Fashion industry finds common thread

Photo credit: Lucas Dawson Photography

In today’s fashion industry, the gap between brands doing really well and those just getting by has never been greater. The key to survival, according to the speakers at the inaugural Australian Fashion Summit held in Melbourne last Friday, lies in building creative, sustainable and authentic brands.

This was the common thread connecting the talks given by Australian style authority and former VP of style and creative at Farfetch Yasmin Sewell, prominent Aussie designer Akira Isogawa, American supermodel Ashley Graham and other acclaimed members of the industry.

Part of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF), the Australian Fashion Summit was geared towards a business audience, rather than a consumer audience, and both independent designers and fashion retailers were in attendance.

The event kicked off with PwC’s chief creative officer Russel Howcroft making the case for creativity as a driver of the Australian economy and the need for government and industry to invest in creative endeavours.

Sewell, who has worked as a consultant for designers including Chloe, echoed this argument in her talk about the state of the industry. The most successful fashion businesses today, she noted, are led by CEOs who give their creative directors free rein to follow their gut, without worrying about whether a particular style will sell.

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And while she said it’s possible for businesses to make a lot of money by producing safe but boring designs, she said tough economic conditions tend to weed out these weaker players that aren’t bringing anything unique or new to the market. When it comes to predicting fashion trends, she believes brands need to rely more on the intuition of experienced experts than data analysts.

Creativity also abounds in some of the ingenious ways brands and businesses are reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. Christina Dean, founder and chair of Redress, an NGO in Hong Kong working to reduce textile waste, spoke about the shift to a circular economy, where old clothing is collected and broken down into fibres that can be remade into new clothing, rather than ending up in landfill.

While Dean acknowledged there are many barriers to this – it is nearly impossible to break down garments made from a mix of materials, for instance – she noted that many governments around the world are tightening up their environmental regulations, implementing fines and considering taxing the garment industry, so it is in brands’ best interest to start thinking about sustainable manufacturing and sales practices now.

Isogawa pointed out that elements of traditional Japanese design, such as the fact that kimonos are cut using the entire width of a bolt of fabric, so there are no textile scraps, or offcuts, in their production, are inherently sustainable. Many of these ‘old’ techniques are being revived as new solutions to fashion’s waste problem.

The highlight of the event was a keynote conversation with Graham, a plus-size model and body activist, who walked the runway on Thursday, March 7. Graham spoke about persevering despite facing frequent rejection from agencies and brands in the early stages of her career, and how social media has evened the playing field between brands and consumers.

It’s no longer acceptable, she said, for designers to stop at a size 14, or to charge more for bigger sizes, or to assume that plus-size shoppers don’t want to buy fashion-forward clothing. Consumers are no longer asking brands to cater to them, they’re demanding it, and those that respond in an authentic way will carry the day.

Editor’s note: The journalist was a guest of VAMFF at Runway 4 and moderated a panel at the Australian Fashion Summit.

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