Australian fashion week is in full swing in Sydney. Models stomping down the Carriageworks runways in bikinis and tiny dresses, editors in precarious heels rushing between shows while hordes of outrageously-attired influencers vie for attention from photographers. Alongside all the fabulousness, there’s big business being done as part of this $28.5bn industry. Buyers, from the biggest department stores to small boutiques around the world, are in town to see and order. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
But the fashion industry is tough, particularly in Australia. Once a fashion week darling, Australian designer Kym Ellery closed the local arm of her business last month. She’s not alone: labels like Lover, LifeWithBird, Metalicus and Willow have all disappeared recently. High street brands also struggle: Oroton, Marcs, David Lawrence, Sambag, Espirit and more have all closed their doors.
These businesses face big challenges, including the high cost of local manufacturing, international competition, both in the shopping malls and online, and fickle customers. And then there’s the dilemma at the heart of the industry – its business model is based on continuously increasing sales – yet this is neither sustainable or ethical in our world of depleted resources.
So some designers are doing things differently: rethinking the business model and coming up with better ways of doing things.
There was a time when Jade Sarita Arnott fitted the classic mould. Her label Arnsdorf was launched in 2006and rapidly became a critical and commercial success. But in 2012 she quit, exhausted and out of pocket. In 2017, she returned –but this time she was determined that Arnsdorf would take a different path. She wanted to create “transformative and purposeful clothing”.
Now the clothes are made in the brand’s own Melbourne factory where Arnott can make sure every part of the process is ethical. Small batches of each design are made to reduce waste, and most are sold online, with all deliveries carbon-neutral. Even better, the label offers free tailoring and repairs to encourage clients to build a lasting wardrobe. This “sustainable luxury” is what clients want, says Arnott. “Customers are looking for products that match their own personal values and don’t compromise on things like the environment or human rights. Customers are also demanding higher quality of goods as the novelty of bingeing on fast fashion wears off.”
Gosia Piatek has long focused on sustainable fashion. The New Zealand designer started Kowtow in 2007, working only with fair trade organic cotton to make the entire production chain, from seed to garment, traceable. Her elegantly designed clothes have a devoted following, and Piatek says there’s a real opportunity now for conscious business. “The reason for our success is our genuine ethical and sustainable values mixed with our design aesthetic. Old school businesses that are not willing to be nimble and change with the times may be struggling, but this does not apply to us.” Kowtow is sold around the world including New York, Stockholm, Tokyo, Paris, Dubai and has a flagship store in Wellington.
Jacinta James didn’t sacrifice luxury in the name of sustainability when she launched her eponymous brand in 2015. Instead she focused on “slow fashion”. Her sophisticated designs are presented as “volumes” of a collection. “Each volume is a building block on the previous, this continuity is to ensure that styles are valued beyond time and trend.”
The designs are also versatile. “Tops and dresses can often be reversed for a variation on a neckline, or knit skirts can also become strapless dresses, etc.” Everything is handmade locally and to order, while the fabrics are natural, including silk, wool and sustainable viscose. The brand also repurposes existing high quality fabrics where possible.
Fashion industry veterans Alexia Spalding and Sophie Toohey also joined the slow fashion movement when they launched Good Day Girl. They design two collections a year – spring/summer and winter – which are presented as trunk shops in their Sydney salon or through digital appointments. Everything is made to order and delivered in around eight weeks, avoiding waste. “We believe that producing less is the most sustainable way to manufacture. We rely on less resources across the supply chain, from the production of the fabric to the making of the garments – we produce as close to zero waste as we can”, says Toohey. And they get to work closely with each customer to understand what they really need and want – something they both enjoy.
The designers behind footwear label Twoobs found their way into the industry in an unusual way but it paid off. Jess and Stef Dadon launched their animal-friendly sandals off the back of their lifestyle site How Two Live. They were very connected to those who visited their site through social media, so they understood what they wanted as customers.
The popular shoes are now sold internationally. The sisters believe customers want brands they can connect with: “People are no longer interested in just buying products for the sake of it, they want to know what a brand stands for, and that there’s meaning behind what they’re creating.” Maintaining that trust is the key to their success: “If an amazing opportunity came up to collaborate on a leather bag, it would be a no-brainer for us to say no.”
Maggie McGowan and Laura Egan stepped right out of the fashion mainstream with their label Magpie Goose. Launched in 2016, the social enterprise purchases textiles from remote Aboriginal arts centres, which are then made into colourful clothes in Sydney and sold online and in pop-up stores. The label is still small but McGowan sees this as a plus: “The smaller, innovative brands seem to be able to adapt, build a loyal following and lead the way a bit, compared to the bigger, more established brands who are struggling to keep up [for example] with ethical production, inclusive styles [and] sizing, fair wages etc.”
It was focused on sustainability from the start. “We encourage people to buy a piece they love – and wear it to death. We use only natural fibres, which means that at the end of the life of the clothing, it decomposes (after being passed down the line for many wears). We make a small run of limited edition prints, and aim to sell them out, ensuring there is no dead or wasted stock.”
Sustainability has become a focus for the fashion industry recently: it is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to pollution and unethical manufacturing practices.
But while there has been some progress, all the designers we spoke to said more must be done. Piatek was critical of some high street brands who are “green washing” because it’s good marketing. “We are at a critical point and the planet will not be able to handle much more if we continue operating as we are, so how can we justify virgin polyester fabrics in production in 2019? The fashion industry should be ashamed of itself for being one of the world’s largest polluters, whilst enslaving the people who work in it.”
They are hopeful that things could be done differently to build a truly sustainable industry. “Sustainability will become a need-to-have not just a nice-to-have, and we think a big part of this will be driven by consumer demand, which is awesome,” says Dadon.
Ultimately customers will choose brands with integrity, says James: “In a busy, saturated world, it’s crucial that what we offer is of creative value and is meaningful: to help dispel the throwaway culture and re-engage with the true craft of making clothing.”
But Toohey says there needs to be more investment in the industry for it to survive. “Without investment in the manufacturing industry, we will continue to lose makers and skills which will mean it will be harder for independent designers to start-up and flourish. Australia is full of creative wonder – we need to nurture this and create the back end (manufacturing) to allow it to flourish. In an ideal world we would be a hub for fashion tech and manufacturing innovation but without financial backing – that is not going to happen.”