MELBOURNE — Australia’s trade show circuit is blossoming.

The latest arrival: the first fall incarnation of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week, Australia’s premier fashion event. Previously a spring fashion showcase staged in Sydney each May, the fall shows were staged November 11-13 at Melbourne’s spectacular new Federation Square arts complex. According to organizers, the event drew 10,000 visitors, including 350 delegates, of which 70 were international media-retail representatives from the U.S., Great Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Italy, Kuwait and Bangladesh.

Although it tallied less than half of the roughly 50,000 square feet of Sydney’s Spring 02-03 exhibition space in May, as well as about half the number of international buyers in attendance, MAFW Fall 03 was nevertheless a confident debut for a startup event in a new city. Why Melbourne? Originally slated to be held at the spring venue, Fox Studios Australia, the event was lured south after a successful bid by the Victorian Government’s Victorian Major Events Company. It wasn’t a hard decision. According to MAFW organizers, the Victorian government has a $19.5 million purse (converted from Australian dollars) to lure big events to the city. And although MAFW declined to reveal its share, industry sources say the Victorian government is pumping $2.8 million over five years into MAFW Fall. Should that turn out to be the case, that would be more than 10 times the funding received by Sydney’s MAFW since its inception in 1996.

With three separate "Australian Designer Showcase" trunk shows staged in New York, London and Beijing since May this year and, of course, seven years of Sydney goodwill, MAFW Fall 03’s buying power in fact eclipsed the number of runway designers and exhibitors, which totaled 74. The show was minus marquee-international names like Collette Dinnigan, Easton Pearson or Akira Isogawa. Instead, newbies like Toni Maticevski, Tina Kalivas, Shem, Ty & Melita and Joe The Taxi Driver prevailed.

The novelty factor didn’t phase international players like London’s Selfridges, which dispatched six buyers on three separate buying trips Down Under in 2002: two to Sydney in May, two to Auckland last month and another two to Melbourne. Scott Tepper, the general merchandise manager of Villa Moda, a luxury fashion emporium in Kuwait, went to Australia for the second time in six months last month. Tepper says he spent $223,000 on Australian fashion in May and it’s been well-received, with a line called Thys Collective achieving an 80 percent sell-through. And that was without the benefit of a special meet-the-designers event planned for late October, which was canceled at the last minute out of respect for the Australian victims of the October 12th bombings in Bali."Our customers don’t know who these designers are but that doesn’t seem to make any difference — they’re buying them," said Tepper, who picked up Paablo Nevada, Lisa Ho and Toni Maticevski in Melbourne, as well as Hong Kong denim brand Pacino Wan. Between the new business from Melbourne and reorders in Europe for the other Australians, Tepper said his Australian Fall ’03 budget would match spring’s — $223,000 — but that he plans to double that in Sydney next May for Spring ‘03-04.

MAFW organizers anticipate next year’s fall exhibition will double in size to 40,000 square feet once all the Federation Square venues have been completed.Space seems to be at a premium right now in Melbourne, with organizers scrambling to find room. February sees the twenty-third Melbourne Gift Trade Fair — a fraction of the size of the much older Sydney event held the same month, due to space restrictions, say organizers (30,700 square feet, 7,491 attendees and 255 exhibitors for the Melbourne February 2002 show, compared with 130,460 square feet, 773 exhibitors and 28,113 attendees for Sydney in 2002). Fashion accessories and fashion jewelry account for 14 percent of the exhibition and is growing. Tacked onto the Melbourne Gift Fair: the new Melbourne Fine Jewellery Fair, which runs simultaneously with the Jewellery Association of Australia’s much older Sydney event. Launched in February 2002, the first exhibition boasted 3,000 square feet, 47 exhibitors from Australia, Hong Kong, India and New Zealand and 1,310 attendees. February 2003 will expand to 5,000 square feet to accommodate 60 exhibitors.

March 16 marks the kickoff of two simultaneous fashion events, one consumer and one trade: the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival and Fashion Exposed. Launched in 1997 as a retail event, the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival is a citywide celebration of fashion embracing more than 100 runway shows, plus fashion-related exhibitions and cultural events. Everything is open to the public and all ticketed shows in 2002 sold out, with organizers now faced with either increasing the show numbers for 2003 or changing show venues. According to an economic impact statement prepared by Melbourne analysts Saturn Corporate Resources, the Festival drew 124,000 people in 2002, up 22 percent over 2001. The 2002 Festival contributed $16 million to the Australian economy and $7.2 million to Victoria: 7.5 percent and 12 percent increases, respectively, on 2001. Included in the tally was $1.8 million wholesale business generated by Victorian exhibitors at Fashion Exposed March 2002 (with the entire FE event generating $3.2 million nationally, according to FE organizers).What’s shown on the runway is what’s available in-store for fall, and Melbourne retailers report sales spikes of between 30 and 50 percent during the event. And even the trade is buying: a contingent of New Zealand designers in 2002 found many of their Melbourne buyers coming to reorder in-season from their trunk shows. Another trade spinoff was the Festival’s sellout Business Seminar, a day-long retail-brand think tank, featuring talks by designers Philippe Starck, Suzanne Clements and Ignacio Ribeiro, London visual merchandising guru Mary Portas and Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton. The lineup for 2003 includes Henri Bendel general manager Ed Burstell, trend forecaster Li Edelkort and UK consumer analyst Martin Raymond.

Now Australia’s biggest fashion trade event, Fashion Exposed is a biannual exhibition targeting the middle market. It grew 500 percent since its September 2000 launch, according to organizers Australian Exhibitions & Conferences. The September 2002 event boasted 350 exhibitors and 7,000 buyers from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Spring 2003-2004 will cover 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 12 percent increase on September 2002, and a 3,000-square-foot Designer Gallery concept showcasing emerging designers.

Come March 2004 however, Fashion Exposed may well pack up its Spring show and head to Sydney. Melbourne might have the old retail families like the Myers and the Lews, but Sydney boasts the media and the buzz. Fashion Exposed organizers say their exhibitors and buyers want a slice of the action. Often dubbed Australia’s ‘Tinseltown,’ Sydney is where the Australian media is headquartered. It’s also where savvy marketer Simon Lock, the chief executive officer of both Sydney-based SPIN Communications and MAFW, founded and built MAFW into an event which generated $17.3 million in sales in 2001, as well as $21.5 million worth of publicity, according to the most recent MAFW audit from the NSW Department of State and Regional Development.

Noted Sharon Lethbridge, exhibition manager of another Melbourne event, the volume-focused TCF International: "He [Lock] is a great entrepreneur and he’s done more to lift the image of Australian fashion designers than anyone has done for a long time."

Divided Down Under

Three weeks before MAFW Fall 03, 550 local and international delegates descended on Auckland to see L’Oréal New Zealand Fashion Week’s Fall ’03 offer: 47 runway collections and 31 exhibitors. According to organizers, attendance was up 10 percent above the inaugural 2001 event, which ran Oct. 21-25.And while no official audit has been done on the 2001 event, or yet on 2002,according to Auckland-based analyst Paul Blomfield, LNZFW Fall 03 could boost New Zealand wholesale export sales by $5million (converted from New Zealand dollars.) If realized, that would represent a 25 percent boost to the country’s $20 million total designer fashion exports in the 12 months to March 2002, as identified in Blomfield’s recent Designer Fashion Industry study prepared for the New Zealand government.

"It’s a serious business now — I’m at the level I would have expected to be at about year six," said LNZFW founder and managing director Pieter Stewart.

But while New Zealand might be reeling from America’s Cup and fashion fever, the annual LNZFW is cannibalizing some of MAFW’s business. Traditionally, a showcase for NZ runway stars such as Karen Walker, Zambesi, World, Kate Sylvester and Blanchet, MAFW Fall 03 boasted one Kiwi exhibitor: knitwear manufacturer Sabatini. MAFW international marketing director Jodi Pritchard said she was disappointed that there were no NZ designers on the runway in Melbourne but noted, "It looks like we’ll get them back for Spring/Summer."

Although MAFW founder and ceo Simon Lock claims he has always promoted "cooperation" between the two events, according to Stewart, Lock warned her last year that he would "wipe her [event] off the face of the planet." In the weeks leading up to this year’s event, Lock dispatched a letter to the New Zealand trade touting the benefits of MAFW Fall over LNZFW. At press time Lock was still at it, dismissing Stewart’s claim that more than 100 Australian buyers attended her event. According to MAFW intelligence, claims Lock, only 16 Australians turned up.

"That’s bloody ridiculous," Stewart scoffed. "We hosted [flew in and accommodated] more than that."

With approximately $87,000 in government funding to date, Stewart knows she can’t compete with the juggernaut of MAFW. Stewart is focused on making her event, she says, "not necessarily bigger, just better." Australia accounts for 70 percent of NZ’s apparel exports and Australian buyers remain LNZFW’s key focus (with a marketing campaign to target key Hong Kong and Japanese buyers in early 2003).Right now, say industry insiders, it would make more sense to stop the bickering and close the two-week gap between the two events so that any international buyers interested in coming to both can jump from one event to the other via a three-hour plane trip. Stewart claims she cannot move her event back primarily because Australian retailers need to be home for the Melbourne Cup Carnival in the first week of November —now their busiest time of the year after Christmas.

Lock would do well to bring his event forward by two weeks: Australian retailers say it is too late and spring racing fashion coverage totally eclipsed pre-event publicity for MAFW last month.

"I can’t see any downside to it [closing the gap] at all," Stewart said.

Conceded Lock, "I think it’s best if the events are stacked up against each other. If our buyers want to go there they can. If their buyers want to come here they can. That just makes common sense, doesn’t it?"

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