Byline: Patty Huntington

MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian fashion crowd is being pulled in two different directions.
Not to be overshadowed by the success of the trendy Sydney Australian Fashion Week, held annually in May, this city’s industry organizers have geared up to refocus a spotlight on Australia’s traditional fashion capital.
It seems to be working.
With more than $5 million generated in publicity and retailers reporting sales spikes throughout and beyond the week, the fourth installment of the annual Woolmark Melbourne Fashion Festival proved a big success.
The Melbourne Fashion Festival is a week-long program of fashion parades, exhibitions and seminars staged here in the home of more than half the country’s 85,000 textile, clothing and footwear workers, according to the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries. It was inaugurated in February 1997, nine months after the launch of Mercedes Australian Fashion Week in Sydney.
But unlike the trade-focused Sydney event, nearly all the events on the Melbourne Fashion Festival program are open to the public.
“There are serious business events with very strong international speakers and also a very big mix of what is available at retail in Australia, and I think that’s very important. Everything the public sees in our festival is available in a retail sense,” said Simon Dickie, the festival’s executive director and a local theatrical promoter. “In simple terms, it gives a very clear picture of the industry in a week.”
Dickie estimated that nearly 100,000 people saw the events on this year’s program, which, at 95, was 39 percent bigger than last year’s. Standing room was sold at some fashion shows, and the festival’s business seminars were oversubscribed several weeks beforehand. The latter proved so successful that Dickie plans to stretch next year’s VIP speakers out at breakfasts throughout the entire week.
Noted for the caliber and international scope of its guests, this year’s festival showcased Sixties modeling legend Veruschka; Mary Portas of the London-based Yellow Door visual merchandising-marketing consultancy; Walter Van Beirendonck; American fashion historian Valerie Steele; American trend forecaster Elissa Moses, and the Australian-born, Paris-based editor of Numero magazine, Stephen Todd.
Portas, who created a buzz in London retail with her work for Harvey Nichols, sold more than 200 copies of her latest book after her first lecture. Sources said she was subsequently so besieged by Australian retailers keen to get her advice, she gave serious consideration to establishing an Australian consultancy.
It was the local retailers, however, who hijacked media coverage with their own VIP guests — who spent the equivalent of the festival’s official budget of $1.5 million (converted from Australian dollars at current exchange rates) between them, according to Dickie.
It seemed at times that Myer owned the entire event. Australia’s biggest department store group, with 69 stores (some of which are called Grace Bros. in New South Wales), Myer brought out Brazilian model — and mother of Mick Jagger’s love child — Luciana Morad as its festival face, and organized a formidable schedule of 23 of its own fashion shows, dominating media coverage in the lead-up to the event and, in fact, on most days.
“That’s what we set out to do,” noted Nicole Nicarella, Myer’s imports and Australian designers buyer, who added that the Melbourne Fashion Festival was now Myer’s biggest promotional activity of the year and was used to launch the chain’s winter season in Melbourne.
Myer’s first show of the week — a lingerie show opened by Morad, wearing not much more than a pair of angel’s wings — trumped the festival’s earlier official media launch, and featured Veruschka arriving on a Melbourne tram. Myer similarly upstaged that evening’s official festival launch party on the grounds of Melbourne’s Government House with a spectacular retrospective parade to mark the department store’s centennial, with 94 models, 85 hair and makeup artists and garments culled from museums and private collections around the world.
It paid off for Myer, not only in publicity, but in sales. There were lines around Myer’s Bourke Street store each morning as people waited in line for free tickets to the Myer shows. Like other local retailers, some of whom reported a 25 to 30 percent sales lift during the festival, Nicarella noted that customers did come in to buy winter merchandise after the shows, in spite of that week’s heat wave.
“We did have a big lift during the week,” said Nicarella. “A lot of it was in, a lot of it was still to come, but I think what’s important is, it plants the seed in people’s minds about what is about to hit. They think, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that in Myer Fashion Week. I think I’ll go and have another look.’ So it keeps them coming back. I think customers enjoy just the hype of the whole week, and it’s not only about [women’s] fashion. It’s about intimate apparel, men’s wear, kid’s wear and cosmetics. You could feel the electricity as soon as you walked in the front door.”
The 70-unit midmarket women’s wear chain Jacqui E used the festival to launch its winter season, flying in its new face, Yasmin Le Bon, from London especially for the event. Le Bon, who replaces Emma Balfour, is featured in point-of-sale material in Jacqui E stores across Australia and modeled in a Jacqui E parade in Melbourne during the week.
While Jacqui Naylor, the general merchandising manager for Just Jeans, which owns the 70-unit Jacqui E chain, declined to give figures, she noted sales were significantly up on budget for the week and have continued strong for the season.
“The amount of p.r. we’ve received on Yasmin has been quite exceptional, and it’s definitely showing through in sales,” said Naylor, who noted Le Bon will shoot another Jacqui E catalog before April.
“My opinion is, the consumer doesn’t tend to race out the next day. I think they understand more about the offering in the marketplace, they understand more about the brands through the festival, and it’s really to be measured over time, rather than an initial reaction. It’s a lot of hype, and I think everyone gets involved in the week. It’s about the only event I know of that involves the consumer.”
Naylor added, “I think it’s great for Melbourne and it’s great for retail in general.”