 15."
When Shem began speaking of his wishes to leave the commune around age 11, he underwent a series of exorcisms by the adult members, including his own mum and dad.
"I was telling my parents I wanted to go and they weren't happy about it, so they used to do exorcisms on me," he says.
"All the adults would get together, place their hands on me, chant and say things like, 'Tell us your name, demon' and I'd be thinking, 'Hmm, I'd better say something', so I'd go 'Er, Beelzebub'."
"It was always 'the end of the world is nigh' and 'the devil runs the world'," he says.
"And it was too restrictive - you couldn't watch TV, even drinking Coca-Cola was evil, so I just wanted to get out of there and have fun."
Luckily for Shem, the cult thought he was becoming a bad influence on the rest of the children living in the commune.
"So, they just let me go."
Shem had lived in many countries with 'the family' by that stage, and at the time was living at the cult's base in Killara, Sydney.
His grandparents lived nearby and took him in, thankful he had finally freed himself of his parents' influence.
But within a year, his grandparents' continual harsh words about his parents' lifestyle choices also drove Shem away.
"I went to live with friends and then started hanging out with all the kids who smoked pot," he says.
"I got into trouble and ended up in a youth detention centre for doing some naughty kids stuff - I was hanging out with some pretty non-productive characters."
When he was released, Shem headed to Melbourne to 'start afresh'.
And that he did, returning to school to complete his senior certificate, and then going to the University of Melbourne to study arts-commerce.
"I deferred the last semester and started hanging out in St Kilda, doing work here and there - I was about 22 then."
Shem says he found it hard to socialise in the normal way.
"I had grown up with people saying things like 'love everyone and we just want to make you happy'," says Shem.
"And I wasn't wised up about how some people would be, so I had to learn."
He began mixing with fashion-minded friends and after meeting Melbourne fashion designer Gwendolynne, was inspired to make T-shirts.
"I thought, this will be fun, I'll make a few T-shirts, I don't have a boss, I'll wake up whenever I want ... so I started making T-shirts in my garage," he says.
But it was a lot harder than he first thought.
"It took a year to get my first product out."
The rest is history. Shem's T-shirts started selling in their thousands all around the country, including at the edgy Gold Coast fashion stores Adrenalin and T.O.Y.
His first T-shirt was a simple design, featuring the word 'guilty' on the front in dramatic lettering.
Then came a design featuring a print of barbed wire, and then his now infamous signature piece - the queen's head.
"If it's got a competitive edge, it will sell," he says.
"There's a niche for everything, but if you're good, you can still do really well."
Shem is now taking the next step in his success story. He launched an entire clothing range at Melbourne's fashion festival last week, which will hit the stores next week.
The fashion alone was way cool in its innovation, with sweatshirts featuring balaclava hoods and thumb holes in the sleeves, tracksuit pants detailed with denim to look like jeans, women's jackets with sheer mesh cut-out backs, and reshaped pockets and stitching on jeans that boasted camouflage lining and Shem's signature queen's head.
But the collection also coincided with the current favour of military styled cuts and colours - so Shem took the opportunity and the stage, to highlight his anti-war stance.
His parade made headlines and his show was deemed controversial.
Models walked out wearing bloodied bandages over their designer outfits, some holding machine guns as the aggressors, others with pistols pointed at their heads to symbolise the victims.
"I wanted the reality of war to hit home," he says.
"Everyone has become so desensitised over it," he says.
Shem's celebrity friend, Heath Ledger, showed his support and views when he donned one of the designer's T-shirts, featuring a giant red skull, at an anti-war protest rally in Melbourne on Thursday.
Shem met Heath about 18 months ago after walking up to him in a bar and introducing himself.
"I was pretty drunk and just started talking to him," says Shem.
He says as a friend, Heath is both supportive and loyal.
He turned up with girlfriend Naomi Watts to Shem's parade and took time out during his promotional tour for the movie Ned Kelly.
Heath also wore a suit designed by Shem to the movie's Australian premier on Saturday.
Shem's next addition to his summer collection will be suits, and some dresses for the girls.
"It's not exactly haute couture, which eventually I'd like to do," he says.
"It's a bit like being a professional runner and, of course you want to get to the Olympics."
Considering what Shem has already overcome in his life, when it comes to designing, he'll undoubtedly last the distance.