Fireside Chat: What’s next for Australian fashion?

From fashion technology to social media disruption and sustainability, nothing was off the table when five of Australia’s most influential fashion experts came together to discuss the future of the fashion industry.

Starting a fashion label in Australia has traditionally been a risk for our homegrown designers. Isolated from global markets and without a national fashion identity to lean on, Australian fashion designers have long needed more than just creativity and passion to cut through. Today, however, all that is changing.

In a first for QUT Creative Enterprise Australia, we brought together five influential, forward-thinking fashion minds for an intimate conversation on the state of the Australian fashion industry at the conclusion of the CEA Fashion Accelerator Showcase on Friday 29 July 2016. Generously sharing their time with our Brisbane audience, the panel painted an optimistic future for fashion in Australia.


Moderated by Vogue Australia’s Editor-in-Chief Edwina McCann, the panel included:

  • David Giles-Kaye: Executive Director of the Council of Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA)
  • Courtney Miller: General Manager of the Australian Fashion Chamber
  • Lydia Pearson: Co-founder of Easton Pearson
  • Michel Abeysekera: Chairman – LM Group, Expert Advisor at AusIndustry and Strategic Advisor at TFIA/Australian Fashion Council

Now is the time to be innovative, bold and tech-savvy, but the question remains – what will the face of Australian fashion look like as we enter into this new chapter?

There is no simple answer to this question, but the members of our panel all agreed that while starting a fashion label will always be a significant risk, there’s a lot to be excited about. Technology is opening up new markets and creating new manufacturing opportunities for both established and emerging designers.

Dancing around themes including manufacturing technology and the push towards sustainability, they painted a beguiling picture for the future of Australian fashion.

Ethical fashion and sustainability

“The whole movement of slow fashion is really on everyone’s agenda and there are businesses gearing up to cater to that market. You can see the tide is turning and fast fashion will eventually wane.” – Michel

Untitled-3Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, there has been more scrutiny on the fashion industry and more willingness by brands to adopt ethical manufacturing practices.

Fast fashion labels are dominating the fashion landscape at the moment and, interestingly, it’s companies like Zara and H&M that could lead the way in ethical and sustainable fashion.

Organisations including TFIA are working with these large fashion brands to create sustainable and ethical manufacturing frameworks that can filter down to smaller designers.

“Most of the large labels and companies are coming together to work out an industry policy around the living wage,” David explained. “Sustainability, water usage, and recycling are huge, huge issues and we have to work collaboratively on this.”

Until a practical framework is established, however, sustainable manufacturing remains a challenge for established and emerging designers alike. Recalling her experiences, Lydia Pearson explained the difficulty of finding ethical offshore manufacturers when Easton Pearson had outgrown its ability to produce collections in Australia.

Given the limited size of our local manufacturing industry, this is an issue that designers still continue to face today. The tide, however, is changing and many manufacturers in China, India and Sri Lanka are starting to undertake accreditation processes, creating more opportunities for designers to engage in ethical offshore production. The trick now is knowing where to look for them.

Local manufacturing

“We do have an amazing talent pool here and an amazing industry that can make stuff – apparel, shoes, hats – but people need to find them.” – David

At the same time as the conversation has moved towards ethical and sustainable fashion, Western consumers have started to look for locally made garments.

QUT_CEA944This trend is most evident in the USA, where LA manufacturing has seen a massive revival. In response to this shift, companies like Makers Row have now appeared in the US, forming connections between designers and US-based makers.

Here in Australia we are seeing similar patterns emerge and not just among smaller designers. Last year JeansWest produced a locally made range of garments and we can expect to see a lot more of this in the future. So this begs the question: can we revitalise Australia’s manufacturing industry?

The resurgence of local manufacturing would require investment from both the industry and the government, but the panel was optimistic about the opportunities to nurture Australian makers. If we can get these things right, they agreed, we can enhance our manufacturing efforts here at home.

While this points to a promising future for the Australian economy, our impact on the economies of countries like China, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh shouldn’t be overlooked.

In Bangladesh alone, fashion makes up 80% of the country’s exports and already organisations like Oxfam are engaging in discussions with the Australian fashion industry about the impacts a withdrawal from offshore manufacturing may have.

Fashion technology

Creativity and innovation are important – the market is busy, it’s crowded, and you need to cut through.” – Michel

QUT_CEA522From 3D printing to the changes in way knitwear is made and new platforms like Nineteenth Amendment, technology will have an impact on the way we make clothing. It’s just a matter of how quickly these changes will happen.

Commercial 3D printing is still a way off, but already machine manufacturing and the concept of printing garments is possible for knitwear. New knitwear technology allows designers to allow designers to program machinery to create a whole knitwear garment in as little as 40 minutes.

Requiring little manpower to operate, these machines overcome the issue of high labour costs, which have long been prohibitive for manufacturing in Australia. Excitingly, localised production will also allow designers to better control production and reduce wastage. So if one colourway is outselling others, for example, production can be altered to have popular garments restocked on shelves the next day.

Among all the talk of local manufacturing, these knitwear machines emerged as a key opportunity to increase our output of Australian-made fashion. But with a current price tag of $150,000 each, they are a substantial investment for a label.

If you are in Melbourne, you can see these machines at the Textile and Fashion Hub.

Online and social media marketing

“I have never seen such opportunities for designers in Australia. No longer does it matter that we are in the southern hemisphere, no longer does it matter that we are million a miles from the fashion capitals. Through online retailing and more importantly social media marketing, you can create a global brand.” – Edwina

A theme running throughout the panel discussion was social media and the opportunities it is creating for local designers. Where many labels were previously creating fashion to respond to retail demand, online retailing and social media have created new opportunities to get creative and connect with niche markets.

LydiaLooking back on her experiences of starting a label some 27 years ago, Lydia likened social media and online retailing to a gift for designers. “The opportunity to grow a niche brand is the biggest opportunity we didn’t really have, because there was no way to reach the global market,” she said. “Now it’s absolutely perfect.”

The changes happening in the digital space are some of the greatest disruptions the fashion industry has seen. Now a good product can be noticed without the need to stage a lavish runway show or invest in expensive photo shoots.

But while social media can speed up the process of establishing a label, the panel warns emerging designers to take it slow. “Fashion is tactile and there are a whole heap of logistics,” Courtney said. “It’s one of the most complicated small businesses that exists. In a global world, if you make a mistake, it’s sometimes hard to go back.”

The Australian fashion identity

“Brand Australia is very strong in Europe, in Asia, in the US. We are ideally positioned geographically to tap into the Asia-Pacific market, so opportunities have never been this good.” – Michel

Australia is having a moment. Thanks to social media and changes to the international fashion calendar, we no longer seem so distant and the world is suddenly interested in what’s happening down here.

CourtneyFollowing growth in the South East Asian market, resort and trans-seasonal collections are driving the profits of labels right around the world. Given that Australian designers have long done resort collections better than the rest, we are becoming recognised for our own aesthetic.

“We have a distinct, unique aesthetic that is different from anything else in the world,” Courtney said. “There’s a change in perception of who we are as a country and that builds into how we look at fashion and how sophisticated it might be.”

Reflecting on Australia’s brand identity, the panel also discussed the rising confidence of our emerging designers.

“I’ve never before seen young designers pitch like that,” Edwina said of the five CEA Fashion Accelerator graduates who pitched their labels prior to the Fireside Chat. “Strategic thinking behind passion – I’ve not seen that before. Even our more established designers struggle to tell their story, so this is really exciting.”

Untitled-2“Taking this tech world and the way they do business in terms of startups and the way they pitch, and then applying that to fashion is exciting,” she continued. “That’s what we have to do and we have to get fashion recognised under the innovation umbrella.”

If local designers can channel this energy and be open to considering the emerging Australian aesthetic, we can become brand ambassadors creating new and exciting opportunities for the fashion community.

Are you looking to grow your own fashion business? Express your interest in the 2017 CEA Fashion Accelerator Program.


Missed the showcase? Watch the highlights video.

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