By  on November 23, 2005

Australia's trade shows chart different paths through murky economic waters.

SYDNEY — Consolidation, expansion and accessories are the key words in the Australian fashion trade fair sector for 2006, with the country's highest-profile event under new ownership, one established show falling over and two other organizers launching spin-off shows in the midst of a challenging economic climate.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, retail trade was down 0.3 percent in September and annual retail trade growth hit a five-year low of just 1.2 percent, with high gas prices and a housing slowdown serving as chief factors.

These conditions have not thwarted the expansion plans of one company, however. Australian Exhibitions and Conferences took the spring-summer edition of its Fashion Exposed trade show to the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre in March, after outgrowing its original home in the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre.

Fashion Exposed's spring-summer 2006-2007 showcase will again convene in Sydney, from March 12-14, and this time it's growing by an additional 10 percent to a total size of 292,778 square feet. Organizers anticipate around 560 exhibitors and more than 12,000 buyers from 30 countries — 25 percent and 20 percent increases, respectively, over last March. Additional visitors are expected to be attracted by the ongoing initiatives of the Australian government's export arm, Austrade, and the fact that the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne start the day after the event closes.

According to Fashion Exposed/Preview project manager Sue Dight, the growth comes from both the volume-focused Fashion Exposed and its premium Preview component, as well as two new sections to be introduced in March: beach/bodywear and infantwear. Preview is expected to boast 90 exhibitors, a 12 percent increase over last year, with new exhibitors including Lisa Barron, Girl from Ipanema, Showoff, Studibaker and jeweler Victoria Spring.

"We have a wait list across a number of categories already, mainly in accessories and jewelry — there's a huge boom going on there," said Dight, adding that AEC is introducing a brand new footwear show called The Australian Shoe Fair at the same venue from Feb. 17-19.

Reed Exhibitions also is launching a new show next year — an Adelaide version of its highly successful Reed Gift Trade Fairs, which it already operates biannually in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.Running May 6-8 at the Adelaide Convention Centre, the first show will take up just 19,375 square feet of exhibition space, and organizers are anticipating approximately 100 exhibitors and 5,000 attendees.

"[Adelaide] is a growing market. It's quite a significant retail sector, so it's important that we go there," said Reed Exhibitions' director of gift, Debbie Evans.

And Reed's other fairs are growing, as well, said Evans. Melbourne will cover about 57,000 square feet, a 6 percent rise over 2005, with 350 exhibitors and 8,000 anticipated attendees. For the Sydney show Feb. 25-March 1 at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, an additional 1,600 square feet has been added, bringing the total size to 157,153 square feet. The floor plan has been compartmentalized for the first time, as well, into gift, housewares, kitchen and jewelry/accessories. Evans anticipated there will be 36,000 attendees, a 10 percent rise over last February.

Although Evans declined to provide numbers, she did say that, over the past 12 months, a "significant" chunk of the Reed Gift Fairs' new business has come from the jewelry and accessories area.

"I don't know why there is this sudden surge, but we are certainly seeing a growth in it," she said. "I think there's just a lot of innovative, creative people out there."

The only organizer that does not appear to be expanding — at least with its apparel business — is Melbourne-based Australian Exhibition Services.

Just six months after TCF International/IMPEX exhibition manager Sharon Lethbridge told WWD that her show was poised to position itself as an offshore sourcing portal, Lethbridge has left the company and plans have been shelved for the 2006 event, which was scheduled to take place at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre in June.

Exhibition manager Chris Hill said the decision had nothing to do with the economic climate or Australian Exhibition Services' profitability. "We're running more events than we ever have," he said. Instead, the decision came down to a 10 percent erosion in visitor numbers year-on-year for the past five years due to offshore sourcing. The company may relaunch the show at a later date in a different format, Hill added.Whatever the current challenges, at least October's IMG buyout of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week appears to have ensured the survival of Australia's highest-profile fashion event.

Event founder, IMG Fashion Asia Pacific managing director Simon Lock, told WWD that a beefed-up marketing team was already out on the road looking to boost international delegate numbers for MAFW's upcoming spring-summer 2006-2007 event. For the first time in 10 years, it will be held a week earlier than usual, from April 24-28, at Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal. The shift comes in response to pressure to bring the entire event in sync with industry needs — especially after a significant decline in numbers at MAFW's recent autumn-winter 2006 showcase in Melbourne. Lock put that down to poor timing, claiming that local buyers and designers say their order books already have closed by the current late October time. Lock is considering bringing the autumn-winter event forward to September next year.

As part of the new marketing programs, an MAFW showcase of about 10 designers will take place in Los Angeles Jan. 18, Lock said, to target 350 California buyers and media.

Lock declined to reveal any detailed plans for May, but anticipated that the event would expand slightly from its 45,800 square feet last May, divvied up between the three runway venues, the 18,800-square-foot Source trade show and an expanded offering of agent-designer suites.

One thing Lock is likely to see more of in May is accessories. Sydney jeweler Sarina Suriano unsuccessfully lobbied Lock and his [industry-appointed] National Selection Panel for several seasons before finally managing to win a runway slot in May 2004, when her jeweled body pieces became one of the week's highlights, attracting considerable publicity.

Suriano opened the floodgates for jewelers at the event, with the trade show boasting an unprecedented 15 jewelry vendors this May. Among them was 25-year-old Sydney jeweler Jenny Mercian, whose Manik-Mercian line included several spectacular Swarovski crystal-studded and fringed showpieces. Mercian walked away with orders from Harvey Nichols' new Hong Kong outlet, and Victoria's Secret commissioned $263,880 (retail) worth of merchandise for its recent show in New York, including some of the more elaborate pieces worn by Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum.

"I just think we're going to have a better event," said Lock, of the new resources at his disposal. "Right now we've got an expanded sales force looking at commercial opportunities for MAFW. If we can generate more sponsorship opportunities, that allows our event budget to be bigger and that allows us to create a stronger event from a production and marketing perspective."As for the risk of overcommercialization — a criticism which has been leveled at 7th on Sixth since its 2001 acquisition by IMG, Lock said, "I think as an organization we've always had a great sensibility about the balance between art and commerce. Now we've got greater resources commercially. But no one wants to see MAFW or the Australian fashion industry exploited by rampant commercialism. You're not going to see that at MAFW."

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