NEVER MIND SHRIMP ON THE BARBIE — THE NEXT HOT THING TO COME OUT OF THE LAND DOWN UNDER COULD BE FASHION.
Byline: Arthur Hagopian
SYDNEY — Australia’s apparel business is determined to go global, through aggressive exporting as well as importing programs.
Australian fashion’s distinctive colors, texture and light — which all reflect the rugged landscape — as well as a beachhead in the U.S. and Europe, are helping bring domestic labels abroad, while its discerning population, which appreciates fashion and is willing to pay for it, is a drawing card for foreign brands to invest here.
From modest beginnings a couple of decades ago, the fashion industry here has grown steadily into an $8 billion business (A$10 billion). Among its well-known names are “true blue, dinky die” — a phrase meaning “genuine” — designers like Collette Dinnigan, Trent Nathan, Lisa Ho and retailers Just Jeans and Country Road. Richard Tyler, who is perhaps Australian fashion’s best-known designer, has already made the leap to the international scene. He has a base in Los Angeles and offices in New York, and last year, he cemented a major European connection, signing on as the designer for Genny Holding SpA’s Byblos line, and also completed a deal with Gruppo Nadini, an Italian manufacturer, to produce his signature collection.
Without losing their indigenous flavor, Australian tastes are generally influenced by the American West Coast, partly because of the similar climates. There is a growing emphasis on relaxed, trans-seasonal lifestyle dressing in the mainstream market, with several leading designers singling out surfwear as a popular alternative.
“There is very much a beach culture here,” Collette Dinnigan summed up. “It’s very relaxed, and a lot of people live near the beach.”
Local tastes are “no different than the international trend,” said Frank Whitford, managing director and an owner of Sportsgirl Sportscraft, a young women’s fashion brand here.
“Knitwear has been very popular over the past 12 months — what we call Friday dressing,” he said, acknowledging that in Australia, the casual approach to career clothes is a significant phenomenon. It doesn’t necessarily mean jeans, but it is a trend toward women wearing pants to work.
“We are seeing women wear a jacket with a shirt and pants to work, whereas three or four years ago, they were wearing skirts,” he pointed out.
This has been a boon to casualwear houses, which have been able to buck the retail doldrums.
Trent Nathan partner Shane Barr echoed the notion that Australian consumers are discerning.
“Australia today is much more inclined towards the international than it was some years ago,” he said. “The Trent Nathan customer is a career woman [in her 30s, 40s or 50s]. She’s not a fashion leader. She’s a classic customer who wants beautiful silk, or linen, or wool, cut well and made well.”
Similarly, the Sportsgirl customer “understands price and quality — and therefore the value equation — very well,” said Whitford.
The opportunities for growth are “fantastic,” according to several fashion sources here, who concur that to make real headway, the industry has to overcome the twin phantoms of recession and competition.
Dinnigan stands out as a classic Australian success story, garnering international accolades and rave reviews along the way for her fabrics and cut, and a well-entrenched place in American retailing.
“It’s only now that people are starting to take the Australian fashion and clothing industry seriously,” she said.
She believes the local market is not big enough to support all the players, however: “If you are producing something unique, then it’s the export market you should aim at,” she said.
Simon Lock, founder and promoter of Australian Fashion Week, concurred that if the industry is to forge ahead, it will have to use aggressive marketing domestically and to focus on exports for growth.
The nearby Asian market is the most logical choice for many Australian exporters, but the more ambitious have an eye on Europe and the U.S. as well.
Lisa Ho, who caters to the 20-to-30-year-old crowd, makes no secret of her plans: England is her first port of call, and she also hopes to sell eveningwear in the U.S.
“I don’t think of Australian fashion as local,” she said. “I think of it as a total, global industry.”
On the importing front, F.J. Benjamin, who brings in such brands as Gucci, Guess and Moschino, and Club 21, which handles Giorgio Armani, Emporium Armani and DKNY, believe they have a major role to play in the Australian fashion industry, while conceding it is a difficult retail market.
“As tariffs reduce in Australia [they are currently 37 percent on fashion apparel], the opportunity for imported brands in the affordable middle market category increases,” said Julie-Ann Morrison, chief executive officer of Benjamin. “This would mean that the Australian market would become more aligned with international markets in terms of the variety of fashion offered.”
However, Barr said he does not think anybody in American ready-to-wear has made a dent in the Australian marketplace and said Australia needs a cross section of products designed and made locally and offshore. Most of the country’s fashion industry is home-grown, with the gap filled by manufacturers in Hong Kong.