SYDNEY — Swimwear and splashy — literally — presentations saved the day in Sydney.

With a dozen internationals pulling out at the last minute, SARS took some of the attendance bite out of the recent spring 2003-2004 Mercedes Australian Fashion Week showcase.?But a sparkling new show venue and some high-energy presentations kept buyers’ minds off the disease.

While organizers did not have final figures at press time, they estimated this year’s attendance could be up 25 percent over May 2002’s 15,000 figure. The main increase is expected to come from the domestic retail sector, with this year’s new free registration boosting the domestic buyer database by 400 percent, said organizers. Even with the no-shows, international attendance, totaling 160, was on par with 2002.

More than 40?delegates turned out from SARS hot spots of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Canada. And that made some locals twitchy.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council delegation said, “We have asked the Hong Kong delegates to bring face masks. If it makes people more comfortable to go to their stands, then they’ll do it.”

Keen to allay fears and avoid a similar situation to the one that occurred at April’s Baselworld, the Watch & Jewellery Show in Basel, Switzerland — where 300 Hong Kong delegates were banned at the last minute by Swiss health authorities — the HKTDC conducted rigorous health checks prior to departure and immediately after arrival. Apparently, there were no significant problems, because the HK delegation managed its image problem and recorded its best sales and publicity ever in Sydney, according to the trade group, doubling sales from the last spring-summer event it attended in May 2001.

“The Hong Kong show was a really nice surprise — I wasn’t expecting it,” said Villa Moda buyer David Cheung, who bought Spy’s kaleidoscopic silk devore separates, as well as Pacino Wan and Dorian Ho. Cheung also restocked on Akira, Easton Pearson, Kerry Grima, Anthony Kendal, Lisa Ho, Aurelio Costarella and Tsubi, a hot denim-urban brand.

Taiwan’s Far Eastern Department Stores group, first-timers at the MAFW, were hopeful, despite a 60 percent SARS-related sales slump. FEDS buyers were in Sydney scouting talent for a contemporary fashion area rolling out initially to two key FEDS stores in January. According to FEDS’ agent Jenifer Zacka, the group will buy a half-dozen Australian contemporary resources, including Alannah Hill, Wayne by Wayne Cooper, Tsubi and Bondi Beach Bags Co., and is also looking at Akira and Easton Pearson for its expanding designer area.Also in town was Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford. Although experiencing a 50 percent sales slump at the time, contemporary women’s wear buyer?Sarah Lam said the company was trying to “be optimistic” about the coming seasons. By press time, sales were back up by 40 percent, Lam noted, the result of promotional activities like parties and fashion shows designed to bring customers back into the stores.

According to Lam, Lane Crawford matched its MAFW spring 2002-2003 budget this season — said to be about$330,000 — and will return for MAFW fall 2004 in Melbourne.

U.S. dollar figures are converted from Australian dollars at current exchange.

Although Lane Crawford buys Easton Pearson, most of Lam’s Sydney budget was spent on swim brands such as Seafolly, Jets and Tigerlily.

“I think swimwear is one of the strongest categories in the market,” added Lam, noting that 70 percent of the retailer’s expanding swimwear department now hails from Australia.

And to spotlight the growing importance of Australian swimwear, MAFW provided a spectacular new backdrop in Circular Quay. The organizers signed a three-year deal with the Sydney Ports Corp. to take over the harbor-hugging Overseas Passenger Terminal, which overlooks the Sydney Opera House.

An international cruise terminal that still berths 80 cruise liners a year, the building received a makeover in 2001 costing $14.5 million, with another $13.2 million pumped into fitouts by tenants, including four restaurants and numerous bars.

And while the old Fox Studios Australia site boasted only one private MAFW bar — the always-hopping Bar Bazaar — at least five private bars popped up in the new facilities. “I thought it was very cruisy — a much more relaxed environment in which to write business,” said Colette Garnsey, group general manager apparel, cosmetics and marketing for David Jones — which turned the Cruise Bar into its own VIP courtesy lounge each night. Although Garnsey declined to give figures, she said her budget was up on last spring, that she picked up several new resources and foresees “considerable growth” in her Australian designer business.

Then there was Tsubi’s floating gin palace: a glass-bottom boat that cruised the harbor, doubling as showroom by day and dance party by night. Tsubi acolytes grooved to DJ Paul Sevigny — brother of Chloë Sevigny, whose friend Tara Subkoff just happened to be in town at the time working on costumes with the Sydney Dance Co.For the finale of Tsubi’s fashion parade, the company dispatched its models, dressed in the brand’s merchandise over the side of the boat and into Sydney Harbour, right in front of the Opera House. Any internationals could have been forgiven for thinking the Olympics were still in town.

“Unbelievable — I mean there’s nothing like it, except maybe having a catwalk across the Eiffel Tower — the backdrop provided a really theatrical, dramatic way to look at things,” said Ruth Ann Lockhart, divisional director of designer apparel for Canada’s Holt Renfrew. Here for the first time this year on a research trip, Lockhart says she surprised herself by leaving with a handful of collections: Zambesi, Easton Pearson, Zimmermann, Natasha and Sass & Bide. According to Lockhart, the SARS impact on Holt Renfrew’s business was nowhere like that experienced in Asia. “We’re seeing minimum single-digit increases on last year — but we had hoped for more.”

MAFW has grown considerably since its 1996 inception, when it showcased 33 designers in 17 collection shows and 18 exhibitors. This year’s event had 63 designers participating in 36 collection shows, 137 exhibitors in an area called The Source, and 69 designers also participating in designer open-day showrooms.

Some attendees said the downside to the new venue was the “upstairs-downstairs” layout of the exhibition space.

Where MAFW’s old 54,000-square-foot space created a buzzing fulcrum for the entire event, through which all delegates were obliged to walk to access shows, the awkward design over two levels and poor signage this year created an overall impression that the 37,600-square-foot area dubbed The Source was in fact only half that size. Organizers said the layout was more efficient, but not all exhibitors were convinced.

Bondi Beach Bags Co., an accessories firm,?said sales were?60 to 70 percent down from last year,?blaming poor traffic in the upstairs portion.

However, upstairs exhibitors who reported strong sales included a Trade New Zealand delegation, Paris Mode accessories and Rebecca Taylor, a New York-based New Zealander.

Although some of the week’s highlights — Tina Kalivas, Willow lingerie and Sandra Thom — were tiny shows on shoestring budgets, just around the harbor’s edge, the new Tony Assness-produced Wharf 3 shows offered elaborateproductions.Costing about $528,000, the Wharf 3 venture was financed in part by Westfield Australia as a marketing exercise to promote its new Westfield Bondi Junction retail complex. The first stage opens in November.

An existing mall in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, Westfield Bondi Junction embraces David Jones and Myer Grace Bros. outlets and will embody Westfield’s first flagship “black label” concept. Refurbished at a cost of just under $400 million, it will boast a more contemporary design and more upmarket retail mix than other Westfields, with such tenants as Mecca Cosmetica, Georg Jensen, Escada, Paul & Joe, Burberry,Zimmermann, MARCS and Wayne Cooper. The latter three received show funding as a leasing sweetener.

And while not all the Wharf 3 shows suited the behemoth venue, some?productions?— notably those of Wayne Cooper and Terry Biviano — dominated much of the week’s publicity.

“I loved the shows that were there, Terry Biviano and Kerry Grima were amazing,” said Saks Fifth Avenue’s market director, Colleen Sherin.

“They were pretty spectacular” echoed Holt Renfrew’s Lockhart. “I thought [the event] was very world class, professionally handled and right up there with Milan, Paris and New York. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and do the circuit, and apart from the absence of the [top models], the paparazzi and Anna Wintour, the collections created the impression that Australia is not backwater for fashion.”

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